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Written By
Xiao Ling

Ask an executive coach: How should outgoing company leaders onboard new executives?

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In my role as an executive coach, I have had the privilege to accompany outgoing company leaders on their succession planning journeys. As I help them onboard new executives, I am always fascinated by the delicate balance departing leaders must strike between impact and integration.

Whether you’re onboarding a new CEO, director, or company leader, it takes finesse to mentor without micromanaging, guide without overstepping boundaries, and share wisdom without coming across as overbearing. Change can be scary to many people, and the last thing you want to do is overwhelm both the new hire and organisation. 

Though each company has its unique story, I have observed common pitfalls across various industries which, left unaddressed, can complicate or even hinder the transition. Below are a few of them.

Pitfalls of onboarding executives

1. Cultural misalignment

Cultural misalignment is a critical aspect that should never be underestimated when selecting a successor. Beyond their qualifications and expertise, a successor’s compatibility with the company’s values and culture can significantly impact their ability to win the existing team over and implement organisational changes with minimal pushback. A leader with more traditional leadership style may prefer a hierarchical approach to decision-making, but that may not be well-received in a culture of open communication and employee empowerment.

2. Lack of structure

A 2010 survey revealed that half of the companies surveyed provided no formal transition plan for their new leaders. This lack of structured guidance can leave new executives feeling disoriented and unsupported, leading to difficulties in adjusting to their roles and responsibilities. Consequently, third to half of new CEOs fail within their first 18 months, as reported by the Harvard Business Review.

3. Short onboarding timelines

The onboarding process for new executives differs from that for regular employees as it focuses on integration and alignment. As these outcomes often involve higher-level challenges, such as organisational culture, values, and people dynamics, a longer time period is needed for re-evaluations and follow-up sessions. Unfortunately, of the companies that do have a transition process, fewer than 20% extend it beyond the new CEO’s first week.

How to onboard new executives

Melissa, a CEO of a marketing company and client of mine, had been thinking of stepping down for quite some time. After numerous rounds of searches and evaluations, Melissa and the company’s board finally identified the ideal candidate to replace her – Amanda, an inspiring business leader with an impressive track record for the past decade.

But before Melissa embarks on a new chapter of life, she has to navigate the convoluted process that is succession planning. While she is confident that Amanda is the person for the job, she wasn’t sure just how involved she should be. In our sessions, we worked on the following areas.

1. Mentor without micromanaging

Balancing mentorship and autonomy during the succession process is a common challenge that many leaders encounter. Striking the right balance between providing support and avoiding micromanagement can be tricky and requires careful consideration.

“Sometimes I wonder how much is too much, and how little is too little. I don’t want to cause confusion to Amanda or our team about who the decision maker is, but I’m also worried about coming across as absent or unavailable to her,” Melissa said.  

If you find yourself nodding in agreement with Melissa’s dilemma, rest assured that you are not alone. To facilitate a smooth transition for the successor, there are several methods we discussed:

Being transparent about communication styles: Melissa may prefer face-to-face interactions and value direct feedback, while Amanda may be more comfortable with written communication and appreciates detailed explanations. Openly sharing and understanding each other’s preferred communication styles can help eliminate misunderstandings and foster effective collaboration.

Communicating objectives and expectations: That could mean outlining the company’s strategic goals for the upcoming quarter and defining specific performance metrics to measure success, or encouraging Amanda to focus on employee development and company culture. With these guidelines, Amanda will know what is expected of her and how her decisions should align with the company’s broader vision.

Scheduling regular check-in meetings: Weekly meetings, for instance, may provide a dedicated time for Amanda to ask questions and Melissa to provide valuable feedback based on her years of experience. They’re a platform for both parties to ensure they’re on the same page and that the department remains well-informed and aligned with the organisation’s goals.

2. Connect new leaders to their teams, partners, and clients

As I often remind my clients, every business is a people business. Succession planning goes beyond internal dynamics and encompasses the impact on stakeholders as well. Changes in leadership can significantly influence business partnerships and client relationships.

