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Why onboarding must start with context

April 27, 2016
Borderless Leadership

Different contexts require different approaches to onboarding. For example, Ferdinand de Lesseps successfully led the building of the Suez Canal and was then convicted and sentenced to prison for his failed attempt to build a similar canal in Panama. His successful approach to the flat, dry Suez desert was doomed from the start in the hilly, rainy, disease-ridden jungle of Panama. Environment or context is not the sole determinant of executive onboarding success or failure, but it must inform your attitude and approach.

Flush with his success in Suez, de Lesseps drove a “congress” of scientists, engineers and others to back his choice of Panama for a canal and a sea level approach to avoid the use of locks. His super-human confidence enabled him to assemble the political, financial and human resources required to tackle the project. But that same confidence blinded him to others’ points of view resulting in 800,000 backers losing all their investment and 20,000 workers losing their lives to tropical diseases before the project was abandoned.

40% of new leaders fail in their first 18 months because of poor fit, poor delivery or poor adjustment to changes down the road. Like De Lesseps, way too many leaders think that what worked in their previous organizations will work in their new organizations. Wrong.

• What works in one industry may not work in other industries.

• What works in one country may not work in other countries.

• What works with one set of customers and collaborators may not work with others.

• What works in large organizations may not work in smaller organizations.

• What works in one department may not work in other departments.

This is why must invest in understanding the context before you accept a new role. Learn about customers, collaborators, capabilities, competitors and conditions. Learn about the organization’s history and about its recent results.

Customers, Collaborators, Capabilities, Competitors, Conditions.

Look at:

Customers: First line, customer chain, end users, influencers.

Collaborators: Suppliers, allies, government/community leaders.

Capabilities: Human, operational, financial, technical, key assets.

Competitors: Direct, indirect, potential.

Conditions: Social/demographic, political/government/ regulatory, economic, market.

Answer these questions:

• What is the organization’s sustainable competitive advantage?

• Are there any risks with the current Customer base?

• Are there any risks with relationship with significant Collaborators of the organization?

• Does the organization have the Capabilities required for long-term success?

• Do Competitors pose significant risks to the viability of the organization?

• Are there any outside Conditions (like hills, tropical rain and disease-carrying mosquitoes) that will impact the viability of the organization?


Of course you want to be forward-looking and optimistic. Understanding how an organization got to where it is now will help you understand the context for the future. Start with the founder’s story. Many times this will help you understand why the organization was created and why it exists now. Then move on to the early myths people tell. Listen for points of pride. These will help you understand the organization’s biases so you know when you’re going to have to push harder to change things.

Recent Results

The organization’s recent results impact its current worldview. Organizations doing better than expected may be over-confident. Organizations doing less than expected may be scared.

Now What

Understanding context helps you assess your risk:

• If the overall risk is low, move forward – keeping your eyes open for things you’ve missed or things that change.

• If the risk is manageable, move forward, managing the risks as you go.

• You cannot succeed in the face of a mission crippling risk until you’ve figured out how to mitigate the risk. The critical judgment in this exercise is separating manageable risk from mission crippling risk.

• If the risk is insurmountable, a mission crippling risk that cannot be mitigated whether it’s hills, jungle, diseases, customers, collaborators, capabilities, competitors, history or the drag created by recent results, walk away.

It’s easier to get from here to there if you know where you are and how you got here.

By George Bradt

Source: Forbes

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