New C-Suite Hires: Onboarding or Waterboarding?

by Mike O'Neill

Most companies understand the bottom line value of an effective onboarding program.

Why, then, do they often fail to do the same for their new executives? Companies that invest in new executive transition tend to perform better. Every dollar spent onboarding new employees greatly multiplies in the future. That is particularly true for executives.

Making a hiring decision is a lot like getting engaged to someone. Both the company and the new employee have courted each other. One-on-one interviews (dating), team interviews (meet the family), and all manner of vetting (the social grapevine) take place before the offer, the negotiations, and acceptance of the offer. Here are some suggestions to make sure that the executive engagement leads to a happy marriage:


The hiring process doesn’t end on the executive’s first day. HR should not only assist in hiring executives, but also act as a true business partner. All too often executives are merely introduced at a working meeting or executive conference. That’s the extent of onboarding before new executives are asked to dive into complex business dealings, lacking any background or cultural orientation.


HR should ensure that corporate leaders sit down with new executives before the first day. The leaders need to talk about their expectations, management styles, the history of the position, the development of the company, and their leadership philosophy.

At the same time, company leaders need to give new executives permission to listen and learn, and not be made to feel like they must do something right away. These leaders should encourage calm initial conversations with colleagues and direct reports without the pressure of having to get results too quickly.


One of the primary duties of the Board, CEO and Executive Leadership is succession planning. The CEO needs to ensure that someone in the organization is responsible for politically guiding new C-Suite hires. Such mentoring will help steer new executives away from the early political rocks that could sink them before success can be measured.

Often mentors are senior executives appointed from outside the new leader’s division to act as independent wise counsel.


An executive coach has both the company’s and new executive’s best interest at heart. In a sense, coaches act as a bridge between the organization and the new executive. A coach can take on the following tasks:

Address early onboarding questions. Coaches can find out from the organization what it really wants from the new executive. What questions do direct reports, peers, and their bosses have for them as they walk in the door?

Take the temperature of the organization. Coaches can take the organization’s cultural temperature to find out whether new executives are being perceived as a threat or an asset.

Early 360° interviews about what new executives are doing well and what they could be doing even better can provide early calibration that is in the best interest of both the company and the new executive.

Periodic check-in meetings with the boss.  A quarterly meeting to touch base on how things are going provides a systematic way to give & get feedback. Questions such as: What’s going well? What are the biggest issues being faced? What needs to change to ensure success?

Be a safe harbor. Perhaps the most important role of an executive coach is to be a sounding board. Leadership isn’t easy, and entering into a new organization’s culture only compounds the issue. Having someone to confide in truthfully, with complete assurance of that person’s confidentiality, can be a great relief for any new executive.

Source: Onboarding. Brand & Mary Vonnegut. Wiley.


What is right to be done cannot be done too soon.

– Jane Austen

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