On-Boarding New Leaders

For Dessalen Wood, VP of Talent Development at Cineplex Entertainment, an interest in better on-boarding came out of a selfish motive: she wanted to get better at it. During her career she had been introduced as a new leader to intact work teams many times. It was a familiar process.

“I would learn what the company did and what the business model was and then somebody would sit me down, take me through the organization chart, and talk to me about the people I would need to meet,” explains Wood. “After that, I was on my own to meet with different stakeholders—including the team I was hired to manage.”

It was a trial-and-error method at first, but as Wood began to get more senior roles she found a way to on-board herself more quickly. The experience inspired her to rethink orientation in general.

“In most organizations a hiring committee conducts a search and interview process to identify and bring on a new candidate,” Wood explains. “But the group that actually has to work with you is not a part of that process. In many cases they had a long standing relationship with their previous supervisor, whom they knew and trusted. All they are told is that they are going to love you as their new leader.”

The assumption is that the people on the team are going to be as excited about the new leader as the hiring committee is.

“But of course they have concerns,” says Wood. “A new boss has a huge impact on a person’s life—not only financially but also in terms of potential career development.”

Wood’s experience with meeting new team members got her thinking. Perhaps before talking about all of the new plans and ideas she had for the team, she should have a different type of conversation that would give people time to know and trust her.

“As an incoming leader, you’re at a crossroads and you have to decide: Do I steamroll in the ideas the executives hired me for? Or do I gain the buy-in and support of my team first?”

Wood’s decision to gain buy-in and support first proved pivotal to her success.

A Case In Point

“For example, at Cineplex I was hired to replace someone who had been with the company for 20 years. Two of my new direct reports were senior people who had been working with the outgoing leader for close to 15 years. They were both close to their former leader —so there was really no desire from either of them for me to have this job. I was at the end of the interview process when the hiring committee let me meet the team as the preferred candidate so that we could get to know each other.

“So I sat down with them and said, ‘What would you like to ask me?’”

“Like most people, they wanted to know what I was going to be like as a leader. They asked, ‘What kind of leadership style do you have?’”

Wood knew she had an opportunity to share a model of what the leadership journey would look like. Using the only piece of paper available—a napkin—Wood quickly drew a box and divided it into four quadrants, which she labeled S1, S2, S3, and S4 to correspond to a Directing, Coaching, Supporting, and Delegating leadership style, relatively. Wood explained that a Directing style of leadership was high on direction with the leader calling all the shots. Coaching was more interactive, but the leader was still in charge. A Supporting style was where the leader helped facilitate the direct report’s decision making. And with a Delegating style, the leader and direct report acted more like colleagues.

Next, Wood shared that her natural style of leadership was the S3 Supporting style.

“I pointed to the quadrant labeled S3 Supporting and I said, ‘This is who I am. I like to participate in your decisions and support you in your decision making. I love to chat and I love to understand and I’m really excited about what you are doing. I want to support you.

“‘But here’s the catch,’” Wood continued. “‘That is the type of leader I am when I know how to do my job well and I am very comfortable in my environment. That’s who I am going to be. But the person you are going to be working with for the next few months is going to need a lot of details and information, which will look more like S1 or S2, or what you would call a micromanager. The S3 Supporting and S4 Delegating leadership style, which is who I really am, will come only after I have a lot of trust and faith and feel I can responsibly let go.’”

According to Wood, this was a very different conversation than what she would have had earlier in her career. Back then she would have had the more typical first meeting where new leaders share a lot of optimism—where they say ‘I’m supportive, I’m flexible,’ and present a very positive, Pollyanna-type view.

“It’s so important for people to see leaders as learners on their own development journey and understand that the leadership style they are displaying when they are new and a learner is not necessarily going to be the inspiring and wonderful leadership style they’ll use later.”

This is important to identify and call out early, explains Wood.

“What I have observed in my own behavior and in the countless leaders I’ve hired and on-boarded, right up to the senior vice president level, is that when leaders are learning it changes their leadership style.

“Even leaders who are by nature more hands-off and delegating will appear more hands-on and micromanaging when they step into a new role. That’s not because they’ve changed who they are. It’s because they are new to the situation and need more information and understanding before they can responsibly delegate.”

