Getting the Team Onboard

Getting the Team Onboard

     An often-overlooked aspect of assimilating a new external executive into a company is not getting that person onboard with the organization but vice versa. When the new executive takes the reins of leadership, the question then becomes whether the team is ready to be led.

      Every seasoned manager comes into a new business with a sense of excitement and anxiety. There’s excitement about the opportunities promised during the interview process and anxiety in discovering the unknowns. 

A newcomer might experience a love-hate relationship with the new team and peers — the organization loves the fresh perspective, new ideas and new practices but hates that the new person just won’t leave things alone. The new leader wants to lead change.

      There are two events which can accelerate a productive working relationship with a new leader – one early on in the onboarding process and a second about six months later. 


Early Assimilation Team Session


One of the best tools to overcome resistance to new leaders is a set of assimilation questions. Although deceptively simple on the surface, these questions can help a new leader and the organization in profound ways. They are based on the notion that meaningful relationship building and an open exchange serve as a solid platform for leadership. 

I’ve used four key topics with leaders and their teams about two to three months into the new job. At that point, both parties have covered the basics, and it’s time to get down to the business of the leader’s moment of truth.

1. What does the team know about the leader? What does the team wish to know? Some new leaders are better than others at self-disclosure. Few are good at mind reading. Teams are more willing to trust and follow leaders when potentially sensitive topics are covered early, in a direct way. These probes can reveal useful areas for understanding such as:

Background and Career. What were the leader’s most developmental jobs? Who were the most influential bosses? How long does the leader plan on staying in the role? What’s next?
Communication Style and Preferences. In person, e-mail or voicemail? Scheduled or drop-in meetings? Headlines or detailed messages?
Likes and Dislikes. Everyone has pet peeves and preferences. Must meetings start and end exactly on time, or is a bit late OK? Should problems be reported early or only after potential solutions can be offered?
Expectations and Direction. What results are most important to achieve? Short-term? Longer-term? How do other senior managers view the team, the situation and what needs to change? 

2. What does the leader need to know about the team, and how does it like to be led? Now, the focus shifts from the manager to the team. Getting team members to talk about themselves facilitates the group bonding with the new leader. Discussing how the team prefers to be led allows it to describe many of the topics the leader shared in the previous two questions such as communication styles and preferences.

3. What challenges might the leader face? Part of getting a team onboard with a new leader is having the group put itself in the place of the leader. This topic builds empathy and a bridge to the new leader. Groups often link challenges with what the leader has shared about goals and expectations. 

4. What are the team’s challenges and potential solutions? The challenges the team shares can provide the leader with an inside view of the team’s thinking, including how the team views its situation in the organization, their pressures and creative approaches to consider. 

When I see a leader and a team connecting well, they often remark, “We have the same challenges.” This can be an encouraging sign of maturity in the group. It is certainly a sign the team is getting onboard with the new leader. That’s the moment of truth awaiting all new leaders.


Six Month Reconnect


      The onboarding journey of a new leader and team continues for sometime and while the early assimilation meeting helps, there is a need for a reconnect session at about the six month mark.  At this stage, everyone moves on from early hope and anxiety to confirmed optimism and possible concern.  Blind spots can develop by this stage but there is still time for a midcourse correction.

      After reminding the leader and team of the six month reconnect session, send out a simple survey to the team members.  The purpose of the survey is the allow team members to give their current impression on how the leader and team are doing so far.  The survey items consist of factors most important at this stage.  Usually a subset of a standard leadership survey, a sample of the items would include:

  • Right amount of clear direction and priority setting.
  • The appropriate amount of challenge and risk taking in change efforts.
  • Leader listening well and responding to input.
  • Understanding and appropriate respect for the culture.
  • Establishing working relationships with key stakeholders.
  • Demonstrating flexibility in approaches and processes.
  • Delivering right amount of early ‘wins’ and results while building for long term success.

      Of course, items can be added to the survey that incorporate early ‘hot spots’ that trip up leaders and teams early in your organization.  The scale for the survey is a relative one, with choices such as “better than expected”, “on track”, “needing some improvement”, “needing significant improvement”.  The survey ends with three open ended questions:  what 2-3 things the leader is doing well and should continue; what 2-3 things the leader should do now to improve or sustain success; and what 2-3 things the team members need do now for leader and team success.  The leader can take the survey as well for a self-assessment to compare to the team results.

      Once the survey results and collected, an HR leader or consultant can walk the leader through the findings and help craft a communication and action plan.  Next, the team should have a chance to process the survey results together and also prepare for the reconnect meeting where the leader and team jointly discuss the findings, explore the most important areas for progress and agree to follow-up steps.  As with the early assimilation, having a trusted HR leader or consultant facilitate the meeting helps keep the atmosphere positive and open.


Early Investments Payoff


      There is no greater time for learning than when a new leader joins an organization — and no greater opportunity for misunderstanding and missteps. 

Remember: assimilation isn’t just about getting the new leader informed and integrated. It’s also about readying the organization so the new manager can lead.   Taking two steps in the first six months of the new leader-team relationship are smart investments which payoff with accelerated working relationships and performance.  

© Kevin D. Wilde