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How to Hit the Ground Running: A Guide to Successful Executive On-Boarding

September 25, 2014
Borderless Leadership

by Mark Roellig and Gordy Curphy

A Typical On-Boarding Story

John set his mind on becoming a CFO at a major corporation since graduating from college 22 years ago. After obtaining an MBA from a top tier school, steadily rising through the ranks with four different companies, multiple relocations, many years of 70+ work weeks, and a long string of personal sacrifices John was recruited to become the CFO of Segog, Inc., a Fortune 1000 manufacturer. Segog Inc. had steady been losing market share to several Chinese manufacturers and missed its numbers in five of the last eight quarters. The company was also experiencing cash flow problems and the stock had dropped over 40 percent. Although the previous CFO had been in the position for six years and was well liked, Steve was asked to leave the company shortly after a strategic divestiture went sour. Trying to minimize the disruption with the street, John joined Seagog Inc. two weeks after Steve left the company.

The Board of Directors, CEO, and the other C-level executives were under a considerable amount of pressure and saw John as someone who could turn around Segog, Inc.’s financial performance. Impressed with John’s background and plans, they gave him relatively free rein to do whatever was needed to restore investor confidence. During his first three months at Segog, Inc. John replaced many of the leaders in the finance organization with people who had worked for him the past. He knew these previous associates would be loyal and help him succeed in his new position.

John focused on the job and his new department, working very long hours and hoping when things settled down he would then have an opportunity to begin to engage more with all the leaders in the organization. Many of John’s early decisions helped cut costs and improve cash flow, but after six months the Board of Directors and CEO started hearing grumblings about the finance organization. The head of HR was asked to investigate the rumors and reported that John and his inner circle had managed to alienate many of the other C-level leaders and morale within the finance organization was at an all time low. When the CEO brought this feedback to John he got very defensive and blamed the CEO for not providing the political cover needed to drive change across the organization. John believed his initial results were just the beginning and the company could expect even better results over the next year. He also went on to say that he wasn’t running for a popularity contest and needed to break some eggs in order to get the company’s fiscal house in order.

But over time the noise from the finance organization only increased in intensity. The marketing, sales, and operations departments were in an uproar about some of the finance organization’s decisions and it was not long before Segog, Inc.’s financial performance began to collapse. John was in the position for less than a year when the CEO asked him to leave, and many were only too happy to see him go.

Unfortunately, there are many people like John who have worked incredibly hard to gain entry to the C-suite only to be shown the door a short time later. One might argue that some of these individuals were never C-suite material to begin with, but more often than not easily avoidable on-boarding mistakes doom well-qualified new hires to failure. Because there is no roadmap for successfully moving into a C-level position, the purpose of this article is to describe a process that helps C-level executives successfully integrate into a new company. Business Unit Presidents, Vice Presidents, and Directors can also make successful transitions into new companies by adapting many of these same lessons. Internal candidates promoted into positions of increased authority can also benefit by adopting some of the key steps in the transition process.

In general, the first ninety days are critical to the successful integration of any new executive, as it is within this short period of this time that the seeds for great success or derailed careers are sown. As such, new executives need to take this time extremely seriously. There are several major objectives that new executives need to accomplish during their first three months, and these include:

• Gaining alignment with the CEO.
• Building relationships with peers.
• Developing department strategy and structure.
• Creating a new department leadership team.
• Staffing the department.
• Changing the department culture.

As depicted in the graphic, successfully transitioning into a new company consists of five distinct phases. Preparing For The First Day describes all the steps executives need to take once they have been hired but before they have shown up for work. Many of these activities center around getting up to speed with the company and function, arranging first day meetings, and ensuring administrative details are completed. The First Day focuses on of two major events, which include meeting with the boss and meeting with the entire function. In The First Two Weeks new executives spend time getting to know the staff and building bridges with peers. Strategy, structure, and staffing decisions happen during The First Two Months, and communicating and establishing the function’s values, metrics, operating rhythm, and culture happen in The Third Month. A more detailed description of the key events associated with each of the five phases can be found above.

Preparing For the First Day: Do Your Homework

Pre-Hire Data Gathering
Executives usually begin gathering the information they need to make successful transitions well before they are even offered positions. In preparing for the interview process candidates are likely to have navigated through the company’s web site, reviewed the bios of the key executives, and read the 10K and proxy statement. In addition, at some point during the interviews they should ask why the company is going outside for the position, what can make the function or department better, what works particularly well in the department and what does not, what would they like to see changed in the function, and what about the function keeps interviewers awake at night. Candidates also need to ask if there are any significant substantive issues that require immediate attention. Candidates should not take notes during the interviews but should write down what they heard after each meeting. In particular, focus on what the boss says – these points should be the focus of immediate attention upon arrival.

