Onboarding Is Pivotal To Executive Search

by Mark Oppenheimer

Executive search is a high involvement process. Getting the selected candidate’s signature on a contract should never be the end of it, but the pivot point. Success demands a balanced approach, with input both before and after the placement. Do justice to onboarding and the eager new arrival rides the crest of the wave. Ignore it and they plunge into the briny deep.

 Cross industry moves are challenging

A new tide of executive search firm is encouraging clients to look outside their own sectors for talent that can effect lasting change.  Moving from an airline to a telco is a relatively subtle change - both are large, complex, regulated organisations with comparable customer bases – yet some adaptation is required. A social media company and a hedge fund may share similar mid and back office set-ups, employee demographics and intellectual horsepower, yet the cultures are very different. Moving from an entrepreneurial tech start-up to a global pharmaceuticals group really is a sea change. To maximise the chance of success, whatever the degree of change, onboarding is an imperative and it is incumbent on the search advisor to insist upon it.

Onboarding should be part of a strategic plan

Executive search firms should be talking to clients about onboarding from the outset. Given the critical role that C-suite leaders play in business transformation, hiring new talent is a huge investment and clients need to consciously manage the risk. That means thorough preparation. It’s all about getting the framework right - in terms of organizational design, rules of engagement and support network - to create a climate in which the incoming leader can achieve success.  It is important that clear expectations are set in advance, such that all stakeholders are on the same wavelength and recognise success when it happens.

Assimilation can’t be left to chance

The job search and selection process is an emotional journey for the candidate, with much at stake. The first week in a new role can be an anxious time as they enter unfamiliar waters and feel the weight of expectation as a senior (and expensive) hire. The executive search firm should be there in the background as a sounding board, ensuring that the agreed organization architecture, confidants and messaging are in place and the candidate is assimilated according to plan.

The coaching provided throughout the interview process should not come to an abrupt end. Left alone, senior hires have been known to go into a new culture with all guns blazing, upsetting everyone in their path and triggering organ rejection syndrome. The executive searcher can help temper behaviour while the candidate makes the necessary adjustments. Even if the desired outcome is to shake up company culture, it can’t happen overnight.   

Onboarding is a 3-way, ongoing partnership

Post placement, candidate feedback sessions should be held at regular intervals, ideally at 2 weeks, 6 weeks, 3, 6 months and 12 months. Sometimes the executive searcher is the single person hearing the truth of what is going on from both sides, the only one who can join the dots to enable success. If the new hire is struggling, the executive searcher must investigate and proffer solutions. It may be that the team dynamics have gone awry and that HR needs to step in. It may be that the candidate came from a small organisation into a large one and needs affirmation from a colleague with a similar background. Or it may be that they are struggling to influence the right people and need a mentor with a breadth of contacts across the enterprise who can open the right doors.   

Human assets need protecting

Great leaders are rare. It is no easy task to land an executive who can transform the way a company operates, turn a lumbering giant into a nimble athlete or change the way an entire industry is perceived. In some organizations, new leaders can be seen as a threat. Without onboarding, they can be out of their depth and dismembered by sharks. If they survive at first but fail to settle, there are plenty of competitors ready to throw a lifeline. The executive search firm needs to manage the situation in tandem with the client to flag issues and take corrective action over a protracted period.

As cross industry moves become more common, culture inevitably enters the equation. Executive search firms and their clients need to observe due diligence to ensure they not only land the best candidates, but hang on to them. The moment a selected candidate starts their new role is point break: get the onboarding right and they will stay upright, find their feet and deliver value. The alternative is wipe-out.