• April 2014

10 Tips From Ana Dutra's "Onboarding" Playbook

By Ana Dutra
Former-CEO, Korn/Ferry Consulting
Founder, Mandala Global Advisors

When we read about “onboarding,” it is usually from the organization’s perspective. The entire responsibility for the success of a new hire is placed on the organization or on Human Resources. Most references to onboarding point out to what is a “best-in-class onboarding program” or how organizations that hire new employees and executives will achieve higher employee retention and satisfaction rates in the first couple of years if they have an effective onboarding process and approach.

Yet, a successful onboarding strategy is as much the individual employee’s responsibility as it is the organization’s. Having coached many CEOs and senior executives through their onboarding processes and having onboarded myself as a new executive in a number of different organizations, I have compiled a series of critical lessons and tips from all the success and horror stories I have closely followed.

Here are a few critical tips—and some traps to avoid—from my onboarding playbook:

Tip #1: Make sure that your role and purpose is not only clear to you but is communicated to the organization, your employees and, especially, to your peers.

Over the years, I have seen so many new executives who were brought into an organization with the charge of being a change agent or with the goal of transforming the culture. The only problem was that no other person but the newly hired executive had been told what he or she was meant to accomplish, how fast and how aggressively the new executive was expected to behave. So, as soon as our enthusiastic and “eager-to-deliver” new “change agent” started to act as such, confusion, surprise, and, ultimately, resistance and rejection surfaced in the ranks. When you start to play the role you were told you were hired to play, instead of waiting to see what happens, I strongly suggest you make sure that your role (formal and informal) is well understood and communicated to the organization by your boss or by the board.

Tip #2: Create a stakeholder list and prioritize initial meetings accordingly.

Assuming there’s no way you can meet everybody who matters in the first month, create a list of the individuals you should meet in your first week, month, quarter, etc. That should be done in partnership with your boss, a mentor, and perhaps the head of HR. The list should include, but not be limited to, key employees, peers, bosses, customers, external partners, suppliers, key functions in the organization and, definitely, HR. Think about this stakeholder management plan as the equivalent to your 90-day business plan, but with laser focus on the people side.

Tip #3: Be deliberate about your agenda for your first meetings.

Your first meetings with key stakeholders in a new company provide you with a unique opportunity to learn about the business, people, and clients. This is also your first opportunity as a new hire to “show up” in whatever way you chose to in order to start to establish your personal brand in the organization. Having said that, since these are your first meetings, not only you will be fed a lot of new data and information, but also you won’t know yet whom to trust and what people’s real agendas are.

Use these first meetings to ask questions about:

  • What people’s view and expectations about your role or unit are
  • The culture of the organization as viewed through the lenses of different people, and, most important,
  • How decisions are made and how things get done in the organization.

If people are open, this can be a good opportunity to learn what is working and what needs to be changed in the company or in your unit or business, at least according to the point-of-view of the people with whom you will meet. Take copious notes in every meeting and save those notes to read again six months later. You will be surprised how the meaning of what people told you in the first meeting will have changed and statements will be much more clear.

Finally, use these first meetings to create a “people map.” Identify influencers, connectors, blockers, givers, and takers so that you understand to whom you should relate, whom you should watch or avoid, and with whom you should partner and leverage to create results.

Tip #4: Ask and listen more than talk.

As much as you want to prove yourself immediately, you have a limited amount of time to be “the new kid on the block” and ask as many questions as you want. So, focus less on showing how knowledgeable, experienced, and smart you are, and put your energy into asking questions, listening, and learning. The right to ask basic questions has a short expiration date, usually no longer than a few weeks. Use this time wisely. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that you should not have a point-of-view, express your opinions, or leverage your experience—but do it in a careful manner in your first few weeks since you don’t know how your opinions will come across … unless you really don’t care, of course.

Tip #5: Avoid the statement, “The way we did it a ABC, my previous company, was different (and certainly better)”.

Who has not had a new colleague who could not start a statement without mentioning how things were done at his or her former company implying that it was usually better or done the right way there. This type of statement gets old (and annoying) very quickly, and it won’t take long before people start to roll their eyes every time you mention the company you used to work for. The follow-on question to you typically is, “If the company you worked for was so good, why did you leave?” You obviously joined this new organization because you saw things you liked and potential opportunities.

