Assimilate New Leaders for Greater Impact

Too often, the onboarding process in many organizations emphasizes learning the functional areas of one’s new role to learn processes and protocols.  We advise executives to consider the onboarding period to be the first 6-12 months, not a mere 90 days.  While intensity will decrease as time goes on, increasing the timeline allows for additional learning and relationship building.  

Since leaders get their work done primarily through the efforts of others, we encourage prioritizing building relationships with their teams early on.   An “assimilation session” can be a great way to kick this off. This typically occurs as a facilitated session with the team and the new leader ranging from several hours to a full day.  To be most impactful, dialogue and relationship-building needs to continue in different ways.  

A successful leadership assimilation session should include:

Experienced Facilitation: 

The session should be facilitated by someone other than the new leader or the leader’s boss.  It could be an external resource (coach or consultant) or a trusted internal resource (e.g. HR).  In either case, beyond experience, the facilitator should be someone who can encourage the leader and the team to be open and engaged without fear of retribution. 

Preparing the Leader and the Team:  

Asking the new leader to consider questions in advance will help create a thoughtful conversation.  The team should also have some advanced notice of what will occur, areas they may want to discuss and the purpose for the session.  Assessments or a survey, if applicable, may also need to be distributed prior to the session.

Team and Individual Assessments:  

Using workplace style assessments such as Predictive Index tools will reveal a great deal about the behavioral preferences and motivating needs of the leader and each team member.  They can also show what the collective team profile looks like. Do you have a group of mavericks or a team of analyzers?  Where are the strengths and gaps?  One software company I worked with had a highly extroverted CEO with strengths in sales and marketing who was leading a group of highly analytical introverts.  Building awareness and respect for the gifts each person brings to the party helped to foster trust and agreement on how to best work together.  

Set the Guidelines:  

The facilitator should let everyone know what the process is and that each person is expected to contribute to the conversation. Encouraging open dialogue and questions requires agreeing on some boundaries such as respecting different opinions and keeping individual comments confidential.  

The New Leader Opens:   

Sharing information about what brought the leader to this role, how to describe their management style and preferred communication modes can be useful as well as revealing something personal to demonstrate vulnerability and personality.  The team will also want to understand the leader’s expectations, priorities and anticipated challenges.  Some of this can be shared during opening remarks, while the remainder can be covered throughout the session.

Team Discussion without the Leader Present:  

After some opening remarks and establishing guidelines, the new leader leaves the room while the facilitator poses questions to the team.  Larger teams may split off into small groups to ensure all have a chance to participate. The team will indicate what they want to know about the new leader, what concerns they might have, recommendations to share, and expectations they have of their new boss.  They will also share anything about their history, values, culture, group norms or challenges they feel important for the new leader to know. All are encouraged to participate and assured that the information will be presented to the new leader without attribution to any particular person.  

Debriefing with the New Leader:  

The facilitator brings the aggregated team input back to the new leader in a private session to give the leader a chance to reflect on the comments and provide a response where appropriate.  

Having the New Leader Respond:   

Next the new leader and team come together and the facilitator reviews the key points or questions posed by the team for the leader to respond to or ask clarifying questions.  Often this dialogue raises a variety of ideas, commitments or next steps for the team and leader to take forward or explore further.  

Discussing What Comes Next:  

While an assimilation session can serve as a great kickoff for open dialogue, ongoing efforts are needed to ensure the clarity, trust and commitment needed for positive team performance.  Having a combination of team and individual sessions helps to build relationships, understand job roles and expectations and each person’s unique working style and motivating needs.  

Agree on Expectations and Goals:  

The outcome will be having agreement for mutual expectations, how the team will work together with their new leader and what the goals are for the upcoming period (3-6-9-12 months).  Establishing ongoing mechanisms for communication, reporting on progress and holding one another accountable will help the leader and the team keep the momentum going.  

Successfully onboarding a new leader is a process, not a discreet event.  Including team assimilation efforts will allow the leader to tap into the team to get up to speed faster, assess the available talent strengths and gaps and make a collective impact while avoiding landmines. 

Contact us for further ideas on successfully onboarding your new managers and leaders whether they be internal promotions or hired from the outside.  

Top 10 Lessons in Leading Change

Mergers, acquisitions, re-engineering, restructuring, new leaders, new strategies, systems upgrades, process improvements, staff reductions.  The one thing all these events have in common is a need to have a strategy for leading and sustaining change.  Change doesn’t happen because a group of leaders came up with a brilliant idea or because the charismatic CEO gave a visionary presentation at the Town Hall Meeting.   Here are ten key lessons to incorporate in your change strategy:

“60-75 percent of all restructuring failed — not because of strategy, but because of the “human dimension.”

Michael Hammer, author of Reengineering the Corporation

Lesson 1 – Understand the importance of people in every change initiative.

