Fall 2012
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The Public Manager

Executive Onboarding: How to Hit the Ground Running

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Executive onboarding is critical to an executive's individual performance and to organizational performance. Where large-scale change is not feasible, establish a process within an organization's unit, group, or team.

The best onboarding strategies provide a fast track to meaningful, productive work and strong employee relationships. Onboarding programs—the acquiring, accommodating, assimilating, and accelerating of new leaders into the organizational culture and business—need to be tailored specifically to the needs of the organization and individuals. Executive onboarding should be strategic, so that it not only prevents executive derailment, but also expedites the executive's contribution to optimizing strategic achievement.

Much has been made of the impending "retirement tsunami," particularly in the senior leadership ranks in the federal sector, in which some 70 percent are eligible to retire in the near future. This potential exodus has many implications for federal agencies, including the need to quickly integrate new leaders into organizations. Since January 2006, 16 percent of Senior Executive Service (SES) members failed to complete their initial one-year probationary period successfully. Reasons included termination for performance, performance significantly below expectations, or voluntary resignation from the new position. According to the Corporate Leadership Council, new executives generally "fail" for five main reasons:

  1. They fail to establish a cultural fit.
  2. They fail to build teamwork with staff and peers.
  3. They are unclear about the performance expected of them.
  4. They lack political savvy.
  5. Their organizations do not have a strategic, formal process to assimilate executives into the organization.

Documented examples show that effective executive onboarding minimizes the need for terminations and costly replacements by helping newly placed executives navigate the areas most critical to their success. In light of the current hiring challenges, high-performing organizations use effective onboarding strategies to assimilate their leaders strategically; they do not apply a "sink or swim" mentality to new executives. Instead, these organizations understand they must provide support systems for new executives. The most successful organizations understand they may choose to invest valuable time and money to position their executives to succeed rather than expending those same resources in lost productivity and turnover.
Federal agencies that deliberately target executives for onboarding include the Naval Sea Systems Command, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and National Science Foundation. Most other federal agencies have established comprehensive onboarding programs for their General Schedule (GS) employees, but have no onboarding process specifically geared toward assimilating and acculturating executives. Instead, agencies treat executive onboarding as a crude extension of employee orientation by covering the "basics" during orientation and leaving it up to the executive to figure out the rest.

Some agencies do not emphasize the onboarding of new executives because they wish to avoid insulting established professionals, who may perceive an executive onboarding program as suggesting they require additional assistance. This is a flawed perception. Research indicates that onboarding executives may be more critical because they face significantly greater performance expectations and have a greater impact on the overall performance of the organization.

Views from New Senior Executives

During a 2009 onboarding panel discussion hosted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Partnership for Public Service, and Senior Executives Association, new executives offered their perspectives and onboarding experiences within their agencies. Participants highlighted the benefit of consulting current SES members when developing or modifying agency executive onboarding programs. The following are examples of some of their comments.

What were the biggest challenges to being a new SES?

  • Going to an agency where the new executive did not know anyone.
  • Working with a deputy in the office who had applied for the SES position and had expected to be selected.
  • Inheriting a budget crisis without any knowledge of causality or solution; being held responsible for all mistakes or failures in the agency.
  • Finding difficulty in establishing credibility and qualifications.

What tools were useful to meet those challenges?

  • Interactions with the secretary and major division heads provided a good learning experience and opportunity to meet people.
  • Predecessor stayed on for 60 days to provide guidance, and upon departure, other managers were very supportive.

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently during transition?

  • Address earlier staff preferences for past practices.
  • Obtain more information on congressional relations, including identifying key committee members, sources of information, and priorities.

What recommendations do you have to improve executive onboarding?
  • Continuous engagement is important for new executives to learn their new agencies.
  • Agencies should give senior executives "permission" to take time to ask questions and learn the organization.
  • Agencies should help new executives obtain agency-wide perspective by supporting their participation in cross-agency events.

Proven Techniques and Best Practices

Federal agencies offer these successful onboarding practices:

  • provide relevant information to candidates on the terms and conditions of their prospective employment, such as candidly discuss with candidates the need for relocation to achieve career advancement
  • provide regular opportunities for new hires to familiarize themselves with the workplace, and create an environment conducive for new hires to ask questions and seek information
  • provide new hires, from the first day of employment, with information and opportunities to build important workplace relationships
  • develop onboarding solutions linked to specific business needs
  • identify key colleagues and stakeholders with whom new hires should immediately establish positive relationships
  • create functional checklists to standardize the onboarding process.