However, whether better, worse, or just different, you are still more accustomed and comfortable with the way things were done at the company you left behind. And, since the “old company” is still your comfort zone and likely a place you still identify with, you probably even tend to refer to it without noticing. So, how to avoid making this common mistake?

First of all, keep an open mind to all the new ways to do business that will be presented to you. What you are familiar with is just that—familiar. Not necessarily better or worse. Focus on demonstrating real interest and willingness to understand how and why things are done a certain way in the new organization, why a particular technology is used, or why a particular vendor was selected.

Once you learn a lot, praise a lot, and start to prove yourself, you will earn the right to bring up different ways in which things could be done. And, at that point, you will likely no longer have the need to mention “the way it was done in my former business” simply because it will no longer matter (or be a safety blanket to you).

At that point, the ideas you are presenting belong to you and no longer to the company you came from—and will most likely be considered with less resistance.

Tip #6: Do not make any substantial or radical change in the first few weeks, but do make at least one inconsequential change.

Why? On one hand, as amazing as you are, you simply don’t know enough in your first few weeks to make changes that can have significant future implications or unintended and undesired consequences. On the other hand, particularly when you are replacing a long-term incumbent or when there were other people in your organization who were vying for your position, you need to demonstrate early in your tenure that there is a “new sheriff in town.”

The point can be easily made with a visible but inconsequential change. For example, I replaced a long-tenured colleague once who held business development calls that included only senior partners. These calls were held on Mondays and he alone controlled the agenda.

My very first changes when I took over were:

  • Moving the call to Fridays
  • Inviting junior partners in addition to senior partners to the call
  • Circulating a request for topics a few days before each call.

Those “innocent” changes sent not only a clear message about who was in charge, but also gave people a hint for the type of more inclusive and participative culture I intended to create in the place.

On another instance, I worked with a new CEO who replaced a very strong and conservative leader. His first changes in his initial days on the job were to start to have lunch in the employee cafeteria as well as to institute a casual dress code, indicating that there was a new leader in charge as well as the type of culture he wanted to create in the organization.

Tip #7: Start to build your “kitchen cabinet” as well as your “watch out” list in your first few weeks.

You may be asking yourself how will you know enough to start to build a kitchen cabinet as soon as you onboard a new organization. The truth is, after your first round of meetings and interviews, you will have a pretty good gut feeling for whom you can and can’t trust in the place, as well as with which people you want to surround yourself.

You will have a good feeling for who the “naysayers,” saboteurs, and disruptive people are in the organization. It is your job to engage and leverage the first group and to decide whether it is worth the effort to try to turn some people around or even put up with them in your organization. You won’t be 100 percent right in your choices, but your “kitchen cabinet” doesn’t have to be formally announced and can be a somewhat fluid team, which will allow you to bring people in and out of the circle as you start to know people better.

Also start to think about who, from your previous relationships, you want to bring onto your team, without violating any non-compete agreements of course. Your leadership and people strategy is as important as your business strategy, and you need to start to develop it from Day 1.

Tip #8: Speaking of business strategy … schedule your first discussion of your organization’s vision and strategy.

Whether you plan to revisit and revamp your entire business vision and strategy—or you just need to reassure your people that there is a new leader in place, but the vision, strategy and value proposition of the business will remain the same—from the moment you step into your office for the first time, people within your business or team (and outside as well) will be wondering what route the new captain will take.

And in the absence of clear discussions and reassurance, people start to create stories and fill in the communication gaps. People don’t do it because they are gossipers or vicious; they do it because they are human beings who are motivated and propelled by clarity of input and information.

So you can chose to spend your time undoing rumors and controlling gossip damage, or you can chose to proactively communicate and connect early and often, making people aware of any plans to discuss and disclose the vision and strategy. Leaders provide clarity, courage, and hope, and that is your main job as a new leader in a new organization.

Tip #9: Establish and communicate an operating routine and agenda.

As I mentioned in Tip #8, employees crave input and communication. They will wonder whether you will send monthly newsletters, whether you are a helpless blogger, and how you will connect and be available to the organization (as much or as little as you want, that’s your choice).

