Make It Or Break It: Onboarding For Mid-Career Leaders

executive, onboarding, transition, new leader, self-identity, self-discovery

By: Louise Korver

Onboarding is a time for mindfulness. There are few times in mid-career when we can so poignantly come face to face with our values, convictions, and what we think of as “reality” as onboarding in a new role at a new company in the middle of your career. It is a time for fresh eyes and fresh perspectives. While it’s exciting, there are guidelines to help make sure you achieve everything you set out to do in your new role. Lack of awareness about how you are perceived in your new role at your new company can create problems. In other words, it is a “make it or break it” time in your career.

Decoding Unwritten Rules

One of the most difficult things for a new executive is learning the language of a new company. In some cases, the same words have a very different meaning at different companies, or some common words that you used at your last company are highly charged and political at the new company, and you have to learn to stop using those words altogether. Some organizations are loaded with acronyms that mean nothing to a newcomer and can cause confusion or consternation for a little while. Before long, though, we can follow along in conversations without having to write down the word we don’t understand and seek out a colleague to help us understand what it meant.

The same is true for how we think things should be done. For most of us, our mental models are so ingrained that we are not even aware that we are operating in remote control until someone brings it to our attention or says, “That’s not the way we do it around here.” As a senior leader, you are a finely tuned instrument with a sophisticated way of working. Your new company also has a particular (or peculiar) way of “how we do things.” Politics, cultural norms, and “unwritten rules” abound in every organization, and it often takes a newcomer to point them out—or at the very least, notice them. In fact, you are likely to be at your most valuable during this period of unfamiliarity because you are in a position to question existing practices and offer new ideas and insights.

The most important aspect of onboarding is how you go about introducing your ideas and sharing your insights. Merely recognizing and surfacing things that are “unwritten rules” and asking about them or subjecting them to rigorous reflection can make others at your new company uncomfortable. Contradictions alert people to the gap between the way things are and the way they might be. Especially in organizations that are the product of mergers and acquisitions, there can be a remarkable difference between executive styles from the two prior companies that seem obvious to you but may be a point of embarrassment to the firm. At one company, I noticed the unique qualities that stood out to me between executives from two different organizations that had been merged into one about ten years earlier. It was perfectly obvious to me that they had been selected and developed in a way that made their points of view, relationships, and ways of working distinct. I soon learned that it was an unwritten rule not to notice those differences, much less speak about them.

As a newcomer, you will face choices in whether to accept the view of reality so readily held by others. It takes time to adjust to another paradigm, and it is important to pay attention to your intuition and somatic reactions to people that choose to ignore things that seem so obvious to you.

What to do? Ask about the way things are done and make it a point not to judge it. Write down your reflections, and six months into the new culture look at this list again and see what it all means to you. Early judgments can be wrong until you understand the complete context. Take it one step at a time.

What not to do? By all means, be aware of times you feel like saying, “at ABC company, we did it this way.” No one is interested in a continuous comparison of your prior company’s practices unless they ask specifically about it, and people tire easily when you provide example after example of another way of doing things. It can sound like a put-down between your old company’s “best practices” and what you are seeing in your new company. In addition, behind your back people will sometimes wonder and may even talk about you. For example, I have heard people say, “If she thought the other company was so perfect, then why did she leave?”

If you joined the organization for a specific purpose, such as changing the culture or bringing about other significant changes, you probably were selected precisely because you are different. Joining an organization because you are different can be a wonderful experience, but it certainly makes your transition a bit more challenging because you need to keep a balance between what you say and do as well as how fast you implement change. It is important to make new meanings from the flood of information and your experiences as you onboard. Otherwise, you will lose those “fresh perspectives,” and the existing culture will wash right over you and you will work only from an intuitive, emotional level.

What’s my advice? Keep a daily “Lessons Learned” journal, review it weekly, and at the end of your first three months, step back and ask yourself “what have I learned about this company, my team, my job, and the competitive situation?” It can be helpful to work with a peer or a coach to sort out what you have learned.

Creating a New Identity

As I note in my book, “Successful Onboarding: A New Lens on Mid-Career Onboarding,” the most important task for a new executive is to slow down and look around. Take stock of the people…what seems to be noticed and by whom? For most executives, onboarding at a new company in a new role during mid-career is a journey of self-discovery and a process of creating a new identity for yourself. All promotions in our careers require us to move beyond our comfort zones. They also trigger a strong defense to protect our identities. It can be an important time to get support from a trusted advisor or an executive coach so you can become more aware of your own behavior.

Increasing your self-awareness is very important for a leader’s development. However, don’t latch onto authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what is comfortable. Few jobs let us do that for long. The person you become through this process will be different, and it may help you develop a profound new sense of identity and purpose. Following a four-step mid-career onboarding process for your first 12 months on the job can help you feel the satisfaction of performing at your best.

Implications for Organizations

Understanding the new culture is the most critical part of the new leader’s job for at least the first six months. The critical factors of success are intangible. But make no mistake, the intangibles are measurable by everyone on the leadership team. They know what it looks like when someone fits, and just as quickly, they know when someone does not. We can all do more to coach a newcomer. Many companies are also reinventing their new executive onboarding process to ensure that the executive and the company get the best possible outcomes from this new marriage.

About the Author:

Louise Korver is a Sr. Consultant, Executive Development Expert and C-Suite Coach with EDA. She has an extensive background in executive education academically, as well as practical experience working for large organizations such as Ingersoll-Rand, Bank of America, EMC Corporation, H. J. Heinz, and AT&T. She currently provides executive assessment and coaching, working primarily with global general managers and senior women leaders. Her book on mid-career onboarding offers fresh ideas, tools, and a troubleshooting guide to help mid-career leaders make a successful move.