To ensure continuity and strengthen existing connections, I advised Melissa, the outgoing leader, to proactively create opportunities for Amanda, the successor, to familiarise herself with team members, partners, and clients. This process involves:

Team building activities: These activities provide a platform for Amanda to interact with her new team members in a more relaxed and informal setting, encouraging open communication and team bonding.

One-on-one meetings: These meetings allow for personalised interactions and facilitate a deeper understanding of individual perspectives, concerns, and expectations. These enable Amanda to build stronger relationships and gain valuable insights.

Joint client interactions: These assure clients of a smooth transition and a continuation of high-quality service. Additionally, Amanda can learn firsthand about client needs and preferences, enabling her to address their requirements effectively.

3. Delegate leadership responsibilities with some hand-holding

During the succession process, outgoing leaders, like Melissa, often serve as mentors to the incoming new leader. Although it may be tempting to relinquish all responsibilities at once and step back entirely, a more effective strategy involves a gradual delegation of tasks.

“As much as I want to shake off my responsibilities and enjoy my personal life, I don’t want to give my team the ‘ciao!’ vibe by exiting too quickly,” said Melissa. 

Employees may resist sudden changes in leadership, particularly if they were closely attached to the outgoing leader. This can manifest as reduced cooperation, reluctance to adapt to new strategies, and a sense of uncertainty about the future of the organisation. If the new leader is not equipped to handle these, it may even lead to high turnover among employees.

Instead of overwhelming the Amanda and her team with an abrupt transfer of duties, assigning responsibilities incrementally allows all parties to acclimate to the change, gain confidence, and receive necessary support. Simple strategies can be employed to achieve this, such as:

Delegating new responsibilities once every two weeks: Melissa may start with smaller tasks and gradually increase the complexity and scope of responsibilities based on Amanda’s readiness.

Attending events or meetings together in the first two to four weeks: Have Amanda shadow Melissa on these occasions to understand her priorities and the team’s dynamics.

Make critical decisions collaboratively: Involving Amanda allows her to understand the rationale behind Melissa’s decisions and builds confidence in her own abilities.

4. Keep them abreast of the company’s culture (and politics)

Companies are fundamentally shaped by people, and culture permeates wherever individuals exist. When stepping into a new role as the “big boss,” joining a company without understanding its story can lead to disorientation.

To better integrate new leaders, outgoing leaders can play a vital role by sharing relevant histories and experiences that shed light on the company’s journey and culture. Even if the past may not have been entirely smooth, addressing people dynamics objectively and transparently prevents the new leader from feeling blindsided. More importantly, it could help them to leverage positive conflict down the line.

While external hires must adapt to a completely new work environment, internal hires typically have a head start in comprehending the company’s culture and politics. Nevertheless, even for internally-promoted leaders, unique challenges may arise with their newfound authority.

For instance, they may experience imposter syndrome or resistance from other candidates who were passed over for the promotion. Achieving unbiased decision-making necessitates a high level of self-awareness and reflection, particularly concerning their existing relationships within the organisation.

How coaching can help

At Intellect, we understand that leadership can be a solitary journey. That’s what our team of executive coaches is for. With a grasp of organisational psychology, our coaches are adept at guiding outgoing company leaders through seamless handovers and assisting new executives in developing their unique leadership styles amidst the whirlwind of succession changes.

Our coaching sessions are designed to accommodate busy schedules, lasting 30-45 minutes, either through video calls or in-person meetings, conveniently booked on demand. We also have a diverse panel of ICF-accredited coaches worldwide, ensuring that company leaders can easily connect with professionals who are culturally attuned to their country’s practices.

Learn more about Intellect here.

Like what you see? Read other articles by the author:

Keeping town hall real: 6 strategies leaders gained from our executive coach
How to conduct layoffs the “right” way: A coach’s advice to a guilt-ridden CEO
Resenteeism to resolution: Managing passive-aggressive behaviours at work in 5 steps

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