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5 Onboarding Priorities for New Executives in Year One

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

This week, October 26 to be exact, marks one year since I joined the Zachry Group Team as a new HR executive. I've been reflecting on what I've learned, what I've accomplished and what's next.

You're one week - one month - two months into a new executive position. You're excited about the role and the challenges you've been hired to tackle. You've met your direct reports and many, if not all, of the employees in your department. You're getting a feel for the environment and culture within the organization. You're focusing on sharing expertise in the right situations, and working that 90-day plan.

According to advice I reviewed in preparation for my new role, at 90-days you're supposed to have established your value and nailed a couple of wins thus far. Being vulnerable, I don't even know how that's possible. A beat on high-level gaps, where you can lean in to add the most value and an early view of the influence network, sure. That is possible and advisable. Superhero status - save that for future accomplishments.

Onboarding should take you through the first year. Heck, I'm going to hang on to new hire status as long as I can - it's permission to ask questions and politely challenge the status quo that I'll nurture as long as possible.

Top Tip for New Executives: Listen

I wrote two articles early in my transition: the first 30 days of onboarding and then 90 days of onboarding. In both, I prioritized listening.

Listening is a powerful tool in your leadership toolbelt. It's amazing what you learn when you set down your personal agenda and actively listen to what people are saying... or not saying.

“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.” ― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

Listening stayed at the top of the list for the whole year. In fact, it's the top tip I'm recommending in a list of five activities that will set up any new executive for success in Year One.

Top 5 Activities New Executives Should Prioritize in the First Year

1. Be curious and listen.

Ask questions to seek out context. Strive to understand why colleagues and employees say "that's just how we do it here." Don't let that response bog you down, but seek context to understand the impact of a decision, process or cultural attribute before you make a sweeping change or tweak a process. Be curious enough to get perspectives at all levels and at all points of a process.

2. Build relationships outside of your normal peer group.

Get to know peers in all work groups. If you're in an operations position, spend time with back office leadership. If you're in a support function, seek out operational counterparts and learn about their day-to-day. The purpose of this activity is both context building and relationship gathering. Influencing is much of what we do as executives, and that's all about perspective and relationships.

3. Set three priorities for the year, share them with your team and stayed focused.

You're not climbing Everest in year one. Set overly lofty goals aside and write out "get settled in," "onboard" or some version herein. Acclimating to your new role, your new team and a new culture should be one of those goals. If you're ambitions, that can be the first of four goals. The goals should be devised from what you noted within your first 90 days. That may be an area of expertise that the organization bought when they hired you. It may be a gap that needs to be closed to increase efficiency or reduce churn. Whatever those things are, pick two or three and stay focused. Share them with your team so that they also know that whatever else may pop during the year, you will be prioritizing progress on a small handful of goals. Knowing what's on your priority list will help them prioritize as well.

4. Invest time in your team.

What I noticed in my team six to nine months ago is different than what I see currently. Early in my tenure I was looking for strengths and areas of growth. We talked about their journeys and career aspirations. Now my lens is better tuned to how they add the most value and where to tailor work to challenge + grow and/or adjust focus. It's also the time to invest in them as Team One*. Create space to ideate and solve functional challenges together. Further, investing in your direct reports sets the tone for the environment you want to see for the department. Lean in early where you are seeing behaviors or attitudes that don't support that tone.

5. Be mindful of your physical and mental health.

Stepping into a new role is stressful. Moving to a new organization adds another level of stress. Even the most well-balanced leaders need to prioritize self-health and wellbeing. It's tempting to allow excitement and ambition to keep us hyper focused on performance in the first year. We want to validate the great decision our bosses made in hiring us. Yes, we need to do that, but not at the expense of balanced decision making and a great attitude - all things enabled by personal health.

One final recommendation for Year One - Over-Communicate

Build a habit of communicating frequently with your team and department. A personal belief: as a leader, you can't communicate enough. Your team needs business updates. Your department needs to know strategic priorities. They need to hear from you about how things are going. I like this article by the Center for Creative Leadership on listening as a core skill of an effective leader. Specifically it calls leaders to:

Communicate relentlessly. Communicate information, thoughts, and ideas clearly — and frequently — in different media. Keep processes open and transparent, and find ways to help smooth the path of communication for your team, employees, or organization. Shed all traces of detachment and arrogance, and take the time to talk to your people.

Exactly. The rest of the article is great, too. It's sound advice no matter where you are in your leadership journey, and especially important as you set a strong foundation in the first year or two in your role.

So, what's next? Year One down and all onboard? Absolutely… and I'm still committed to listening, learning and respectfully challenging the status quo.

How about you? I'm interested in your journey. Reach out and/or subscribe. I'd love to connect with you.

Before we close up…

Thanks, Team

I feel as fortunate today as I did on my first day to be a part of the Zachry Group Team. Thank you for going along with some of the more "interesting" ideas I have, answering endless questions, teaching me the finer points (and not so finer points) of benefits and compensation and putting up with thinking out-loud when you probably just want a decision. The year has been great and I look forward to the next one.

*Team One is a concept from Patrick Lencioni. Here's an article from The Table Group that explains the concept and the importance of Team One.

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