You may want to survey people in the organization about their preferences for frequency and effectiveness of different communication means. You can try some “out-of-the box” media, one-way or interactive, digital or not. What you can’t do is to leave people wondering what your operating routines and agenda are.

  • Enroll a communications expert, internal or external, to help you if this is not an area you are comfortable with. It is well worth the time, effort, and investment.
  • In case you are not coming into a large leadership role, but as an individual contributor or as part of a team, ask early in your onboarding process:
    • What are the company’s operating and management routines?
    • What meetings, calls, functions, and webinars are you expected to attend?
    • Which of those are mandatory and which are optional? and
    • What affiliations or groups of interest should you consider joining.
  • After all, you will not want to miss the monthly TGIF where key business connections really happen.

Tip #10: Use this opportunity to think about what kind of leader you want to become.

Every time you onboard into a new job (even when it is within the same company), you have a unique opportunity to rethink who you want to be as a leader and reinvent yourself (and, oftentimes, your career). If you have new reports, chances are that they already did their homework and learned about your reputation through your former employees or industry and marketplace connections.

Regardless of whether you think people were fair or not in how they described you, there will be a perception about you that will precede your arrival at your new job. You can chose to ignore it or to take charge of the background discussion about who you are.

Most importantly, you can be proactive about disclosing your strengths, experiences, what you are working on, what is negotiable and non-negotiable to you, and what people can expect from you, as well as what you expect from them. There are obviously many ways of having these conversations.

Consider this: One of the most courageous examples of new executive self-disclosure I have seen was provided by a friend who took a position as a C-level executive in a global manufacturing company in Asia (my friend is English and had spent his entire career working for European companies).

  • A couple of weeks into the job and on Day 1 of his first offside strategy meeting, he made a presentation entitled, “Getting to Know Me,” which was the first part of a “Getting to Know Each Other” day.
  • In this presentation, he not only covered his work and personal history but, more importantly, he discussed his values, strengths, and developmental areas (he disclosed the headlines of previous 360 evaluations—the good and the bad).
  • At the end of his presentation, he gave his new team explicit permission to give him feedback every time he was doing something that violated any of the key principles and values they discussed.
  • He also covered his expectations of the team, what they should expect from him, and his list of non-negotiables.
  • By the time the day was over, this executive had earned a level of respect that could only be destroyed if he didn’t live by the values, principles, and beliefs he professed.

The Bottom Line

Onboarding into a new organization is not a trivial task, and it pays off when done effectively. It is your responsibility as much as anybody else’s.

These are just my Top 10 onboarding tips.” As you can see, there is a lot of room for mistakes, faux-pas, and mishaps. Not everything will go as planned, but we are accountable for setting up the basis for a successful ride starting with our personal onboarding strategy.

We will learn as we go; we will learn with each new onboarding process, ours and others’. We will learn what works (and what doesn’t) for us, for others, and how different people, teams, and organizations work.

Best of luck in all your new onboardings.


About Ana Dutra

Ana Dutra is the CEO of Mandala Global Advisors, a company she recently founded, and a senior global advisor for Humantelligence, a technology solutions company. She has 28 years of experience as a global executive, consultant, and business leader in industries such as technology, manufacturing, and professional services. In the last six years as the CEO of Korn/Ferry Leadership and Talent Consulting, Dutra created a $300 million new global business through a combination of organic growth, multiple acquisitions, innovative go-to-market approaches, and incorporation of technology and digitalization of products and services.

A Brazilian native with more than 20 years of experience in P&L management, business growth, and C-level business consulting in more than 30 countries, Dutra is also a director on the boards of the Executives Club of Chicago, the International Women Forum, Children’s Memorial Hospital of Chicago, Governors State University, and the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL).

Dutra holds an MBA from Kellogg, a Master in economics from Pontificia Universidade do Rio de Janeiro, and a Juris Doctor from Universidade do Rio de Janeiro, all summa cum laude. Fluent in four languages—Portuguese, English, Spanish, and French—she lives in Northfield, IL, with her husband, their three daughters, and their German Shepherd.

For more information, click here to contact Ana Dutra.

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