The Harvard Business Review published an article by Rose Hollister and Michael D. Watkins in its February 23, 2023 issue entitled “How to Onboard Your New Boss.” A closer look will reveal that most companies don’t do this at all, and many others do poorly at best.  Hollister and Watkins present a great framework for indoctrinating a person into a new role. While they distinguish between internal and external appointments, they are correct in that internal promotions have important learnings needing attention.

The following are two illustrations  of how onboarding could have been helpful. Upon being promoted from Manager to Director of a large consumer products company, my supervisor would occasionally request a meeting with me. His administrative assistant would call and say, “Mr. Meyer would like to meet with you.” The expectation was that I would meet with him immediately. More than once, I asked his assistant for the subject of the meeting,and she would respond that she didn’t know. Knowing that my supervisor reported directly to the CEO, I quickly tried to gather information connected to what I thought he might want to discuss. At one point, I asked my boss why he hadn’t told me the subject of the meeting so I could be better prepared. He informed me that when the CEO wants something from him, he does the same thing. By inference, he was saying, “If you are going to take my job someday, you’d better be prepared to “think on the fly”.” There are two dimensions that are assessed on the Burke Learning Agility Inventory, they are Speed and Flexibility. This is unknowingly what my boss was trying to prepare me for. There was no Onboarding for this job; it was trial by fire.

The next example of the consequences of not Onboarding was at this same company. For several reasons this company was far behind the competition technologically. In an effort to close the gap between where they were and where they needed to be, they used an Executive Search firm to identify and hire a Vice President of Technology from a Fortune 100 company. On paper, this recruit’s credentials were impeccable. He went to work to find solutions to the company’s deficits. About a year into his tenure, I ran into him in the company’s parking garage carrying a box containing his personal belongings. He had been  terminated. A deficiency in the company’s Informations Systems had allowed several senior executives to hide their own shortcomings for years. Had the Technology VP been successful in bringing the company into the information age, their incompetence would have come to light. It turns out that what the executives said they wanted and what they really wanted were two different things.

Hollister and Watkins cite research from the search firm Egon Zender, noting the following three reasons why new hires derail: 1) failure to understand how the organization “works”; 2) organ rejection (they don’t fit with the culture); 3) inability to form important relationships with coworkers. Hollister and Watkins describe what they see as fundamental types of learning needful to a new hire: 1) Technical Learning, 2) Cultural Learning, 3) Political Learning. Some people are more adept at figuring out these things than others. Columbia University’s Dr. Warner Burke would call these people more learning agile. I am going to describe his framework before connecting the two approaches.

Hoff, the co-author with Burke of Learning Agility-The Key to Leader Potential, defines learning agility as “finding yourself in a situation where you have never been before, not knowing what to do and figuring it out.” People who were more learning agile had nine different approaches or dimensions that enabled them to be more effective when they didn’t know what to do.  Those dimensions are:

  • Flexibility- Being open to new ideas and proposing new solutions.
  • Speed- Acting on ideas quickly so that those that aren’t working are discarded, and other possibilities are accelerated.
  • Experimenting- Trying out new behaviors to determine what is effective.
  • Performance Risk-Taking- Seeking new activities that provide opportunities to be challenged.
  • Interpersonal Risk-Taking- Discussing differences with others that lead to learning and change.
  • Collaborating- Finding ways to work with others that generate unique learning opportunities.
  • Information Gathering- Using various methods to remain current in one’s area of expertise.
  • Feedback Seeking- Asking others for feedback on one’s ideas and overall performance.
  • Reflecting- Slowing down to evaluate one’s own performance to be more effective.

Hollister and Watkins’ framework provides you with the “what” you need to learn coming into a new role.  It is a combination of Technical, Cultural, and Political information that will help you, the “newbie,” understand “how” the organization works, with whom you need a relationship, and how to fit into “this” culture.  Burke’s Nine Learning Agility dimensions will provide strategies to address Hollister and Watkins’ “what.”

Here is how you might apply these techniques to the two examples I used. My boss could have explained that the job demands at the Director level are higher than at the Manager Level. Success requires you to be able to think on your feet and be knowledgeable in a broad area of subjects. You need Speed and Flexibility. You are expected to have a point of view on a topic and state it (Interpersonal Risk-Taking). If you don’t know the answer to something, don’t make it up. Respond honestly that you don’t know, but with assurance that you will have an answer by “X.”

The Vice President of Technology did not communicate effectively in negotiating what he would need from the organization for success in accomplishing its goals. He needed access and a commitment from the CEO to address the issues he brought forward. Quite possibly he could have gotten these key essentials during the selection process. He needed to do his homework better to understand the issues in the organization. His research could have included gathering information from competitors while identifying weaknesses. This would be Information Gathering and Collaborating. He needed the company to have “skin in the game.”  Finally, he could have negotiated some kind of significant financial consequence that the organization would pay him if he didn’t achieve the objectives agreed to when he joined the organization. This would require Performance and Interpersonal Risk-Taking.

The costs of a new hire’s failure are significant. Some studies say it is at least three times the person’s salary. If you have a relocation involved, then the costs increase. Something that often doesn’t get recognized is the lost productivity of all affected by the person’s failure to Onboard the organization successfully. Adding the Burke Learning Agility dimensions to the Hollister and Watkins framework can go a long way to ensure your new hires are successful.

About the Author

David Hoff is the COO and EVP of Leadership Development for E.A.S.I-Consult®E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E.A.S.I-Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring advisement. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I-Consult, visit, email or call 800.922.EASI.