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Onboarding Leaders Remotely in a Crisis

June 2020
Carolyn Alford Cason
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In times of crisis or recovery, firms can bring on new leaders with a few simple steps

Setting up new leaders in times of crisis is crucial to ensure a company can continue navigating the new normal and retain its leaders in the long term. Research has shown that a strong onboarding process improves new hire retention by 82% and productivity by over 70%1, making the first days of a new leader’s tenure paramount to a company’s success. In the midst of a global pandemic, onboarding may seem like a challenge, but it is far from impossible.

With the help of Stanton Chase in Washington, D.C., PBS hired a new VP for Programming, Sylvia Bugg, just a month before the network implemented a virtual work-from-home order for their organization. We asked her what unique challenges for organizations and leaders she’d noticed during the coronavirus crisis in light of her own experience. “With proper planning and collaboration between Human Resources and department managers, the process for new members joining a team remotely [was] handled with a degree of normalcy, ensuring a smooth path forward for everyone,” Bugg remembers of her onboarding at PBS.

It’s important to remember that having an open senior-level position can be risky for your business and stressful for you and the rest of your staff. At Stanton Chase, several of our clients have taken the initiative to onboard talent virtually rather than have them wait, with much success. Drawing on our 30 years of expertise, we have compiled a list of some of the best practices for both employers and new employees for how to integrate new leaders amid tumultuous times.

 
Employers: Operationalize the Onboarding Timeline

Onboarding should always be strategic and thoughtful, but companies must understand what their strategic needs are and how the new leader’s individuality adds to their culture. This is where Stanton Chase’s expertise can help ease the stress of onboarding, even during a crisis. We consult with our clients to develop an onboarding plan for their new executive as part of the offer acceptance process. Stanton Chase can also help employers use leadership assessment tools to understand the new leader’s approach to getting things done and how that aligns with the organization’s performance expectations.

The operationalization of processes guarantees that your new hire has equipment before her first day, can access all the necessary files and software, and has a properly paced training schedule. Taking advantage of your organization’s technology tools, training, and systems when onboarding places you in the best position for success.

Employers: Create a Welcoming Atmosphere

Lack of clarity of expectations and deliverables between the new leader, their boss, and their staff can lead to hiccups in the onboarding of a new executive3. To avoid this, it’s even more important to be intentional about open, two-way communication for the new leader and her team when the team is working remotely.

Recalling her first days and weeks at PBS, Bugg says the onboarding process can be a fun experience. It may not be possible to take new employees out to lunch on their first day, she points out, but a company could still “set up a virtual lunch or coffee touchpoint or send an e-card to welcome them.”

By creating a welcoming atmosphere, companies can open up space for new hires to communicate if they need any clarity or additional guidance, as Bugg noticed at PBS. In addition, formalizing biweekly check-ins during the onboarding process to facilitate candid Q&A sessions between you and your new hire can help identify and address any problems.

Employers should provide a list of all relevant internal and external stakeholders for the new hire and schedule introductory virtual meetings with each of them. Potential stakeholders could include the new leader’s hiring manager, direct reports, peers at their level from other departments in the company, and board members.

This immersive approach will allow new hires to build relationships quickly and form a holistic view of company governance, which in turn will spark strategic thinking as they acclimate. Even in a virtual setting, they can get a sense of the culture of the company and how their unique skill set can fit within it4.

Employers: Set Clear Expectations

When a new leader is onboarded to a company, she is constantly learning. Be intentional about building relationships and plan quickly: from organizational plans around growth strategies, marketing, fiscal operations, and Human Resources policies and processes to team dynamics, a new hire absorbs large quantities of information in a short amount of time.

Directional clarity from the company on how the new leader relates to the larger organizational strategy will help streamline a learning curve that would otherwise be steeper during a crisis.

Clarity is the gateway to results, especially during the uncertainty of a pandemic. If a new hire knows what their strategic objectives are for the first 90 days and has biweekly check-ins on their progress, it becomes much easier for them to prioritize what they need to learn and achieve. Companies should also conduct dedicated workshops on strategy and existing initiatives for the new leader to quickly integrate with their role.

Most importantly though, employers should remain flexible and avoid the temptation to rush the process of onboarding – especially during times of uncertainty.

Employers: Assign A Peer Mentor

Routinely at the executive level, one onboarding technique that makes a positive difference is an onboarding mentor. At many companies, this is someone who serves as a “cultural interpreter” for the new hire and is a sounding board for explaining unclear expectations, providing guidance, and being a candid source of information5.

