Onboarding as an Action Plan | Interview with Pam Fox Rollin

by Natalie LaFontaine

via Getty Images

The C-Suite Network continues its special series on performance management; building the right conditions for a company to perform. In an era with no “grace period,” where C-Suite leaders must be effective from day one, we wanted to learn from a top executive coach how the best companies are accelerating leader performance.

In “42 Rules for Your New Leadership Role,” Silicon Valley executive coach Pam Fox Rollin describes practical and effective actions for business leaders to make a strong start at their new VP, Director, or Manager jobs. Drawing from extensive interviews with corporate leaders, she provides executives with the manual no one handed them when they received that promotion or offer letter. C-Suite execs will want to use this as a roadmap to bring on new executives and challenge their organizations to design more effective onboarding processes for mid-level managers.

If you’re new to onboarding, two articles will give you a good grasp on the fundamentals:

  1. INC: @TheBuildNetwork‘s “Importance of Onboarding.”
  2. HR Daily: Author Jevita Nilson’s “Tips for Robust Onboarding.”

The articles state onboarding benefits to be:

  • Increased employee engagement
  • Reduced turnover costs
  • Reaching ROI more rapidly
  • Successful assimilation of new employees into the organization’s culture
  • A more stable and productive organization

We further discuss with Pam Fox Rollin the significance of onboarding and how not to limit it to being “a new hire welcome event,” especially for leaders. Instead, onboarding is an action plan that serves and supports the direction of a company’s purpose, its people and work effectiveness. 

Onboarding leaders must be guided by the C-Suite, “a practice that involves the CEO, senior executives and peers, as well as top HR staff,” explains Pam Fox Rollin (PFR). Performance management includes onboarding in its metrics.
“To forge a company’s alignment and growth, onboarding needs to be in context,” says PFR. “It really needs to be applied as a standard process for the typical new hire — and as a custom process for the C-Suite and the executives at the level below.”

C-Suite Network: What do we need to know about onboarding today?

PFR: Onboarding is an opportunity. It’s about accelerating leadership performance. It’s about getting new and existing leaders headed in the same direction. Executive onboarding creates the opportunity for conversations that address what is changing, what the business imperatives are now, what needs to adjust across the organization and what each leader is tasked to accomplish.
There’s an old way of looking at onboarding; a welcome process where one is greeted, issued a badge and told the company rules.   Onboarding today must be placed into the context of organizational performance: Here’s where the business is going, here’s what we expect from you and here’s how we’ll help you achieve those expectations.

So, at the manager level and below, onboarding is a standard process where business leaders and HR bring new hires up to speed on the business, the culture and the work they’ll be doing; companies that bring in large numbers of people at the same time – from big entertainment companies to consulting firms – benefit greatly from clear and compelling onboarding. (You can see this SlideShare for guidance on how HR business partners contribute to onboarding.) The C-Suite role here is to share company values and make sure the process is well-run. On the other hand, for executive onboarding, its all about forging alignment across critical business initiatives. You want a clear plan for the person to succeed at his or her role in the context of making the company successful.

C-Suite Network:  If there’s a fundamental understanding about the importance of the onboarding process of executives, then what’s missing? What’s not happening? What getting in the way that we can avoid?

PFR: Senior teams rarely give themselves enough time together to form clarity. People are traveling, schedules are full; if [C-Suite] team members don’t demand time from each other to make critical decisions, those conversations won’t happen. Without that clarity, new-hire executives often lack the peer support they need for their initiatives. Then people say, “Too bad the new guy didn’t work out.” Reality is, the whole business is underperforming.
Making the time for executives to ask each other good questions week in and week out helps keep a company aligned. Without that time, the “decision debt” piles up. Critical initiatives are postponed or poorly supported across the organization, and growth gets stifled. Proper integration and cross-functional team leadership is key. For example, the new VP of Sales has to be in regular conversations with the VP of Product, the VP of Engineering, CFO and VP Marketing. It’s too easy to be busy. Not getting these conversations set on the calendar, and postponing the hardest decisions, allow major decision debt to occur.

C-Suite Network: How do we account for priorities and avoid being destructive?

PFR: For onboarding to be successful, the C-Suite team must hash out priorities. Bring all the perspectives in the room, and figure out what’s most important to do.

C-Suite Network: What would you recommend as an onboarding expectation of the C-Suite?   

PFR: You are hired to be a functional leader. Yet, you have to interact and think cross-functionally. The C-Suite is often the first time where some people are challenged to really, truly think cross-functionally. You want the new hire to understand the differing perspectives and strategize with multiple departments. A great onboarding process helps new hires build relationships and a fact base across an organization. That’s a huge advantage for company. For instance, take Mary Barra, the new CEO at GM. Although she is an engineer, she’s been the head of different groups, including HR and supply chain. She’s been able to sit at various seats and think cross-functionally.

C-Suite Network: Does onboarding happen within a certain timeline? Is this covered within “the first 90 days”? What types of activities would you be looking for?

PFR: Executive onboarding starts as a plan from inside the C-Suite. There is a strategy about it. Successful onboarding really begins during interviews, builds through hiring, acceptance, start date and beyond. New leaders will be inundated with tough decisions that were deferred for their start, so the exec needs to get smart about the industry, business, function and initiatives as soon as possible.
In 90 days, the best execs are usually ready to transform their organization — not just learn about it. Then you want to track, as an executive team, how new leaders are performing three, six, 12 months along to see not just how that individual is performing, but where the whole senior team needs to focus to sustain the company’s growth.

To hear more from Pam Fox Rollin’s “42 Rules for Your New Leadership Role,” listen to her interview at Coaching For Leaders, and visit her at IdeaShape Coaching & Consulting and @PamFR. We want to hear from you, too. What changes have you been making with onboarding that’s been vital to your company? Let us know on Twitter @csuitenetwork.


Natalie LaFontaineNatalie LaFontaine, President of Natalie LaFontaine Consulting, LLC,  has pursued a career that has spanned the broadcasting, public relations, nonprofit and educational public and private sectors for more than two decades. Her zest leads with a common theme: an ability to organize, bring diverse groups together, re-energize programs, disseminate messaging, develop brands and bring original, innovative concepts to fruition. Her relational ability paves a productive path from big-picture concepts to detail-oriented strategies generating long-term value clients appreciate. Connect with her on Twitter @NatalieTweetsIt and visit www.NatalieLaFontaine.com