Onboarding of the new director – sink or swim

Bibi Boas Bondesen

Onboarding of the new director – sink or swim 100 days or value creation from day 1 – accelerated onboarding. The previous director has been terminated with a golden handshake and has immediately left the company. Now the process begins to find a successor. Perhaps it happens through recruitment or executive search. Often, it takes 3-6 months before the new director can take office. In the worst-case scenario, it can take more than 6 months before the right candidate is ready.

Now that the contract has been negotiated and the board is satisfied, unfortunately, several more months may pass before the new director actually starts creating value.

Time goes by, and the company waits. Saying goodbye to the previous director has cost something, and finding the new one has also come at a cost.

Expectations are high, and patience is running out. Therefore, onboarding is crucial. If the new director risks not succeeding, it is almost unimaginable to start over.

According to a survey conducted by Fortune in 2012, 40% of executives leave within their first 18 months. Effective onboarding can help ensure value creation and reduce the pitfalls that can challenge a new top executive’s success.

Onboarding for the first 6-9 months
According to the Harvard Business Review article “Onboarding Isn’t Enough” from 2017, 588 C-level executives were surveyed in a global study about their start in their new jobs. 60% of these executives expressed that it had taken them between 6 and 9 months to become fully value-creating in the new company. How long does it take for the new director to create value for the company? What could be done to make those 6-9 months more effective?

Many stumbling blocks In the same Harvard Business Review article, the authors point out that unfortunately, some new directors do not succeed. Some of the typical challenges the new director can stumble upon include the director being too operational in the beginning.

The director does not familiarize themselves with the existing culture in the company. They fail to build good relationships with key individuals in the organization. The new director does not understand the business model. The new director does not show decisiveness. The new director disagrees with the decided strategy, and the new director does not possess the skills that the company actually needs.

In a specific case, the new CEO had to deal with the fact that the previous CEO was now part of the board. But this former CEO had a habit of “getting involved with individual directors.” Therefore, the onboarding conversations with the new CEO focused on creating a good dialogue with the former CEO about taking on the new role as a board member, providing reassurance about obtaining the desired information, and, most importantly, the new CEO being willing to benefit from insights from the former CEO to some extent.

Excellent onboarding
Excellent onboarding The board, management, and search partner together create the most essential foundation for successful onboarding, namely a clear description of the company. Already here, the new top executive gains an important understanding of what lies ahead.

In the next step, when the candidate is being sought, it also becomes important to be clear with potential candidates about the expected competencies and experiences needed for success. Not least, during this phase, a great deal of emphasis should be placed on culture and value fit. Both the company and the candidate typically have a strong value foundation. It may not be explicitly expressed but still guides their actions.

It is crucial to make these values clear to both parties so that it can be assessed whether there is a potential match. Is it a company with an extensive consensus culture? Is it a family-owned company with a strong history and a DNA that needs to be preserved? Is the idea for the new director to change the culture, or should the director fit into the culture?

A successful integration process
A successful integration is left to chance for some and thus the new director’s own approach. Others have a playbook where the director is supported throughout the integration process.

The most obvious and basic requirements for a good onboarding start with elements like a new phone, a new computer, access card, passwords, email account, home workspace, and similar. If the new director needs to relocate upon taking office, it is natural that it can be helpful to support with housing, moving, IT setup, etc. It is also relevant to provide the new director with a range of documents that can be read before taking office – so-called pre-boarding.

Furthermore, onboarding can include the director’s visits to customers, suppliers, subsidiaries, and other relevant locations for the company. The director can also greatly benefit from a concrete and on-site introduction to the core processes of the company.

The essence of onboarding should be to allow the new director to connect with key individuals and listen to their skills and observations.

New leaders have to signal that building relationships is a priority for them
The degree of the board’s involvement in relation to a new director can vary greatly. Giving space to a new CEO is important, but it is also crucial to show trust and support by being present. Similarly, a new director needs to build trusting relationships throughout the organization, show presence and curiosity, but also create space and empowerment for both managers and employees. Therefore, the director can advantageously focus on examining what works well, where strong competencies lie, where there is a focus on learning, improvement, and development. The new top executive can contribute to reinforcing an innovation culture, growth projects, customer focus, and other initiatives that the company currently needs to implement. This way, the new top executive becomes value-creating from day one.

The company’s HR department often contributes support to onboarding. One consideration could be to have each director provide a short introduction to their area and provide this to the new CEO before meeting the other directors:

In connection with the hiring of our new director, we would like to give a brief introduction to the company. Please provide a short description of your area – maximum 2 pages.

  1. A brief introduction to your area:
  2. The three most important business objectives of your area right now and in the future:
  3. The three most significant challenges that you think should be the focus of top management:
  4. Impressive results and cases that you would highlight for your area:
  5. Competencies that your area possesses to a high degree:
  6. The most important project currently being worked on in your area:
  7. If you had to describe the company’s culture with one positive keyword, what would you choose?

The importance of a strong team
The new director needs to create a strong team around them. This will include investing time with each of the other directors but also bringing the board or management group together as a team. The new director will typically represent significant change. In many small and large actions, the new director will be decoded by both managers and employees. Therefore, it is wise for the new director to be aware of the signals they want to send from the start.

If the culture needs a makeover, the new director can advantageously create this transformation with many small concrete decisions and actions.

CASE: 17 days of a tour de force – value creation from the start
“Changing jobs is a big task. I have worked so many hours. It surprises me, even though I could think it through rationally.” “The places where you used to get things done. They’re not there anymore.”

Morten started as a director in a company with a strong operational focus less than a month ago. “It’s so wonderful to come to a company where there are good colleagues who are helpful,” says Morten, expressing that there has been full speed from the start. There have been many focal points that needed to be addressed.

