Sep 7 2023

Onboarding Executives

I wrote a colorfully-named post years ago called Onboarding vs. Waterboarding, which detailed out some of the general principles around onboarding new employees that our companies have used over the years. A few weeks back, one of our clients and fellow CEOs of a Series C Ed:Tech company asked me for tips on onboarding senior executives, and some of what I said varied from or built on that earlier post.

Here are a few of the themes we riffed on:

  1. Treat the new hire onboarding like you would a merger integration. Why? Well, because adding a new exec to your company is kind of like…a merger integration. Make a long checklist. Assign each item an owner and participating parties. Have a weekly meeting with all key stakeholders specifically to review the onboarding plan. In other words, don’t just leave it up to you, the new exec, and a Day 1 overview meeting with “business as usual” check-ins. Make it its own thing.
  2. Take great care to communicate expectations and changes internally when the new exec starts. Any new exec, but especially one in a newly-created or upgraded role, will carry a new role description which by definition changes expectations and responsibilities both of the new exec’s role and of other execs’ roles (and possibly your own role or Level-2 team members’ roles). Make it super clear to the organization both in a meeting and in writing what those changes are. If people used to go to you for X, and now they have to go to New Exec for X, don’t leave that to the guesswork and imagination of your team.
  3. Get out in front of the fact that your exec team has changed. As I always say, any time you change one person on a team (add or subtract), you have…a new team. Treat a new exec onboarding as such, though this will take time. Team dynamics will change, and you need to drive that process. You also need to make sure any shared language and tools on the team take a beat and include the new person. Did you run a DISC or use Myers-Briggs two years ago with your exec team? Great, do it again with the new team. Did you do a major trust/vulnerability exercise at an exec offsite last year? Better do a new one from scratch. This may sound like extra overhead, but it’s worth it. You don’t want the new person to always feel like the new person who is missing an inside joke. Plus, those kinds of things are always good hygiene for exec teams.
  4. Begin with the end in mind. On Day 1, your new exec won’t know where the bathroom is, unless you are an all-remote company of course. Your objective is for the new exec to be just as autonomous as all other execs ASAP. So, work backwards from 90 or 180 or some other number of days on the question of autonomy. Build this into your integration checklist and weekly integration check-ins (see above), but note this is also a mental evolution both you and the new exec (and the rest of your exec team and the new person’s direct reports) need to go through. Some areas will be more logical for the new exec to be autonomous on Day 1 or at least Month 1. Some will take longer. Be explicit about defining those things.

Special thanks to my friend Amir for inspiring this post!