The OnBoarding Paradox: How New Leaders Prevail

ParadoxImage cropped copyWhen starting a new role, leaders often don’t realize that they will face what we call “the onboarding paradox” during their transition. New Leaders who fail to recognize and reconcile the gaps between explicit and implicit expectations for their navigation and performance allow the stage to be set for their own future derailment. In our work with clients, we have found that it is essential to identify and balance each paradox as it is encountered. Below are some examples.

Eight New Leader Paradoxes:

1. Make changes, but don’t change anything. What the company often wants is changed outcomes – without having to increase investment or implement/adhere to new processes. A no-win situation until you build needed support for change.

2. Fix broken things, but do so without causing pain, discomfort or disruption. By definition, when something is broken, it means that something is not working. And there is a reason for that. And often, if you tackle the reason, you are likely to be tackling a person. Exercise caution and respect.

3. “Take us to the next level” without devaluing existing employees and practices. Best practice for the New Leader is to honor the team for their accomplishments, and then quickly focus them on evidence that suggests the need to develop “what’s next.” Worst practice: criticizing or wiping out the New Leader’s team, and then replacing them with people from a former employer.

4. Be heroic, but be just like the rest of us. Outsiders are often brought in to accomplish results that no one else has been able to deliver. Be sensitive to, and dispel, any notion that you are there to “save the day.” If the day truly needs to be saved, it first needs to be understood. Making an effort to understand those in your new world will lead to broader acceptance and support.

5. Have early impact, but don’t do anything until you completely understand us. Many New Leaders make the mistake of “transmitting” information to teams and colleagues. In fact, the best way to “prove yourself” is by “receiving” – demonstrating your desire to comprehend and appreciate the context you are entering. This is best done by asking good questions, and then truly listening and learning.

6. Identify the low-hanging fruit, but don’t pluck it. These obvious, seemingly easy-to-fix problems remain unharvested for a reason. If you spot a blatant issue, others are probably well aware of it. Let them tell you why it hasn’t been solved, whether it is important to address, what has been tried in the past, and when and how (and if) to take it on. And learn who has a vested interest in keeping things as they are, for whatever reason.

7. We like you because you worked at “Company XYZ” and we admire them – so bring their ability to drive results. Just don’t tell us what you did, or how you did it, while you worked there. Making an impact too quickly can alienate others and short-circuit New Leader change initiatives. Search for best practices first from inside the new company, and then extend broadly to other organizations. If you had a winning solution in your previous role, you could tee it up by saying, “I’m not sure if this applies here, but I am familiar with an approach that seemed to work well in other industries.” To sum it up, don’t talk about your former operation until you are well-accepted in your new role.

8. When we ask you what you think about us, we really don’t mean it, or only want to know the good things. This can be a classic trap for New Leaders, because they want to be seen as quickly “getting it,” while their colleagues want to be valued. Share the things you like and appreciate about the company and your team, and your excitement about future possibilities. To increase their comfort and trust, invite your team members to present a portfolio of their best work to you. Ask for others’ perspectives on your operation and its effectiveness – and when you are in an appropriate position to pass judgment, you’ll be seen as having done a fair and thorough search for information.

Every New Leader is likely to encounter different levels of contradictory expectations and circumstances, and the paradoxes and solutions offered above are just a starting point. The most important thing you can do to address an onboarding paradox is to identify potential expectation gaps, and seek advice from trusted colleagues. Resist the temptation to do too much too soon, and use specific strategies to ensure the success of your operation.
To learn more about onboarding best practices, follow our company page.


(Photo: ©Baloncici/

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Posted in Advice for Hiring Managers, Advice for Internal Consultants, Advice for New Leaders, Culture and OnBoarding, Driving New Leader Alignment, New Leader Paradox, OnBoarding as Risk Management.