Agencies also may learn from private industry's successful executive onboarding practices.
Johnson & Johnson, Canada, tailors its onboarding program to the specific needs of each new employee. For example, new hires from outside the company enter a different onboarding track than those hired from within the company. Internal hires also are onboarded differently according to their key skill gaps, which the company has previously identified through its performance management process.

On the first day of employment, American Express provides each new hire with a human resources partner, hiring manager, and external assimilation coach to formulate a 100-day transition plan and to provide continuous support during the onboarding stage.

Measuring Success

Organizations with effective onboarding programs are able to identify specific onboarding metrics tied to strategic organizational outcomes. These organizations have measured the impact of onboarding on their retention successes. Organizations also examine important indicators such as expense savings, customer satisfaction (internal and external), processing time for employee equipment and tools, and employee engagement.

Many tools can help assist in planning, documenting, and evaluating an onboarding program. One of these tools is the Government Accountability Office logic model—an evaluation tool that will guide program planning, documentation, and reporting, as well as program implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. Agencies should complete logic models to determine the inputs, activities, target participants; and short-, intermediate- and long-term goals of their executive onboarding programs.

Executive Onboarding Framework

To develop and implement a successful onboarding program, federal agencies must emphasize a number of key elements, and proper sequencing of these critical tasks will produce better results. There are key components to which every agency should give special prominence.


During the first few days, agencies should support new executives' emphasis on:

  • learning the protocols and processes of the agency
  • obtaining clarification of expectations
  • engaging in timely and accurate communication with key stakeholders
  • devising regular and effective communication processes with peers, superiors, and other stakeholders. This process starts on the first day and improves on an ongoing basis.

During the first 30 days, new executives should emphasize:

  • understanding cultural issues
  • obtaining consensus on top strategic priorities
  • devising a 90-day plan
  • becoming familiar with senior leadership relationships and determining potential risks and problem areas in the new environment
  • examining and considering improvements in the immediate organizational structure.

During the next 30 days, the key tasks for a new executive typically include

  • identifying early wins
  • identifying learning priorities
  • finalizing an action plan to discuss with senior leaders
  • refining specific job expectations and resource requirements with the executive's manager.

During days 60 to 90, the new executive should emphasize:

  • articulating a vision and engaging the team
  • developing and implementing action plans to support execution of early wins
  • strengthening alliances with key stakeholders
  • maintaining regular and effective communication processes with peers, superiors, and other stakeholders.

Pilot Program

In 2011 OPM worked with eight federal agencies to test and refine a draft framework that addresses the needs of three types of newer SES members: those who have grown within the agency; those from outside the agency (but still within government); and external hires from outside the federal government.

Progress and Results

OPM developed a manual to assist agencies in creating an executive onboarding program and a business case for implementation. This document contains an executive onboarding framework with information on the steps that are critical to developing and implementing a successful formal executive onboarding program from pre-boarding through the first year. The tool addresses key components that should be emphasized during the new executives' first few days, first 30 days, next 30 days, days 60 to 90, and through the first year.

Becoming Fully Productive

Most new executives require a minimum of six months to become fully productive in their roles. Federal agencies may readily pave the way to ensure a new executive's effective integration into their organizations by implementing a specialized executive onboarding program–one of the simplest and most cost-effective strategies to optimizing the success of new hires.

Executive onboarding programs help prevent and address a number of important issues common to most new executives. This makes the transition for new executives smoother, more efficient, and more positive, and allows new executives to transition quickly and effectively into their new roles. Successful onboarding further contributes to leadership retention and promotes long-term organizational success.

About the Author

Cheryl Ndunguru works at the Office of Personnel Management as a Human Resource Development (HRD) Specialist in Executive Resources and Employee Development. Her core duties involve writing and interpreting government-wide training and development regulations. She has authored and co-authored Government-wide policy and guidance related to leadership development programs, training, and enterprise-wide change initiatives like executive onboarding, mentoring, employee engagement and learning management systems. Cheryl also consults with agencies on their performance improvement initiatives like writing good performance results, aligning organizational performance with individual performance and using analytics to inform strategic agency decisions. Past performance improvement projects include work with the White House Communication Agency (WHCA), and the General Services Administration (GSA).   Cheryl holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America, a Masters Degree in Quality Systems Management from the National Graduate School of Quality Systems Management and certificates in training evaluation, program evaluation, training transfer, and instructional design. Cheryl is a member of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), the American Management Association (AMA), and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). She is an Army Veteran and, in her spare time, volunteers as a grant reviewer for some Washington DC funding agencies. She lives with her family in Bowie, Maryland.

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