The executive guide to onboarding yourself

A better approach to your first year with a new company.

"Before machines the only form of entertainment people really had was relationships." – Douglas Coupland

Onboarding used to be an afterthought (or a non-thought) with many companies. Most people’s experience with corporate onboarding reminds of the scene in Being John Malkovich where John Cusack watches a silly looking, amateurishly produced film about his new employer’s mythical founding.

Nowadays many companies have instituted formal, onboarding processes that are supposed to help them successfully integrate their new executives into their organizations. New executive employees arrive on their first day and find welcome emails and their calendars packed with a weeks of meetings with a wide range of peers, stakeholders, employees, HR representatives, etc.

A top down, wrong headed approach to onboarding

When you consider the costs of executive failure and the high rate of executives who leave their new jobs within 18 months of arriving (by some estimates), then the investments many companies are expending in myriad onboarding programs seems to make sense.

Unfortunately, these well-intentioned companies are trying to solve the challenge of executive retention with a top-down approach. Many of the executives who I’ve coached and/or placed have told me they that their new company’s onboarding process felt like a strange, foreign dance with lots of partners and lots of commotion but with little substance. They learned who the faces were in the org chart but the demands of their new job kept them from a deeper understanding of personalities and culture. And without that understanding their most important executive asset was haltingly or improperly deployed.

Your greatest asset

What is that asset? Influence mastery. Without influence mastery they can’t lead, they can’t manage up, they can’t gain the respect of their peers and key stakeholders and they ultimately find themselves looking for another job.

I’ve coached a wide variety of executives during their first 6 to 12 months with new employers. Our work together helped produce an onboarding process that helped them launch successful careers with long term results. As follows are some of the methods we employ to turbocharge their new jobs:

Your onboarding guide

  1. Build a personality file of the key people in your executive ecosystem. You’ve been a student of technology and business and, perhaps, your favorite hobby but have you become a student of human nature? Remember, your success will be built on your ability to influence others. If you’re not taking the time to study and record your impressions and evaluations, then you’re taking an ad hoc approach to the most important resources in your organization: its people.

  2. Keep a diary; particularly during your first 90 days. You don’t have to make daily entries — every 2 or three days should suffice. Events and projects and people are whizzing by during your first 3 months. If you’re diligent you’ll eventually have an amazing record of anecdotes, issues and events that will help inform your decisions about the future.

  3. Develop your own Board of Directors. Your job is incredibly complicated and demanding. You need a trusted group of people from your professional and personal network who you can call upon for their opinions and perspectives. One of them might be a great vendor manager, another might be a human resources executive, a third could be a CFO, and so on. You get the idea. Investing the time to build strategic relationships is something you’ll never regret.

  4. Learn to encourage difficult conversations. That might seem like a "No duh" type of statement but if you believe — as I do — that excellent executives are problem solvers then it follows that you’re more likely to discover problems in the company when you’re asking the right questions enough times to uncover inefficiencies, incompetence and negligence. Most people avoid confrontation because they want to be liked. Or, at the very least, they don’t want to be disliked. If you’re avoiding difficult conversations because you’re the new executive on the block and you don’t want to alienate your boss or team or peers, then you’re shortchanging your company.

Influence mastery is a learnable skill

Influence is a lot like sports. Many of us play sports, but few of us take the time and expend the energy to truly master them. Many of us play at influence but few of us take the time to study human nature and expend the effort to develop mastery. Some people are born with more hitting or catching or running talent and some people are born with more influence talent. They’re more empathetic and intuitive by nature.

However, there are certain basic skills that we can develop if we care enough about our careers, the people in our companies and our customers. There’s no better time to start the journey than during your first year with a new employer.

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." – Marcel Proust

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