This article is the second in a three-part series that will share onboarding best practices for HR teams and outline a five-step process on how to integrate a new leader across the functional, cultural and organizational dimensions of your organization. Read the first article here.
Leadership Integration is defined as a strategic and intentional onboarding process that positions a new leader for success in the Functional, Cultural and Organizational imperatives of a new role.
“Research indicates 40% of new senior executives fail within the initial 18 months.” – Center for Creative Leadership
Onboarding Process: How to Culturally Integrate a New Leader
In my first article, I focused on the Functional integration imperatives for onboarding a new leader. Today, I’ll be sharing a detailed step-by-step onboarding plan to culturally integrate a new leader into an organization. According to a global survey conducted by Harvard Business Review, 65% of senior executives who had recently transitioned into a new role felt they were a misfit with the organizational culture. Whether you’re the hiring manager, an internal leadership consultant or a third-party facilitator, this five-step process will set the foundation to ensure cultural alignment for the new leader within the first 120 days.
The first action I take when culturally integrating a new leader is asking the hiring manager and key stakeholders to define their company culture. What’s your Mission? What’s your Purpose? What are your Values? What do these values look like in action? What are both the spoken and unspoken norms?
If you are facilitating this integration as an HR leader or an internal leadership consultant, think back to when you started a new role. What aspects of the culture were you expecting? Which ones were you not? What surprises did you face/encounter?
After gathering this information, I ask the two most important questions for the integration:
- What specific actions must this leader accomplish to embody and exhibit the culture?
- What specific actions could a leader make that would go against the culture and potentially cause failure?
In other words, what works here and what doesn’t?
These answers complete the first step in the five-step onboarding process – understanding the Current Cultural State. This step serves as a foundation for the rest of the process. The new leader will then take this information to execute our next step in the onboarding process: Casting the Cultural Vision.
To Cast the Cultural Vision, the new leader must understand how to best gain influence in their new environment, both for themselves and their team. The new leader will set up meetings with their direct reports and business partners to further discuss their expectations as well as the spoken and unspoken organizational norms that will lead to cultural success.
Let’s take one of the recent leadership integrations I facilitated as an example. Joe recently joined a healthcare company as their VP of Operations and was struggling to build a relationship with one of his peers. His new team informed him that the key to building a relationship with Joan was not to set up more office meetings with her, but to plan an offsite lunch together. Since Joan was a major influencer, Joe needed to build the relationship on her terms to develop trust. It was a cultural expectation that people got to know each other outside of work and Joe, not having experienced this at his last company, could have potentially slowed down his integration, relationships and overall influence without this crucial piece of cultural knowledge.
Of course, this is a siloed example of building influence amongst peers, but unspoken norms like this could be an indicator of a bigger misalignment of corporate culture (aka between what is said to be valued, and what is actually done).
As a facilitator, your job is to watch for and navigate these gaps in alignment to determine whether there will be a bigger cultural shift down the road for this leader.
If the communicated values are aspirational in nature, this leader must start asking how they can help the organization reach their aspirational culture or shift their messaging to better align with the current reality and help lead the organization towards their aspirational vision.
I then encourage all new leaders to develop a 90-day plan that includes any cultural developments they’ve learned – not only for themselves but also for their team. Joe, for example, set up monthly lunches with Joan to ensure they had time to talk offline and build a trusting relationship both inside and outside of work. The new leader must then communicate their 90-day plan with his team to ensure they’re all working together to meet the cultural vision of the organization.
This plan is only executable if the new leader Provides the Tools for their team to be successful. If open, honest and timely feedback is one of the organization’s values, the new leader could set up weekly one-on-ones with their direct reports and have them do the same with their own. Modeling these behaviors will Lead the Way for other team members and executive peers to follow.
As the new Leader Leads the Way, they start to build a high performing team by accelerating achievement and further aligning around the key cultural objectives of the organization. This step involves a facilitated current team assessment and teambuilding exercise around the alignment of the following:
- How will our team lead and model cultural alignment?
- How will we measure progress?
- What process will we follow?
- What system will we use?
- Is either the new leader or their team misaligned culturally and if so, what’s the plan to address?
To Sustain Success, a long-term plan is needed. Even though ongoing communication with various stakeholders is recommended, this is when the conversation is intentionally planned to ensure direction is consistent with organizational priorities.
The new leader and their team should be contributing to the culture’s organization by supporting, reinforcing, modeling and communicating key cultural initiatives. As a facilitator, you must also ensure all priorities and actions are tied to the overall company strategy. I always have new leaders check in with stakeholders to detect any real or perceived derailers from a cultural perspective. If any are identified, I work with them to develop a plan to address.
If the cultural integration is facilitated successfully using the five-step onboarding process, the new leader and team should be aligned and moving towards success.
Don’t forget to celebrate successes, even the small ones. Encourage new leaders to set up celebratory methods to ensure their team members know they are successfully reinforcing cultural alignment and providing enterprise contribution.
It’s impossible to onboard a new leader successfully if you’re not aligning cultural fit throughout their first 120 days on the job. Cultural misalignment can cost your organization financially as well as impact employee attraction and retention. Prioritize it. Communicate it. Integrate your new leaders into it. It will be worth it.
After all, “Custom designed experiences will enable a leader to assimilate more rapidly.” – Harvard Business Review.
Ginger Duncan, MA is a senior leadership consultant and executive coach with The Human Capital Group, an executive search and leadership advisory firm. She has over 20 years of experience in leadership development, coaching, facilitation and training, plus 11 years leading the talent development function in a corporate setting.