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Why In-boarding is Just as Vital as Onboarding, Especially for Leaders

Most organizations recognize that a structured, thoughtful onboarding process is essential to setting up new hires for success. Yet, when those same companies promote a tenured employee, they don’t always take the same diligent approach to preparing the individual for a role that might involve very different responsibilities and require a whole new set of skills. When an internal candidate is promoted to their first leadership position, or a mid-level manager moves up to the executive team, the differences between the old and new roles can be considerable. 

That’s why organizations are beginning to make in-boarding—the internal version of onboarding—an important part of the promotion process. Preparing a tenured employee to succeed in a higher-level role can pay substantial dividends that ripple throughout the company.  

What Makes Promotions Challenging 

When a company rewards a star performer with a promotion, there is often an unconscious assumption that the individual will continue to succeed. After all, it was their strong skills and capabilities that earned the employee a move up the ladder (assuming the company followed a rigorous candidate assessment process). And since an internal candidate already knows the organizational ins-and-outs covered in new hire onboarding and is already acclimated to the company’s culture and norms, it might seem unnecessary to provide formal preparation for the promotion.  

However, consider the many challenges a leader is likely to face after a promotion: 

  • Typically, the criteria for success in the new role are quite different from those of the former role. In most cases, what earned the employee a promotion won’t lead to success in the new position. 

  • If the promotion involves staying within the same functional area, the employee will now be charged with managing their former peers—a responsibility fraught with difficulties. 

  • The dynamics of the new role could be unfamiliar, especially if it’s the first time the individual will need to work cross-functionally, influence others without authority, hold direct reports accountable, or build consensus.  

  • Sometimes the promotion moves the individual from a tactical role to a strategic one, requiring an entirely different focus. Rather than complete a list of tasks, the employee must develop strategies that align with business objectives, engage in big-picture thinking, and spend more time planning and reflecting. 

  • Tenured leaders that move further up the organizational chart might feel stymied by others’ perceptions of them or even unconscious pressure to “show up” in the same way they always have. Yet, the leadership style and behaviors that worked in a mid-level position might not prove effective once the employee joins the executive team or C-suite. 

The most self-aware leaders recognize that a promotion will challenge them in new ways they might not be prepared for, no matter how much they’ve excelled historically. I recently provided coaching for a highly capable individual who was promoted to CFO. When I asked his biggest concerns about the transition, he mentioned the very struggles you might expect, such as learning how to influence others effectively and gaining the confidence to challenge his new peers. He was acutely aware that his new role would require different skills and competencies. 

Supporting the Transition with In-boarding 

Taking an intentional, structured approach to supporting a newly promoted leader paves the way for the individual and the organization to succeed. While every company’s circumstances will vary and every individual will have unique needs, effective in-boarding is likely to include best practices like the following. 

  • Conducting a listening tour. Encourage newly promoted leaders to get out of the confines of their office and talk with others who are close to the company’s products, services, and operations, including internal staff and customers. This data collection exercise helps new leaders understand what’s happening on the production floor or in the field and assess whether their team or functional group is truly meeting its stakeholders’ needs. Equipped with these insights, the leader can develop strategies, goals, and plans that align with the business’s objectives and requirements. 

  • Identifying a mentor. The most effective mentors hail from outside the organization, freeing the leader to talk candidly about any struggles or concerns about the post-promotion transition. Besides serving as a safe sounding board, a mentor who has succeeded through a series of promotions can offer guidance and pressure-test ideas based on first-hand experience. A mentor can be especially valuable in helping a promoted leader work through the challenges of engaging with new stakeholders. 

  • Teaming up with a coach. Unlike onboarding, which typically includes many elements that are common across all new hires, in-boarding is most effective when it’s tailored to the individual’s specific needs. That’s where a coach can prove especially beneficial. A skilled coach will review the individual’s assessment results (or conduct a new assessment if needed), identify skill gaps or behaviors that might prove to be derailers, and develop a customized Leadership Acceleration Plan that includes targeted development opportunities and measurable success criteria. With this plan as a roadmap, the coach can conduct a series of one-on-one sessions and evaluate the individual’s progress toward the desired goals. 

  • Leveraging the power of team assessment and Systemic Team Coaching. First-time leaders often need help assessing the team they’ve inherited and determining whether they have the talent in place to achieve their goals. Structured team assessments, coupled with Systemic Team Coaching, supports this process by methodically assessing each team member against the skills their roles require. In addition to informing the new leader of their team’s aggregate strengths and weaknesses, this process provides feedback to each individual on the skills they need to develop or enhance to work effectively in their roles as well as helps team members take advantage of their interconnectedness.  

High performers typically bring strong skills and capabilities to their new roles once promoted, but they still need support to transition to different responsibilities, dynamics, expectations, and success measures. By making in-boarding as high a priority as onboarding, organizations can address the inherent challenges that any promotion presents and equip leaders to thrive. 


The Leadership Advisory Practice at Odgers Berndtson helps organizations discover and develop leaders, strengthen value-creating teams, and prepare for what’s next. Learn how our highly experienced assessors and coaches can help you and your team make a positive impact on your organization and those around you.  


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