Post-Hire Activities
Once you have landed the job your most important priority should be to learn more about the company. New hires should go over the material studied and obtained during the interview process and begin deeper dives with help from the company. They should review any analysts’ presentations listed on the company’s investor relations web page and read the by-laws, the corporate governance guidelines, committee charters and other relevant information on the governance page. Asking the investor relations team to provide analyst reports on the industry, the company and its key competitors and going back to recent analyst or earnings calls will also help the recently hired become aware of what the CEO, CFO and analysts are focusing on for the company. Continuing down this path, new executives also need to learn and understand the company’s strategy. Asking for material presented in a board strategy session or from someone in charge of company strategy can provide new executives with this information.

In addition to understanding the industry, business context, and company strategy, new executives also need to start more in-depth learning about their department. They should ask their human resources contact to provide bios or resumes of all the key leaders in the function. Also ask human resources to provide the organizational charts for the company and the function, the performance appraisals, succession material and compensation information for the key leaders in the department. Finally ask for copies of any presentations relating to the department made to the board or senior management and the department’s budget and actual spend, not only for the current year but the past two years as well. Focus on the areas and geographical location of spend and the use of outside consultants.

Often times new executives have assistants assigned to them prior to their first day. If not, then they should ask the human resources department to provide someone who can help in the preparation of the first day. New executives should contact this person, introduce themselves and make sure that that they will have all the items they will need on day one – computer, office phone, blackberry, cell phone, etc. They should also ask the assistant to provide any materials on the department (there may have been a strategy offsite or objectives drafted for the department) that can be helpful to read in advance of the first day. This person should arrange all of the new executives meetings for the first two weeks. Some of these meetings include an in-person “Town Hall” with the entire department and initial meetings with the CEO, direct reports, key business C-level peers/clients and controllers/budget coordinators. Assistants should also be tasked with placing these events as well as all board meetings, leadership team meetings, analyst call dates, etc. on new executives’ calendars.

The Critical First Day: You Only Have One Chance to Make a First Impression

Meet with the CEO
On the first day new executives will want to meet with the CEO for at least an hour if possible. After exchanging the normal pleasantries, the focus should be on clarifying the CEO’s short and long-term expectations and how he or she prefers to work with members of their staff. Some of the topics that should be covered during this initial meeting should include:

• Identifying key objectives, metrics and any important projects or short-term issues on which new executives need to quickly get up to speed.
• Understanding department strengths and weaknesses and identifying areas of focus.
• Gathering opinions of individuals within the department and tactfully determining if anyone is immune from any restructuring decisions down the road.
• Obtaining an overview of the board members and their areas of interest or concern. Working through communication styles and preferences (e-mail, voice mail, memos, meetings, etc).
• Describing the new executive’s plans for the day and next several weeks. New executives will want to show that they have a plan and know what they are doing.

At the end of this meeting new executives should schedule the next meeting or conversation with the CEO and ask whether weekly or monthly one-on-one meetings would be valuable.

Meet with the Entire Department
Sometime during the first day new executives should do a “Town Hall” type meeting with everyone in their function. The purpose of this meeting is for the new executive to set initial expectations and define what type of type of department they are looking to create. New executives should start the meeting by sharing a brief summary of their background and experience and then transition into the attributes, values, and culture they deem important to success. For example, some executives may want to create a department that is strategic, proactive, creative, diverse, hard working, performance-driven, results-oriented, and responsive to clients. Other executives may articulate a different set of values. This opportunity should also be used to clarify expectations regarding illegal/unethical actions, harassment or inappropriate behavior in the workplace and to describe the new executive’s leadership style. It is also helpful for employees to hear about their new boss’ personality (and associated challenges), preferred ways of interacting, work habits, family, recreational activities, and what they plan to do and who they plan to meet over the next few weeks. The meeting should end with a question and answer session, but new executives are unlikely to get any questions and that is fine for a meeting like this, as it is more of a one-way communication than a “meeting.”

The First Two Weeks: Laying the Foundation
New executives should spend their first two weeks on the job meeting with many people inside and outside the company. Because many of these people have other commitments, the administrative assistant needs to schedule these meeting well in advance. The key objectives for these meetings are to: (a) learn as much as possible; (b) develop relationships; and (c) determine future allies. As with all meetings, new executives need to be very cautious about what they say or write, as they have no idea with whom they can confide. Rest assured there is someone out there who, for whatever reason, is not happy with the new executive’s arrival and will not want him or her to succeed.

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