John is the CEO of a nonprofit senior housing organization in the latter phase of his career, which he has termed his “legacy stage”. In less than one year on the job, he has established a vision of growth supported by well-thought-out strategies, rallied the Board and his employees around the vision, hired key talent, and successfully acquired new facilities to move the mission forward. Despite his success, John experienced moments of pain and uncertainty when he learned early on that key members of his team did not support his strategy for growth, and he had to let them go. Had he not taken calm, thoughtful action when he first experienced sabotage, the organization would have branded him as incapable of delivering the vision he had carefully crafted and articulated. John’s capacity for self-management gave him an edge over leaders who might have reacted impulsively to resistance out of fear or indignation.
Susan, on the other hand, demonstrated less self-management during the onboarding period. The first few months as Chief Marketing Officer with a new company, she experienced significant stress at home. Relocating her family to a new city meant that her children were behind in the school system and required tutoring. Her husband was diagnosed with health issues. The stress at home, combined with learning a new job, caused Susan to show up at work with a controlling, “my way or the highway” back-up style that was poorly received by members of the leadership team. She was unable to repair this perception despite considerable effort, and her employment was terminated in less than two years.
Our experience of working with leaders in various stages of the employment cycle has led us to identify three primary reasons for short tenure at the leadership level. These reasons include failure to implement onboarding best practices, failure to assimilate into the new culture, and failure to demonstrate self-management under stress. While the first two have received a lot of attention recently, the latter is critically important. Human beings are biased creatures and will continue to look for data to support their early perceptions of each other – even years after these perceptions were established.
Dr. Robert Hogan, well respected in the coaching community for his work on leadership derailers, describes “risk factors” as possible strengths that are poorly represented when leaders are “tired, pressured, bored, or otherwise distracted”. These risk factors can diminish leadership effectiveness in general. However, the appearance of risk factors during the onboarding period can lead to early derailment or – even more unnerving – the inability of leaders to reach their full potential over time within the organization.
So how do leaders manage their risk factors when they onboard with a new company? The first step is to be aware of what they are. This may require an assessment to determine potential derailers, or a critical review of pre-hire assessment data obtained during the selection process. At minimum, it requires the ability of leaders to reflect on constructive feedback received over time and to extract recurring themes that merit attention. Next, onboarding leaders should establish an internal feedback loop – up, across and down in the organization – that can provide insight into how they are being perceived by others. The use of an external coach to manage derailing behavior while structuring onboarding process steps and facilitating cultural assimilation can be highly advantageous. Lastly, the ability of the leader to maintain self-care regimens such as sleeping and eating well, exercise, meditation, etc. while onboarding ensures a holistic foundation for self-management.