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Nick Lindsay

Elemental CoSec


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Onboarding senior leadership – making the right first impression to ensure success


Corporate governance, investor relations, reputation….ultimately success lies with the behaviours, attitudes and expectations of the board and senior management teams. But what happens when a new leader joins the team: how do you help them to provide leadership which will strengthen the organisation?  

In this article we take a look at the importance of maintaining a good onboarding regime for board/senior managers and offer some top tips for onboarding leaders.

Why onboard?

Remember the old days; the time when appointed to a new job you turned up on Monday morning and were just expected to get on with it. If you were lucky you were shown where the kettle was; if you were extra lucky you may have received some form of training, usually from someone who was still expected to complete their daily tasks and as a result shuffled between their desk and yours, throwing out instructions as they went.

Then there were the ‘pep talks’ given by senior managers or team leaders to their new recruits. A colleague still remembers one imparted to them in the early 1980s which run along the lines of ‘in this office you do what I say without question and you leave when I give you permission.’ Welcome to the office indeed!

If you were lucky you were shown where the kettle was; if you were extra lucky you may have received some form of training

Those of you reading this who are relatively new to the workplace will probably shake their heads in disbelief. Thank goodness times have moved on and not only are employees now seen as valuable assets rather than necessary costs, businesses also understand the importance of a robust and thorough onboarding process.

And there are plenty of hints and tips around for any business which is looking to help its new employee to understand the company, the culture and their role.

When leaders join

However, although these helpful hint articles don’t say so in so many words, when they talk about the role of team leaders and HR and training departments in onboarding new employees the implication is that the process is aimed at more junior entrants. But what happens when a more senior department leader or board member joins the business; is an onboarding process still required or are they deemed to be at a high enough level not to require one?

The answer is quite simple; if you ignore onboarding requirements for senior leaders then you are playing roulette with corporate governance, business culture and reputation. Granted your new member of the leadership team will most likely have been put through a robust and rigorous interview and selection process, but hopefully that’s the same for all your employees.

If you ignore onboarding requirements for senior leaders then you are playing roulette with corporate governance, business culture and reputation.

When you are bringing a senior team leader or a board member to the organisation the chances are that you have selected someone who you hope will further the aims and values of the business. That means it is vital that you take every step possible to help them to assimilate those aims and values. And even if you are bringing in someone with a view to shaking thing up then it helps to know what is wrong before they can set about putting things right.

The old saying ‘act in haste repent at leisure’ comes to mind here. It’s natural for new leaders to want to make their mark but if you set someone on the leadership trail without adequate preparation then you are risking the strong governance and reputation of your organisation.

Corporate governance

Before I delve into some top tips for onboarding senior leaders in order to ensure governance continuity perhaps it’s worth taking a quick look at what corporate governance is. The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) comments that corporate governance “sets standards of good practice in relation to board leadership and effectiveness, remuneration, accountability and relations with shareholders.”

Containing a mix of broad principles and specific provisions the UK corporate governance code is seen to be one of the most sophisticated and flexible in the world. FTSE 100 companies have to comply with the code in full; other listed companies are given more flexibility, enabling them to adopt measures which are appropriate to their size and nature.

For example, the Quoted Companies Alliance which promotes the interests of small to mid-sized quoted companies sets out twelve key guidelines for small and medium companies. Following a comply or explain methodology, these guidelines are divided into measures aimed at delivering growth in long-term shareholder value alongside measures for maintaining a flexible, efficient and effective management framework. The first group considers areas such as vision & strategy, risk management & control and investor relations; whilst the second group focuses on board skills, capabilities and accountability alongside structure & processes.

When it comes to matters of onboarding/induction the UK corporate governance code is quite specific. Section B4.1 which looks at board effectiveness comments that “The chairman should ensure that new directors receive a full, formal and tailored induction on joining the board” with B5 adding that the role of the Company Secretary under the direction of the Chairman includes ‘facilitating induction.’

Top tips for onboarding leaders

With this in mind what are some of the key focus areas for onboarding new members of the leadership team including directors?  A guidance note issued by ICSA in June 2012 breaks down the induction of directors into:

  • the role of a director,
  • board issues,
  • the nature of the company, its business and its markets
  • building a link with the company’s people
  • the company’s main relationships

You may see these as vital ingredients of any onboarding process, and in truth they are, but they have an added impetus when bringing board members or other members of the senior management team into the governance arena.  Without going into detail what therefore are our top tips for onboarding senior leaders:

  • Background matters. If you don’t know where you’re starting from then you will find it very difficult to move forward. So take time to immerse your new member of the leadership team in the history, culture, governance and approach of the organisation. Brief them and give them access to past reports and notes of meetings as appropriate. As you do so it will give them a chance to…
  • Meet people. Don’t commit the cardinal sin of confining introductions and briefings to one individual. This is a prime chance for your new joiner to meet and start to build a relationship with both peers and reports. And the more people they meet the greater chance that they can build up….
  • A holistic view. The bigger the picture, the greater chance someone has of understanding not only their place within it but also how they can influence it.  Don’t forget the picture isn’t simply confined to the immediate workforce. Take time to arrange meetings or get togethers with key customers and suppliers as well as any other organisation which the company is currently collaborating with. Finally…
  • Mentor decisions. Once you have got someone ‘up to speed’ the temptation is to leave them to carry on with their work. Appointing one or more mentors to provide further information and act as a sounding board in the early stages will help to ensure continuity of good governance.  The FRC particularly recommends this approach in the case of non-executive directors; paring them with an executive board member in order to “speed up the process of him or her acquiring an understanding of the main areas of business activity, especially areas involving significant risk.”

You only get one chance to make a first impression. Leader or not, your onboarding program is your best chance to welcome someone into your business and to ensure that they will very quickly be able to play a full part in delivering ongoing success.

Want to read more on onboarding?

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Nick Lindsay


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