Setting the stage for success: Effective onboarding begins well before day one
09 November 2023
After 100 days into a new role, any executive and the company they’ve joined will want to take an initial stock take. Whether this turns out to be positive or negative depends heavily on the onboarding process. Carolin Fourie, Managing Partner at Signium Germany, and Joana Proença de Carvalho, Senior Partner at Signium Portugal, discuss strategies for establishing early positive experiences with new C-level and executive employees.
What importance do companies attach to onboarding today?
Joana Proença de Carvalho: The importance has remained the same, but what has changed is the pace of everyday business life. Therefore, onboarding should start before the first official day of work. There is no time left for a structured onboarding process afterwards, especially as it is expected today that a new boss will quickly deliver visible results. I consider that to be risky and believe that the pressure has increased enormously.
Carolin Fourie: Onboarding is considered as highly important by companies. However, many employers have set up a process for middle management, but not for top executives. Onboarding or an introduction is particularly valuable for external C-level / executive candidates. Studies show that new bosses do not fail due to lack of skills and competences. Rather, they will be unsuccessful if they do not understand the corporate culture and the structures and processes in the company.
Proença de Carvalho: That’s why we at Signium Portugal offer our clients the opportunity to have us coach a new executive and their immediate supervisor in the first few months. We received feedback that this was very valuable and accelerated the onboarding process.
Often, there is a significant period before executives begin their roles. How should employers design the onboarding process prior to the official start date?
Proença de Carvalho: The great danger today is that candidates may receive other attractive offers even after accepting a role and decide to drop out. Some companies are already working on pre-onboarding and contact future employees twice a week, send information about the corporate culture, internal processes as well as professional information and invite them to events. On the first day of work, all formalities are already completed and everything is ready to go.
Fourie: Successful pre-onboarding reduces the risk that candidates will drop out before starting work, necessitating time and money for new search processes. Therefore, it is critical to build a bond with the new employee early on through regular personal contact and information exchange. Even small gestures like a birthday call, a Christmas card, or an invitation to the company party before starting the new role make a difference and create a relationship.
How should employers structure the onboarding process after the official start?
Proença de Carvalho: It depends on the complexity of the company, the company structure, the number of employees and also the number of stakeholders. Initially, the most crucial step is engaging in conversations with the team, customers, and all other stakeholders. This allows the new starter to form an accurate and more importantly personal understanding of the company’s current situation. One must not forget that there is a lot of talk in a company about how things should be, but that does not necessarily correspond to the actual way they are. Identifying this delta takes time but it forms the foundation for any smart strategy.
Fourie: A new executive must quickly learn the unwritten rules of the company and find out who are the relevant and valuable knowledge hubs, regardless of their function or title. A mentor can provide this orientation – for example, the previous CEO, a supervisory board member or an advisory board member. This accelerates the onboarding process and ideally increases the bond with the company early on. It is also essential to establish good and clear communication. This includes regular feedback, which is rather rare at higher levels of management.
Only a few days after taking office as the new VW CEO, Oliver Blume explained his management principles to 500 top managers at a conference (his “Big Five”) and also clearly communicated strategy changes. How important or advisable is it to communicate your own strategy internally and externally quickly?
Fourie: A CEO is expected to make an appearance, but announcing a strategic change after just a few days is certainly unusual. Of course, a newcomer should show their face, network, and become known in the company. However, those who set concrete goals too quickly will be measured against them. Family businesses have more moderate expectations according to my experience. Three of my medium-sized clients emphasized in recent months that they would not expect a roadmap or a new strategy after the first 100 days. The supervisory board or advisory board would rather wish for the new executive to familiarize themselves with the corporate culture, get to know the most important stakeholders and win over the team. Candidates I have placed reflected back that they initially traveled to all important national companies and did not communicate any major strategic course changes in the team for the time being.
It is also in Signium’s interest that the onboarding process runs successfully before and after the official start date. How can you support companies and executives during this time?
Fourie: I stay in touch and call my clients and candidates after starting the new job. From companies, I want to know how candidates are received and if I can possibly help in any way. For example, I heard feedback that a new CFO should communicate more with his team instead of focusing on professional topics and challenges. Surprisingly, this feedback was not given directly to the candidate.
Proença de Carvalho: At Signium Portugal, we call candidates one day before the official start and then again after one month as well as after three, six and twelve months. We regularly talk to our clients. If we hear that something is not going smoothly, we get in touch immediately. Our role includes ensuring that integration into the new environment is successful and that everything goes well.
Fourie: The commitment has decreased in recent years, and the pace of change is steadily increasing. From our point of view, the early establishment of a reliable relationship, regular communication with clear feedback and mutual adherence to agreements have become even more important.
Carolin Fourie is Managing Partner at Signium in Munich and has worked in executive search consulting since 2001. Her longstanding clients include family-run companies, large and medium-sized organizations, private equity in addition to well-known listed companies. Her expertise extends to filling CFO positions and the breadth of direct reports across sectors. As Global Industrial Practice Group Co-Head, Fourie leads Signium’s worldwide activities in the broad field of industrial customers. She can refer to national and international appointments for the manufacturing industry. Fourie has also been serving international clients in the telecommunications and IT sectors for many years. She is additionally passionate about leadership topics and supports executives as a coach.
Joana Proença de Carvalho joined Signium in 2017 and is located in Lisbon. She started her career at Anderson Consulting in Human Capital. Having integrated Heidrick & Struggles in 2001, she developed and launched the Leadership Services area in Portugal, Southern Europe and Latin America. In 2006, she integrated Portuguese design agency Brandia Central, where she held leadership roles in the areas of Human Resources and Support in Portugal, Angola and Brazil. From 2012 to 2015 she worked as a partner at FESA in Brazil. FESA is the largest executive search service provider on site for financial services. Proença de Carvalho has more than 21 years of experience in the industry. She has both searched for executives and advised across machinery and plant engineering, telecommunications, industry, media, health economy and services sectors.