For example, a new Chief Marketing Officer could shadow or participate in meetings conducted by the Chief Programming Officer or the Head of Operations. This process begins by joining virtual meetings now and continues with in-person sessions for at least three months when everyone returns to the office, helping the new executive manage the crisis in a more productive way.

Employers: Hire A Transition Coach

The support from an additional, dedicated transition cabinet or adviser during the onboarding process could also prove to be a key factor in getting your new executive up to speed, even with a mentor. Hiring a transition coach who is dedicated to proactively guiding the leader and being an adviser helps them understand the challenges they face and how they can impact the company’s agenda in their first 90 days.

Additionally, by giving feedback and providing insight to key stakeholders, the transition coach acts as an independent sounding board on behalf of the new leader with their transition cabinet or stakeholder group and can stay with the company until things have settled into a new routine once the crisis has passed.

Employees: Use Video Check-Ins

Even with most states opening up in some format, it will take some time before people are comfortable enough to go back to the office. Most of the largest companies in the country have encouraged their employees to work remotely through the end of the year7, but social distancing doesn’t always mean new hires have to be socially distant.

Keep the channels of communication open and clear with new employees through a combination of phone calls, emails, and video meetings. An easy first step is conducting 30-minute meetings with your direct reports to get to know them in a more casual setting.

Employees: Be Proactive and Take Charge

Onboarding is a two-way street. It is important to set up meetings and informal sessions with your direct reports as well as others with whom you will be working regularly. This relaxed environment can be virtual one-on-ones, virtual happy hours, or socially distant walking meetings, bike rides, or parking-lot tailgates to bring teams together if your local government has safely relaxed restrictions.

Another way to help get yourself up to speed is to study the industry, your company’s competitors, and potential risks facing your new employer. By understanding your company’s governance and current standing, you will be able to achieve some quick wins. This can be done by sitting in on relevant meetings, reading reports and board minutes, and asking questions about the governance of the company.

A Marathon, Not a Sprint

Following these guidelines for onboarding a new hire will ensure a degree of stability and efficiency for your company, regardless of the challenges to Human Resources, to the lives of employees, and to the company as a whole. Overcoming challenges with communication, trust, and strong processes is crucial to success in times of crisis

And remember, don’t be too hard on yourself if there are setbacks along the way. The process of successfully integrating executives, such as Bugg’s experience at PBS, is “a marathon, not a sprint,” she says.

How to Onboard in a Crisis

Employers:

  • Operationalize the timeline
  • Create a welcoming atmosphere
  • Set clear expectations
  • Assign a peer mentor
  • Hire a transition coach

Employees:

  • Set up meetings with direct reports
  • Get to know your coworkers
  • Use video check-ins
  • Study the industry
  • Understand your company’s governance

Social distancing doesn’t always mean new hires have to be socially distant.

If you’re interested in learning more about how Stanton Chase can assist with executive onboarding, or if you have questions about best practices, please reach out to Lyn Cason at l.cason@stantonchase.com.

About the Author:

Lyn Cason is a Managing Director at the Washington, DC office of Stanton Chase and a former co-chair of the firm’s Global Diversity Practice.

References:

  1. Laurano, M., (2015) “The True Cost of A Bad Hire,” Brandon Hall Group, Retrieved from https://b2b-assets.glassdoor.com/the-true-cost-of-a-bad-hire.pdf
  2. Hogan Leadership Assessment. Retrieved from  https://www.hoganassessments.com/talent-acquisition/
  3. Dai, G., De Meuse, K., Gaeddert, D., (2011) “Onboarding externally hired executives: Avoiding derailment – accelerating contribution,” Journal of Management and Organization, Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269638060_Onboarding_externally_hired_executives_Avoiding_derailment_-_accelerating_contribution
  4. Groysberg, B., (April 2020) “How Remote Work Changes What We Think About Onboarding,” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, Retrieved from https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/how-remote-work-changes-what-we-think-about-onboarding
  5. Leonard, D., (Feb 2015) “How New BofA Executives Learn Its Deep Smarts,” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, Retrieved from https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/how-new-bofa-executives-learn-its-deep-smarts
  6. Watkins, M., (May 2018) “How Transition Advisors Accelerate Executive Onboarding and Integration,” LinkedIn Pulse, Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-transition-advisors-accelerate-executive-michael-watkins-1/
  7. Yurieff, K., (May 8, 2020) “Tech companies are letting employees work from home through 2020,” CNN https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/08/tech/tech-companies-working-remotely-2020/index.html

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