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Don’t Forget to Onboard New Managers

The importance of onboarding isn’t lost on HR leaders; most organizations have honed an effective method to acclimate recruits. This process gives unseasoned employees the time and space to settle into their roles, ask questions, and absorb job expectations. It’s their launchpad to take off in their new positions.

When done well, this critical period initiates these employees’ engagement with the company and sets them up for success. For example, research from Brandon Hall Group shows that a strong onboarding program can improve retention by 82 percent and productivity by 70 percent.

But organizations often skip this vital process when it comes to first-time or newly hired managers. They fail to recognize that people promoted from the ranks to management are basically starting a new job requiring additional skills, responsibilities, and knowledge. And managers just joining a company may have the requisite skills but lack awareness about the organization.

Coming to Terms: Onboarding vs. Integration

Some organizations use the word “onboarding” while others gravitate toward “orientation” when describing how they assimilate new employees. But these terms aren’t synonymous. Orientation is a one-time event where one or more new hires are given forms to complete, a company handbook, and a chance to meet a few key people. Onboarding is a longer process that involves helping recruits learn the ropes.

Many forward-thinking leaders use a more definitive term that expands the scope of onboarding: integration.

As the authors of “Onboarding Isn’t Enough” in Harvard Business Review (HBR) explained:

“‘Onboarding’ is an apt term for the way many companies support new leaders’ transitions, because not much more is involved than bringing the executive safely on deck. After that, he or she is expected to sort things out with little or no guidance. ‘Integration’ suggests a more aspirational goal—doing what it takes to make the new person a fully functioning member of the team as quickly and smoothly as possible.”

CultureWise CEO David J. Friedman thought this distinction was so valid that he made “Integrate New Hires” part of his eight-step framework to develop an exceptional workplace culture. As he notes in his book Culture by Design, unlike onboarding, integration “conveys a sense that we’re going to help you to become part of who we are.” And it signals more inclusiveness and support for people stepping into new roles.

Many companies still refer to their assimilation process as “onboarding” because it is a standard term most people understand. But to effectively position staff members to excel in their roles, leaders should think in terms of integration and be more strategic in carrying out this critical process.

Why New Managers often Fail

The consequences of skipping onboarding for new managers are detrimental to all concerned. For example, poorly assimilated new managers often get discouraged and stressed because they can’t operate effectively. And McKinsey reports that 70 percent of senior leaders are only somewhat satisfied or unsatisfied with the performance of teams led by new people they’ve placed in these positions.

Leadership coach Paul Royce lists reasons why people placed in leadership positions don’t succeed in a LinkedIn article:

  • They failed to meet the expectations of their superiors, whether it is a direct boss or a board of directors, as in the case of a CEO.
  • They failed to mesh with their team and/or other important stakeholders, both internal and external.
  • They didn’t “fit into the culture” of the organization.
  • They didn’t get a firm grasp of the organizational political landscape.

Royce also cites Egon Zehnder’s global survey of senior executives who had recently transitioned to new roles. The study shows that organizational culture and politics, not lack of competence, were the primary reasons for failure. When asked what would reduce failure rates, survey respondents “emphasized constructive feedback and help with navigating the internal networks and gaining insight into organizational and team dynamics.”

Royce writes, “87 percent of senior HR professionals believe that transitions into significant new roles are the most challenging times in one’s career.” And he points out that the effects of stumbling or failing in these new positions can have dire consequences on someone’s professional trajectory as well as negatively impact the organization.

Interestingly, studies show that being promoted from within doesn’t eliminate the problem. Leadership experts Rose Hollister and Michael Watkins write in HBR that their research shows internal promotions were almost as problematic as hiring people from the outside.

Give New Managers the Best Chance to Succeed

Hollister and Watkins recommend that companies assess what new managers need to learn to perform well. They outline three areas to consider:

  • Technical learning
  • Cultural learning
  • Political learning

The authors detail these qualities and suggest questions leaders should ask themselves about the role and the person who will fill it. The emphasis on specific areas may depend on whether the new manager is rising internally or coming from outside. Their analysis is as follows.


This area concerns understanding what skills are needed for someone to succeed in the job. It includes learning about customers, products and services, technologies, and systems. It also involves grasping the organization’s hierarchy and roles, goals, capabilities, key performance indicators (KPIs), and performance history.

Questions leaders should consider:

  • What can I give our new leader to quickly bring them up to speed on our customers, products, systems, etc.?
  • What key reports or product information would be helpful?
  • What data would give them a strong understanding of the current state?
  • What historical data would offer insights into today’s priorities?


The area focuses on understanding the company’s primary behavioral norms or its workplace culture. It also encompasses internal language comprehension and fluency.

Questions leaders should consider:

  • What are the unwritten rules that would be helpful for someone coming in new to our company?
  • What insights into decision-making, collaboration, and working together would help someone integrate faster?
  • What are the culture-specific expectations or landmines that an incoming leader needs to know?
  • What acronyms are common in our company?


This topic is about understanding the decision-making process and how power and influence work in the organization. It also covers identifying important stakeholders.

Questions leaders should consider:

  • Who are the key stakeholders the new leader should connect with in the near term, and is there anything I should share about them that would be helpful for the new leader to know?
  • Who are the key partners that the new manager will need to work with to move strategic initiatives forward?
  • Who are the external partners that work closely with this team?
  • What is a suggested cadence for meeting peers, stakeholders, and partners?

Culture is Onboarding’s Foundation

It takes time and effort to assist new managers in absorbing the nuanced information they need to succeed. But leaders will reap the benefits of ensuring managers have all the resources and knowledge necessary to do well.

And the people they empower to excel in these positions will likely be charged with onboarding their own new staff members. The more comprehensive and valuable their assimilation process, the more they can help build better teams and amplify a strong culture.

Metadata Solutions EVP Naveen Bhateja reiterates the importance of imparting the company’s culture to new managers. As he writes in a Chief Executive article,

“The failure to provide a deep understanding of culture is the biggest mistake that organizations make when onboarding new leadership. Leaders must be familiarized with the culture while being assimilated into their new role. Ignoring culture sets new leaders up to fail.

Effective onboarding should be a key element of every company’s culture. Organizations that understand this strategy are primed to help people at all levels maximize their potential.