Leadership Matters
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By Debra Hughes, MBA, Ph.D.

Some senior HR leaders relax and think the job is done once an executive accepts an offer of employment. The fact is, without an onboarding plan, 40 to 60 per cent of new hires fail in their first two years.

Wise HR professionals know the true measure of success comes only when an executive is fully integrated into the organization’s culture and is producing sustained, quality results.

Key integration success factors

The integration process is more complex than most people think, and takes much longer than the traditional “honeymoon” period usually acknowledged. While the first 100 days are critical, integration does not stop at that point. Progress and the likelihood of success are enhanced when the HR professional and the executive address five key success factors during four distinct phases:

• Role clarity – Understanding the role, its relationship to others in the company and how success is measured is most critical during the early stages of a new position.

• Relationships and networking – Failing to invest time in building relationships with key stakeholders before they are needed is often a cause of failure later in the integration process.

• Navigating culture – Understanding the implicit rules and beliefs that influence how things really get done is crucial. Failing to adapt to the culture can cause failure at any point.

• Early wins – Achieving early successes in areas important to the corporation is an important component in building credibility early in a new executive’s career.

• Accelerated learning – Acquiring information that will be critical to understanding the business needs to be a goal for the new executive. Executives who are not seen as “catching on” feel both their credibility and ability to drive results suffer.

The focus and importance of these factors shift over time. For example, early wins are an important contributor to credibility in the first three to four months, whereas relationships take a lot longer to build and the knowledge required to successfully navigate the politics of the organization grows well into the first year.

The four integration stages

Honeymoon: Welcome aboard! (Months 0-3)

At this stage, the organization typically provides some orientation support to the executive. However, even this elementary step is sometimes overlooked as everyone congratulates themselves on a successful selection. HR professionals and the company can provide needed support to the executive through the following steps:

• Introduce the executive to the organization in a way that demonstrates support and confidence.
• Identify early wins and clarify priorities. The executive’s idea of an “early win” may be off-target.
• Provide clear and specific feedback both about task performance and fit with the culture.
• Be clear and specific about the role, expectations and measures of success.
• Provide introductions and networking opportunities.
• Provide help with the administrative basics.
• Highlight the welcoming plan and orientation program.
• Assign a peer coach.

Reality: Did I make the right decision? (Months 4-6)

After three months or so, executives begin to understand the organization more accurately – seeing the good, the bad and the ugly. Doubts start to set in, accompanied by a decrease in confidence. The HR professional’s involvement becomes even more important in working with the executive and the boss to implement the following actions:

• Provide the organization with recognition of the new executive’s successes.
• Hold regular one-to-one meetings to provide feedback, both in terms of performance and fit with the culture, and to monitor how the executive is doing.
• Articulate decision-making processes and organization dynamics that are critical to success (i.e., how things really get done).
• Clarify critical goals and objectives.
• Broaden exposure to the culture and people.

Adjustment: Do I want to do this? (Months 7-12)

During the third phase, expectations are more realistic, relationships start to take hold and new executives start to recover their confidence. At the same time, however, questions about cultural fit linger and commitment hits its lowest point. Issues surfacing during this stage can be addressed by:

• Reviewing progress against goals and deliverables.
• Broadening exposure to the culture and people through a cross-functional project.
• Beginning to identify longer-term development needs.
• Providing feedback about what is working and what is not.
• Having a key leader reach out to reinforce commitment and connection to the organization, providing an opportunity for dialogue and two-way feedback.

Integration: I’m in the right place! (Months 12-18)

For many executives, completing a fiscal cycle is seen as a critical aspect and brings closure. But how does the HR professional know when the integration program is over? Progress may be measured by paying attention to four distinct components of success:

• Credibility – Others respect the executive. His/her opinion is actively sought out, and others listen when he/she talks.
• Alignment – The goals and actions are aligned with both manager and organizational imperatives. The organization feels that the executive understands its goals.
• Acceptance – The executive is accepted and feels a desire to belong. The organization feels the executive fits in well.
• Contribution – The executive is achieving measurable results. He/she knows how to get things done and the company feels that the individual is making a difference.
With the integration process winding down, the HR professional can begin to shift to the next phase of the executive’s career by focusing on succession planning and potential advancement, engaging in a development process to prepare the executive for the future.

Dr. Debra Hughes is a partner with RHR International LLP in Toronto.

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