“It has been nice to be met with trust. You just walk through the door. People have been helpful. It’s easier to navigate when they are so open,” Morten expresses. But one must remember page 1 of Situational Leadership when you are a new director. You are a beginner again. The others in the company need to be extra clear and instructive towards me as the newcomer. More instruction is needed. “As a newcomer, I lack knowledge. You easily forget what the new person doesn’t know,” says Morten.

“I have spent a lot of time researching, observing, analyzing. It’s like being on a deserted island without a map. You have to start on your own. I actually created the organizational chart myself. It didn’t exist. I think I gained more from having to create it myself than if it had been handed to me by an HR manager,” Morten says. Morten confirms that he is structured and analytical. Therefore, it is natural for him to approach onboarding in this way. “I am in a typical operational organization where things move quickly. I am structured myself, so I just do it.”

Appreciative and motivating leadership Morten expresses that it might also be easier in this company. “There are many people here who need appreciative and motivating leadership. I can sense that they dare to speak up when I am there.”

“I was fortunate to meet several customers one of the first days. We had a series of customer meetings.” Morten explains that it was coincidental but also very fortunate. “I listened as much as I could. What is unsaid? What do they want? What is not in the contracts? Where are we doing well?” It was an invaluable start for Morten. It was the best thing as a director to be allowed to start the journey from an external perspective and with the customer’s perspective.

Morten confirms that he asks many “how” questions and listens. He is also very conscious of asking questions that will give him knowledge about how each leader and employee manage the company. “I inquire about how things are going – and how they know how things are going.” “I also ask what they need.”

As a new director, he listens to details and interfaces. Morten listens to what happens in the processes and what happens when things change hands. “I’m curious about what registrations we have.” “I think about what needs to be illuminated to nurture it.” “I respect the different cultures. I allow them to make suggestions and implement their ideas.” “So we solve a lot of problems right away.”

Optimal onboarding requires trust “There needs to be a lot of trust. Lots of trust from above. It can be felt when there is trust. I can act faster on the ball right in front of me. As a newcomer, I don’t know what lies ahead of me. I want to bring value. But action is wasted when there is no trust. Also trust from the employees. The board has actually told me that they think they made a good choice. That’s heartwarming.” Morten describes how unclear it can be for a new director to know whether to kick the ball.

There can be many hidden things that make one either not kick or kick the ball. That’s precisely what makes it difficult to be decisive. Therefore, it’s about listening and building good relationships so that one is well advised.

“Before I started, I prepared myself both physically and mentally.” “I hate running, but I increased the number of runs, so I was in top shape physically. I took a vacation before, so I was rested. I have been thinking a lot. Where will you compromise and consciously be vague? Where will you assert yourself? I have spent a lot of time revisiting my own values. I have also reread Patrick Lencioni’s books. You have to sharpen yourself. You have to be especially clear about your values. My values are largely about recognition, involvement to motivate others, but also involvement to fulfill my need for sparring. I listen a lot. I have a positive approach to others. They have a lot of knowledge.”

“I have been here for 17 days now – and I still have butterflies in my stomach. I also think it’s incredible how far you can go. I have all the leadership competencies in my backpack, and I use them.”

Focus on the long term “I am mapping out the entire organization and trying to understand it. What do the customers say? What competencies are there? How do the processes work? I am curious about waste. I am curious about what causes breakdowns. I am curious about what makes them happy and proud. And I listen to their suggestions for changes. If it makes sense, we implement changes right away. I constantly focus on the long term.”

“Moving forward, I want the improvements to come from within. I have already delegated many tasks. Many tasks should lie with my managers and not with me. They shouldn’t just do their job – they should drive the results forward.”

“I spend all my time out in the organization. Then I handle emails in the evening. Many of these emails need to disappear. We need to reduce these emails by getting our dashboard in order and by empowering decision-making throughout the organization. That will save us a lot. I don’t reply to emails during office hours. I’d rather be on the shop floor. I am constantly curious about savings and successes. Where is there unnecessary rework? Where are there fix-it tasks that result from something not being done right the first time?” “And most importantly, where are we really good?”

Smart approaches
In the above case, one can note that Morten largely approaches understanding the company from the customer’s perspective. Additionally, Morten emphasizes listening and observing. There is a humility towards understanding the new context he faces. He is aware that he has moved from a company with a completely different culture, structure, and business model. Not least, the entire company naturally has clear expectations for action. Morten investigates, analyzes, and acts together with the organization. Thus, his action translates into respectful and relevant decisions. However, a crucial factor also seems to be Morten’s ability to build relationships. His ability to be curious and meet the organization with a trusting desire to understand what they have succeeded in and what they need. Morten’s reference to Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of teams suggests that he is aware that trust is the primary foundation he needs to build. It should also be emphasized that even if the new CEO is hired internally, large parts of the above recommendations can be included.

Onboarding conversations
In the context of onboarding, the new top executive may also be new at this level – and thus benefit from sparring and coaching about stepping up. Other onboarding conversations may focus on assembling the team or setting clear goals and frameworks. If you need help finding a new top executive or board member, we can assist with your executive search.

Sources: Onboarding Isn’t Enough, HBR, May-June 2017 After the Handshake, HBR, December 2016 Board Best Practices in Onboarding a New CEO, Forbes, September 2016

About the author

Bibi Boas Bondesen


Director Executive Search, Head of International


  • Executive Search Consultant
  • Head of Business Development
  • Trade Support
  • Client Services Manager

Bibi has delivered Executive Search to a wide range of industries.
Bibi has most recently worked with Executive Search at Spencer Stuart and The Ashton Partnership in London, and she was previously employed by Morgan Stanley.
She has a Bachelor’s degree in Business Mathematics and Statistics from the London School of Economics and an MBA from Copenhagen Business School.

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