90 Days of New Executive Onboarding

It's 7:30am. I've taken the sound advice of my bestie to suit up in something other than my normal black & white, and I've got a delicate pink on under my business suit. "You'll want some color around your face for your badge picture," she advises. Right. Badge picture. Business suit. Gulp.

My insides are as wobbly as my ankles in heels. I'm starting at a new organization today as an executive, after 12 years in my previous role.

Work on influence; identify early wins; be personable, but not too friendly; communicate early with your boss; assess your team and be ready for development opportunities in 90 days. You have 90 days to show them they made a good choice. Advice from executive onboarding books niggle my mind as I smile broadly at the security guard, receive my temporary badge and head into the office. Because I interviewed and was hired during Covid, I haven't seen the front entrance or where I'll office.

"Breath deep. You got this. I hope I made the right choice." Thoughts circle my head as I wash my hands at the wash station and do a temperature check. What a strange first few steps into a new role.

Then I meet Victoria who ushers me to my office and sweeps me along to get a badge picture, then helps me settle in.

I breathe deeply and remember that what we do is about people. It's all about people. People like Victoria with helpful smiles and bright eyes. Seeing them, listening to them, acknowledging their insight, just appreciating. I do that all week and by the end of the week, the commands from executive onboarding experts that have stressed me out fade. I take the best of what they have to offer and build a plan. The rest of the time I meet people - my team, partners, peers and leaders. I listen and watch and learn. This I can do, and this is the best place to begin.



I know I'm not the only leader stepping into an executive role that has experienced those feelings of anxiety and stress. Despite recent comments ("well, you're an executive now"), I'll break it to you gently, we are just humans - fallible, squishy humans.

I appreciate greatly the advice I picked up in onboarding research and books. Yes, I think 90 days is the most crucial time of your career with an organization, no matter your role. Using those 90 days well will certainly help set you up for success. On the other had, I do not agree with the long list of accomplishments that are "required" to set-up your career for success within that short time. I advocate for the same activities, just not within 90 days.

Set Priorities

I've kept my priorities simple and straight-forward. I communicated them with my boss to ensure that she didn’t have expectations of me that I missed. This allowed for a productive conversation about what she expected and gave me room to breathe between the expectations I had set for myself, the daunting expectations of experts and her expectations.

In this article about my first 30 days I shared my top three priorities:

  1. Listen & learn

  2. Make a plan for the first 90 days

  3. Communicate with my boss and team often

By 60 days, I had fleshed out the plan with more focus:

  1. Listen & learn about people, the business, culture and our HR work/projects

  2. Make a plan for the first 90 days: - 30 days are all about learning - 60 days added connecting the dots + learning the business - 90 days added investing in the team and devising a strategy

  3. Communicate with my boss and team often to set expectations on all fronts and build connections

90 Days of High-Performance Expectations

January 26 marks 90 days in my role at Zachry Group as the VP of HR, and it's been a pleasure. Sure, I have had anxious days when I feel I'm not adding enough value, just pushing decisions around. But then I touch base with those who know me and they remind me it's been not quite three months and that I need to allow myself permission to keep learning and settle in.

In researching further for this article, I found more lists and to dos for newly hired executives. Lists of stakeholders, elevator speeches, early action items and reference manuals. Activities to build credibility with early decisions and assess team composition and accelerate integration.

Another gentle reminder: executives are not cyborgs with superhuman AI. They are people who get tired, need naps, need to stare at a blank screen for five minutes between meetings, watch mindless TV in the evening to wind down. They too, need to make a pit stop at the restroom and get a cup of coffee mid-afternoon. Yes, evening hours happen and early mornings and long days, and that's good stuff, because they are eager to absorb and learn. But let's push back against the guidance that sets an expectation of perfection in the first 90 days.

New Guidance: Building a Solid Foundation

First, I'd like to give props to my boss and team at Zachry Group who have made my experience a great one and are allowing for the time needed to learn the culture and context needed to bring my expertise to bear in a positive way for the organization.

Then, I'd like to offer an alternative approach for new executives:

  • Make an on boarding plan for yourself. Break it into 30 day segments.

  • Set goals. Set goals with milestones that will highlight where you are on your learning curve and logging a few quick wins.

  • Get to know your peers and the leaders on your team. Meet with as many as you can in the first 30 days. Make that your primary activity in the first month. Once you've met with all of your leaders, meet people on their teams and so forth. Again, meet as many as you can. It builds context and varying perspectives on how things are going with the business and your team.

  • Make a plan to meet your front-line employees and customers. See what your business is about. Listen to the stories, watch body language. Be curious. Pandemics make this tough, so do the best you can in your early days. Make it a goal to understand the business so that when you speak with peers you understand context.

  • Build into your plan questions on the basics. Basics include all the "management" items, I'll call them, that you need for decision making: budget and budget processes, financial planning and headcounts, talent management processes, org charts, talent info on your team, HR systems, company values and behavior expectations, communication tools and the like. You can learn these basics as you're also collecting context.

  • Absorb the culture of your new organization. Learn how decisions are made and who's who on the influence chain. Identify a buddy who will give you candid insight.

For the last bullet, this piece of advice from HR Executive to a new hire's buddy rings true:

“You’ve got to be willing to tell the truth about how things really work around here... Not how they show up on paper but how they really work because [not knowing that is] what keeps executives from getting better faster. It’s understanding the informal, unspoken and unwritten rules, as opposed to the things that they got told during their recruiting process. They may have uncovered some of those [already], but those are the ones that are going to really make them either more effective faster or trip them up.”

Finally, my advice is to keep the on boarding process real. It's a lot to expect a human stepping into a new role at a new organization, often having relocated the family, to be on point by the end of three months. We want this new leader to log a long tenure, so why are we rushing?

I value this piece of human advice from the same HR Executive article:

"What you’re going through is normal—these questions you’re asking, this concern that you’re not making an impact fast enough or these competing priorities that are coming at you..."

Thank you. Just last week I was calling my tribe for support with this same situation, feeling overwhelmed and underwhelming to my boss. But then reality set in and I gave myself permission to acknowledge anxiety and the awareness that I will be challenged at times to be fully present in the office while change is in the works on the home front. And there's just a lot I don't know. I will be taking the long way in decision making as I learn how we approach things at Zachry.

In summary, 90 days pass quickly for new executives. In that short time, I advocate that new executives develop a plan focused on building a solid foundation of knowledge and context on which to build decisions and actions in the first year. I do not advocate that new executives be more concerned about making an impact and seeming credible than learning the people, culture and business well. Impact and credibility will follow a genuine plan to learn people and context while tackling minor opportunities along the way.