It doesn’t matter how successful the acquiring organization is, or how great the strategy – you need people to execute the strategy and to achieve success.  People must trust leadership, share the organization’s vision, and be included in planning in order buy into the change.  Since every person is wired differently, the approaches to engage them must also vary.  Organizations that use assessments to understand each individual’s preferred work behaviors and motivating needs can leverage this data to figure out who might jump on board as a catalyst for change and who might need more data, time to reflect or an emotional connection in order to get on the bus. 

Lesson 2:  Transformation is a mental, physical and emotional process; not an event.

Large-scale change has a tremendous emotional impact on all involved.  Transformation is not the same as incremental change.  It redefines what we do, how we do it and who we are as an organization.  It’s often unpredictable, fast-paced, and sometimes defies logic.  What worked in the past may not in the future.  Do not underestimate the depth and variety of emotions that people will have, and how this impacts the success of the transition as well as the impact on the culture. Handled correctly, people can be helped through the change process, which may start with denial and negative emotions and gradually move through acceptance to commitment.  Leaders must encourage people to move from one stage to the next – or risk losing talent and the success of the initiative. 

Lesson 3:  Leverage the talent and potential of people.

Prescribing to people what they should do differently usually prompts resistance.  Involving people in creating the future of their organization – their future – tends to evoke a spirit of cooperation and contribution.  People want opportunities to use their gifts and talents, their creativity and their ideas.  Within all people and organizations there is a positive core – a source of positive potential that is brought to life when recognized and stirred up. Demonstrate confidence in and commitment to employees. Turn the traditional hierarchy around; have employees tell management what they believe excellence looks like. Involving others and building on the strengths of people liberates the energy, enthusiasm and engagement throughout the organization.  Provide a forum for all to engage in designing the future.

Lesson 4:  Do an Impact Analysis:  How will the change affect each stakeholder?

Not everyone deals with change in the same way or at the same pace.  Consider all stakeholders, the impact on each and how to deal with it.  Some people are more resilient and adaptable.  Find these “change agents” early on and leverage them to help others get on board.  People who are resilient and adaptable are more satisfied at work since they have accepted the fact that the world will change.  Those who not only accept change, but are energized by it, can be assets. These individuals generally possess qualities such as self-confidence, coping skills, optimism, innovation, and perseverance.   

Lesson 5:  Communication comes from all directions and channels.

Formal communication is only a small part of the messages received by people.  Actions speak louder than words.  People will draw conclusions based on changes in the organizational structure or processes, actions of leaders, decisions that are being made, and behavior that is being rewarded.  The communication strategy must be aligned with the actions of leaders and the structures and systems in place.  What people hear and what they see will speak volumes more than the formal messages.

Lesson 6:  Be truthful and candid in communicating with others.

People will know if they are being fed information that has been “sugar-coated” or is veiled in corporate-speak.  Even if the intent is to protect others, being less than honest will destroy trust. People today want and deserve open and honest communication. While some people won’t be happy with the message, you face a greater risk by being less than honest.  Be up front and proactive in sharing information about challenges, risks, mistakes, failures, opportunities and what you don’t know yet. 

Lesson 7:  Help people to understand the rationale for change.

People need to understand the reason for the change and what the organization is trying to accomplish.  Share the strategy and spell out their role in achieving the goals of the change initiative.  Educate others by providing information about the business environment – economic, competitive, demographic and technological factors as well as industry trends and the financial realities of the business.  This is also true on a departmental level – explain why systems and processed need to change or why locations are being consolidated or job descriptions are changing.  And, once again, remember to involve people in the change.

Lesson 8:  Show the link between individual efforts and the goal.

One of the most effective methods to engage people is to show how their individual efforts and achievements help the organization to be successful and meet its goals.  People should be involved in setting their own goals in a way that links to those of the department and the organization.  They may come up with ideas that add value to those that might be developed by their managers alone.

Lesson 9:  Include others as much as you can – and value their input.

People feel a loss of control during change.  They can also feel unimportant and disrespected if they are not included in the change.  Remember that those closest to the work and the customers know things that management often doesn’t.  Plus, including others helps them to own the changes that will take place.  If it’s their idea, they are more likely to get on board and encourage others to do the same.  If most of the ideas come from management or the acquiring organization, resistance will surely rear its ugly head – even if the ideas are good ones.

Lesson 10:  Negotiate a new “compact” with employees.

Just as in any relationship, people need to understand what is expected of them and what they can expect in exchange.  The interests of both sides need to be considered; the relationship must be built on mutual trust and respect.  All parties have a responsibility toward the success of the business, as well as a right to share in the rewards of that success. Employees expect to be treated fairly and respectfully, compensated appropriately and to have opportunities to develop and have meaningful, challenging work.  The organization expects employees to be committed, to treat their customers well, to meet their goals and to be professional in dealing with others.  The best relationships come when both sides are working toward mutual benefit and areas that are valued by all.

At Strategic Imperatives we understand the human and organizational influences on change, how these can derail your initiative or how they can fuel it for success.  We use solid, research-backed methods combined with people data and decades of experience to help our clients successfully navigate change. Contact us to learn more.