Executive Onboarding Is a Risk Management Process

May 6, 2018 | Linda Schaumann Reese, PhD | HCI
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Interviewing candidates for an executive role can provoke anxiety for hiring managers, and those concerns are compounded with the realization that senior-level positions usually require change leadership and come with high performance pressures.

While the company may have made the ideal hire, their new leader’s success is not a foregone conclusion.

Every executive transition carries with it some form of risk -- a fact that some companies (and new leaders) fail to recognize. Forward-thinking companies have found increasing value in treating leader onboarding like a risk management process. Some of the risks inherent in the transition are about the leader, such as being a first-time general manager.

Other risk factors grow out of the company and role itself: unrealistic standards for performance, conflicting expectations from multiple bosses or the presence of rivals. Whatever the cause, these risks present threats to the new leader. While some risk factors have more weight than others, their sheer number is a strong predictor of longevity and performance. The greater the number of risks, the more problematic the transition.

So why don’t companies do something about recognizing and mitigating these risks? They may resist a risk management focus because they lack awareness of the role’s hazards, they’ve obscured some risks during the recruiting process to attract the very best talent, they’re worried about pointing out risks post-hire, and they view onboarding as a “vote of no confidence” in the new leader.

Also, a paradox exists: companies hire people they have confidence in, and because they believe in the leader’s abilities, do nothing to support their transition. A best practice is up-front identification of risk factors, which are then addressed in an onboarding coaching engagement (starting before day one).

It’s best to be aware of risk factors, but avoid inundating the new leader with them. Plowing headlong into repeated risk management discussions is like telling a golfer to “not hit your tee shot into the water hazard.” And we all know, of course, doing so greatly increases the likelihood of putting the ball directly into the water.

Instead, consider using the onboarding process to proactively identify and address risks.

  • Present candidates with accurate information about culture, operational effectiveness and challenges faced.
  • Define the role thoroughly, clearly communicating expectations during selection and revisiting regularly post-hire.
  • Help new leaders analyze the needs of their key stakeholders and align their expectations.
  • Emphasize learning about the company, business units, functions and geographies.
  • Provide the new leader with early feedback about their transition effectiveness.

Our jobs as coaches and advisors to senior leaders is to help them confidently weather the challenges they face, and provide support and tools that foster rapid, high-impact transitions. And, at the core of that process is the identification, and mitigation, of the risk factors that threaten or slow their success.