This can cause problems if a direct report doesn’t understand the process or can’t see through it. When a leader is new, unsure, or uncomfortable, they need more information and detail.

“Remember in my example, I tell my two senior people that I’m wonderfully supportive and hands-off. But on my first day of work when I don’t understand something I start asking questions. ‘Could you show me what you’re doing? Why do you do it that way? How do you know that? Can I sit with you today? Can I listen in on that call? Could you copy me on that message you’re sending?’

“Now I look like a micromanager wanting to get all over their stuff. I’m asking to be copied on that message, be on that call, and join them in that meeting. And of course the direct report is now thinking, ‘I can’t believe they hired someone who doesn’t know how to do anything and now they need me to train my own boss.’ So the hostility begins right away.

“When I don’t know what I’m doing, I look like an S1 or an S2. It’s not that I’ve changed my core leadership style—it’s just hard for me to trust what someone is saying because I don’t understand it well enough myself.

“And just because I’m all over their stuff it doesn’t mean I don’t trust them or I am a micromanager. It’s because I’m trying to learn as fast as I can. Our mutual goal is for me not to be like this. And the more information they give me, and the more they support me in my learning, the faster they will get to see who I truly am.

Leaders As Learners

Leaders who are learning are not necessarily the best leaders. They may not even be aware that their leadership style has actually changed, explains Wood. That’s why HR ends up having so many conversations with new leaders in the first few months after they take over a new team.

“It usually goes something like this: ‘Tom, your new team is concerned that you are being a micromanager.’ The new leader replies, ‘What? I’ve never been a micromanager. They’re crazy! What are they talking about?’

“He’s not aware that he’s being micro. He thinks he’s just asking questions. When leaders and their teams don’t understand the process, the result is drama. And drama is the biggest productivity killer in an organization.”

Minimize the Drama

Wood continues. “When I on-board new leaders, I’m trying to ensure that we have minimal drama. This allows the natural empathy and optimism to come out—which is so important in a new relationship. It helps both parties build a really wonderful bond.

“It’s such a crucial time in a relationship when leaders and their teams are first meeting each other. You don’t get a second chance to make that first impression.

“I suggest to new leaders that they set a ‘go live’ date. In my own case I’ve often said, ‘Three months from now, with your help, I will go live as my real self. Until then let’s just get this done because it’s going to be kind of uncomfortable for me and it’s going to be uncomfortable for you. Let’s work together toward becoming our autonomous best selves.’”

A Big Win for Leaders, Their Teams, and the Organization

“It is very disconcerting to be a new leader,” says Wood. “You’ve left a place where you have been extremely competent, you’ve promised the world to get your new big job, and now you are at the mercy of a bunch of people who don’t look like they’re particularly happy about working for you.”

Wood explains that her type of on-boarding is a wonderful way for new leaders to see that the HR department is a coaching resource that is available to help them with their development and success right away. At the same time, this opens the door for future coaching.

“The big win for setting people up with these conversations is that teams assimilate the new leader quickly and start working well together. Organizationally, we minimize drama. We also minimize the loss of good people who might misunderstand a new leader during the learning process.

“If we can avoid all of that, it’s a money saver, a productivity saver, and a huge morale saver. It also sends a strong message of HR support to new leaders. They know they have an ally to come to that will help them.”


Would you like to learn more about creating on-boarding programs that work for incoming leaders? Then join us for a free webinar!

On-Boarding New Leaders: A Developmental Approach

Wednesday, June 24, 2015
9:00 a.m. Pacific Time, 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time

Looking to get your new leaders off to a fast start? Want to eliminate some of the drama that often accompanies new leadership assignments? Join Dessalen Wood, VP of Talent Development at Cineplex Entertainment as she shares a unique development-based approach to on-boarding mid-to-senior level leaders. Participants will learn:

  • Why current on-boarding programs—especially those for mid-to-senior level leaders—often fail and miss the mark, creating unwanted drama and loss of productivity.
  • How to design an on-boarding program that takes advantage of the skills present in intact work teams and allows new leaders to hit the ground running.
  • How to coach new leaders joining the company for the first time as well as seated leaders taking on new assignments with new teams.

Don’t miss this opportunity to learn first-hand from the practical, productive, and very successful on-boarding program Wood has designed for her organization. You’re sure to walk away with insight and strategies you can use to improve your own on-boarding process.

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