First 90 days critical for new execs

Strategic approach to onboarding gets them up and running
By Carmen Duffy
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/09/2013

While it’s important to get every hire right, it’s absolutely critical when it comes to executives. Even the best candidate can fail if the onboarding isn’t done right.

While executive hires bring more experience, they also have steeper learning curves. When hired from the outside, they are expected to become strategic contributors right away, yet they are challenged with their new role and understanding the overall strategy and culture of the organization.

The quicker they are brought up to speed, the faster they can hit the ground running and make serious decisions that affect the bottom line.

Losing an employee in the first year is expensive, so taking a strategic approach to executive onboarding should be high on HR’s priority list. Some organizations are going beyond corporate introductions, policies, procedures and protocols to a structured, strategic onboarding process that provides an in-depth understanding of the business strategy.

4 phases of a strategic onboarding process

A progressive process can be broken down into four phases:

Intelligence-gathering: At the beginning, the new hire will be heavily engaged in gathering intelligence, meeting a lot of different people and discussing many different topics. She spends most of those first few weeks overwhelmed, trying to navigate through a new corporate world. It can be frustrating — going from operating at full-speed in her former role to being non-productive.

To improve this first phase of onboarding, consider building a compass into the onboarding strategy that will help the new hire navigate effectively. Focus her intelligence-gathering on critical areas.

For example, who are the key players in senior leadership? What is the strategic focus of the company, market position, key initiatives, change initiatives? Have her ask questions such as: “What initiatives are most likely to influence my role?”

Give her a road map and direct her questions towards gleaning insight on the company strategy as she goes about those initial intelligence-gathering conversations.

Insight: The new hire then moves on to one of the biggest challenges in transitioning into the new role — converting the intelligence into insight. She needs to sort out what will be crucial to her success — key influencers in her peer group, special processes with key customers, outstanding team issues and insight on expectations around her personal contributions.

Onboarding programs that offer new executives a tool to help guide them in their thinking around this information are key in order for them to note insights they are becoming aware of and to gain an accurate read on the situation as they progress through those first days.

Analysis: Next comes the much harder analysis phase, where the executive must leverage what has been learned to assess the situation and determine if there are gaps. Analytical tools and mental models will help her take a deep dive into the information she gathered and allow her to figure out where the organization is, where it is trying to go and what it will need to get there.

Expert coaches can act as sounding boards and thinking partners with each individual to help identify the gaps that need to be closed in order to make that happen.

Synthesis: It is in the final phase of onboarding where the new executive must weave together insights and analysis on the corporate strategy and derive from that her own strategic intent. She needs to be able to narrow her focus to a set of vital few priorities that capture her individual contribution to make the corporate strategy happen.

On completion of a strategic onboarding program, the executive hire will have a personal strategic framework and an in-depth understanding of the company’s business strategy that will help her maintain focus on those priorities that will accelerate her contribution to the bottom line.

By equipping the new hire with tools and approaches for taking control of the process and getting what she needs from other people during the onboarding process, the learning curve can be greatly accelerated so she is more effective in her decision-making and strategic contributions.

Carmen Duffy is a recruitment consultant and the principal of ChangePath Consulting in Toronto. Its executive onboarding program is delivered in affiliation with Tailwind Consulting out of Tampa, Fla. Duffy can be reached at or, for more information, visit

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