09 Jun 2020
Virtual onboarding: Five tips for executives joining a new organization (from home)
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Joining a new organization is challenging at the best of times. You need to learn about the operations, adjust to the culture, meet new people, new clients, and navigate highly nuanced relations with other leaders, your board, and direct reports.
While you may not literally be drinking from the fire hose, onboarding is almost always overwhelming and exhausting. And now you must do it almost 100% virtually.
You already know that this will be challenging and tiring. Your days will feel long, and you won’t always know if you’re doing it right. But you need to trust yourself and your expertise and take responsibility for your onboarding.
To help, we interviewed dozens of newly onboarded senior executives, board chairs, and executive coaches to get their feedback on what worked for them, mistakes they've made, and to share best practice advice for thriving in your new role.
Here are five key things to consider as you prepare to enter a new executive position.
1. Prioritize quickly
The best way to be successful in the first six months of your tenure is to set priorities quickly, says Eric Beaudan, Executive Coach and Global Head of the Odgers Berndtson Leadership Practice. And, while you obviously can’t do this alone, you can do it virtually.
The key is to take the time to listen to stakeholders both within and outside of your organization during your first few weeks, and even before your official start date, if possible. You might think you understand your strategic objectives from the interview process, but now is the time to be sure you got it right. You must use this time to ask lots of questions and let others speak.
Start with a game plan to take stock of the organization, clients, board members, and important industry associations. Find a balance between casting a wide net and prioritizing the most important stakeholders. You will want to speak to several different people each day outside of your leadership team and direct reports.
And, since video calls are exhausting, you will need to prepare. Go into each call with key questions and an objective to learn about their areas of expertise and what they think are the biggest opportunities. You will also want to take time to learn about them as individuals. Ask some personal questions; ask about their life and tenure at the organization and find out about the organization’s culture.
Whether you plan to work remotely in the future or on the premises, developing strong relationships is important to success. So start the process on day one.
Looking for more ideas about which questions to ask and how to set priorities? Read Setting Priorities and Listening During Executive Onboarding.
2. Build a plan for your new team
Most executives we spoke with agree that building a strong team is the key to success in the first 18 months, but assessing people and aligning objectives can be difficult to do virtually. You may also have been hired to make some tough decisions around restructuring and layoffs early in your tenure, so you will need to move quickly.
Scheduling regular check-ins with direct reports will help get communication flowing and create alignment around expectations. But virtual one-on-ones may not give you the full picture of their work style or competencies, so you will want to consider using an objective assessment tool to gather feedback from other colleagues across the organization.
It can also be helpful to conduct a formal 360-degree or psychometric assessment with the help of HR or an external provider. Assessment tools can help provide a more objective picture of team members’ strengths and identify who has the right traits to thrive.
As for team building, in Onboarding a New Leader Remotely, leadership experts Mary Driscoll and Michael Watkins suggest trying a facilitated virtual onboarding program and developing a “structured process for creating alignment and connection between a leader and their inherited team.” An external facilitator can help guide conversations and uncover insights and opportunities.
3. Don’t neglect your board
If you are a new CEO or CFO, or entering the C-Suite for the first time, the #1 tip we heard from experienced executives and board directors is to prioritize your board.
Getting to know your Board Chair and Board of Directors will be key to setting the right priorities and developing a successful forward-looking plan. While they may not seem front and centre as you begin to onboard, you need to take ownership of building these relationships and getting aligned.
While the board is there to govern, your directors can also provide critical insight, mentorship, and support, especially as you enter a new role that can often feel very lonely – and now, more than ever, as you navigate onboarding from your home office.
If your board is not forthcoming in offering their time, then you need to reach out and book these informal calls and discussions yourself. Strong relationships with directors may be more important than any other right now, so make sure that you’re speaking regularly, learning about their expertise, and finding out how they can support you.
Are you a first time CEO or CFO? Read Getting What You Need from Your Board for more advice from top board chairs and CEOs who have been there.
4. Stay focused
Virtual onboarding is a unique experience and few leaders have had the opportunity to truly master it. To manage the combined pressures of home life and virtual onboarding, you are going to need to be incredibly resilient, agile, and focused.
So far, we’ve recommended that you spend lots of time talking to others, asking questions, and being visible – but you can only really be successful in this effort if you also balance it by taking time to think, breathe, and recharge. While your time may feel very limited, practicing mindfulness can be an incredibly effective way to harness your energy for the better, no matter where you’re working.
Many executives and mindfulness coaches recommend booking breaks throughout the day to practice mindfulness – even a 10-minute daily practice can help you stay focused on pressing tasks and improve your energy. There are many ways to get distracted during the onboarding process, and you may also be experiencing additional home distractions from kids, pets, and other demands.
Booking a few minutes every couple of hours into your schedule to breath and reset can provide incredible physical and mental benefits and will also help you be a more effective leader.
5. Find a coach
Being an executive at a new organization can be lonely at the best of times. Joining amid a crisis or dramatic change can make it even more difficult to find allies and confidantes – this is especially true when most people are working from home. These are truly unprecedented times and it’s more important than ever to ask for support and mentorship during your journey.
Other industry executives, past colleagues, friends, and even executive recruiters can offer helpful advice and guidance right now. But you might also want to consider the benefits of a certified executive coach to help you think through your initial concerns, help you develop an onboarding plan, and act as an objective sounding board at a time when it’s needed most.
A coach can be a trusted advisor during this transition, can provide an external perspective into the organization and team dynamics, and implement a fail-safe process to track progress against key goals and challenges. An executive coach can also help guide your development and leadership impact.
The Leadership Practice team at Odgers Berndtson has been providing virtual coaching support to executives for the past decade and has also created a new virtual onboarding offering to help transitioning executives and teams. You can find more information about Odgers Berndtson’s executive coaching, virtual team development packages, and other onboarding services here.