CEO transitions follow a general pattern; however, when the COVID-19 pandemic upended business operations everywhere, those onboarding processes went virtual.
2020 was a challenging and unique year for any organization planning a CEO transition. Even though the year started with an above average number1 of announced CEO successions in the United States, the overall rate for the year declined from 2019,2 in large part due to the global pandemic. While some CEOs delayed retirement and some boards paused long-term succession announcements to contend with the unpredictable crisis, many newly minted chief executives assumed their roles immediately before and in the early months of the pandemic’s outbreak. The harrowing crisis impacted new CEOs at large and small companies alike, including Sysco Corporation, IBM, Walt Disney Company and Match Group.
New CEOs always face an onslaught of competing priorities as they start their tenures—unifying new leadership teams, engaging their workforces, affirming their company’s vision and setting direction. Regardless of the circumstances, there are four overarching priorities for every new CEO early in their role:
In 2020, as global business tanked, this cohort of new CEOs faced their challenges from the confines of home offices and empty headquarters. The best-laid transition plans had to be reimagined. Pessimists saw virtual onboarding as an impossible task and lamented the impact of virtual work on team culture and collaboration. But some CEOs saw possibilities in improved digital tools and seized the opportunity to accelerate the digital transformation of their teams and cultures with new ways of connecting, engaging and working together through crisis. What distinguished the onboarding of the most successful new CEOs?
New Inputs, New Outputs
One hallmark of a successful CEO is their ability to “learn it all.” They must enjoy the discovery process and be open to new solutions. The virtual environment required new inputs to old equations, like the classic listening tour many CEOs take during early months of their tenure. Rather than jetting site to site, new CEOs during the pandemic had to create virtual listening tours to be seen and gather feedback from every corner of the organization. Many held frequent town hall sessions to field questions and share perspectives directly with employees. Leveraging new video and chat capabilities, these CEOs had an unprecedented opportunity to engage broadly and learn deeply from direct feedback and subsequent data analytics that revealed broad sentiment and themes.
New CEOs who leveraged these communication tools were able to show up as authentic, transparent leaders, building trust at a time of tremendous vulnerability for their organizations. Under new leadership, employees need and seek context more than anything else. Without context, rumours and misinformation can quickly spread, so increased enterprise communication became a staple for new CEOs seeking to drive connection and alignment with their talent. Organizational hunger for candor, transparency and connection directly and frequently with senior leadership made this a wild success for new CEOs, as engagement scores later reflected.
New Leader, New Team
Externally hired CEOs bring new perspective and capability to their organizations and are often challenged to quickly learn and establish new relationships and understanding in a compressed time frame. Internally promoted leaders often have an advantage in terms of early engagement and accessibility. They typically have been part of the top team and possess strong peer relationships. Usually, they have played a defining role in the strategic and operating norms and have deep insight to key talent and context. Their challenge is how to transition from peer to leader.
For both the internally and externally hired CEO, the work-at-home environment created difficult entry points for new CEOs. Typically, new leaders leverage a team offsite to set the tone and signal the transition to a new leader, team and era. During the pandemic, most new leaders were not able to physically convene and focus on deep team alignment. There was healthy skepticism around the ability to conduct an effective virtual onboarding process.
Would onboarding from home be effective for driving the empathy-filled conversations fundamental to deep personal connection or collaborating to align on team norms? Could new leaders and connected team members develop trust across video conferencing platforms? Would leaders be open to learning and leveraging online tools? Most of all, it was unrealistic to expect leadership team members to sit and engage in 6-8 hours of concurrent video conferences, especially when there was an accelerating pandemic. How would virtual onboarding work?
Onboarding Goes Virtual-First
Despite these concerns and challenges, successful CEOs forged ahead, prioritizing time for team formation and accelerating the virtual first leadership skills of their leadership teams. Here are some of the techniques and approaches they used.
Short and Iterative
To reduce the negative impact of long virtual meetings, virtual onboarding experiences were broken into a series of short sessions across weeks or even months. For maximum impact, sessions were facilitated by non-leadership team members, enabling each team member to focus on participating rather than logistics. The outputs were shared transparently, and feedback was used to frame future conversations, engaging the team in their collective onboarding experience.
Hopes and Fears
One team leveraged a “Hopes and Fears” group activity to spark a transparent conversation around the goals of their company. The session was intended to ensure all team members and new leaders had an opportunity to air concerns or aspirations, and to create an atmosphere of candor and connection. Using a virtual whiteboard, team members brainstormed their hopes for the company, the team and each other, along with their fears. The facilitator helped organize their comments into themes to produce insights, shared meaning and connection, and an archive of ideas to pursue in future conversations.
Getting to Know Each Other
Another key pillar of leadership team onboarding is to strengthen relationships. Usually, team members know each other, but often the team’s composition is impacted by external leaders, promotions and rotational moves. This was especially critical for CEOs transitioning during COVID-19, as the business and the crisis were the only focus for so many months—meaning the personal connection and focus was limited. A refresher was needed, and sessions that focused on the people side of teaming were incredibly powerful. The most successful approaches invited leaders to be vulnerable to strengthen team unity and build greater awareness around each leader’s style and preferences. For example, one team invited leaders to share a picture of themselves at their best and the to answer a few simple questions:
Despite some initial trepidation, leaders used the chat and virtual whiteboard functions to share positive feedback about each other during the dialogue. The emotional impact of that sharing was deep, personal and moving.
Superpower or Struggle?
New CEOs and their teams play an outsized role accelerating any desired culture shift. This requires understanding the behaviors that support the operating model and the language needed to create broader awareness. After reflecting on their aspirational culture, one team engaged in a light self-assessment of their current behaviors, rating each on a scale from “superpower” to “struggle.” Again, using virtual brainstorming, this exercise provided a clear, quick assessment of areas for focus and opened a dialogue about needed changes in team behaviors and skills.
Many teams took the opportunity to establish new norms and ways of working in a virtual environment, with a focus on communications, decision making and meetings. One team built a team manifesto describing their aspirations as a new team, and their commitments to one another around values, norms and behaviors. They used the manifesto not only to align on how the team should show up together, but also as a tool to drive personal accountability, a reference document for future meetings and team assessments.
To generate the manifesto, a facilitator can pose a series of questions, such as how the team will work together in meetings. Some comments will naturally be more foundational, like showing up prepared, and others will focus on tactical notions like sharing pre-reads a full 48 hours in advance of a meeting in which a decision needed to be facilitated.
To be successful, sessions in the virtual environment had to emphasize substance and agility as opposed to perfection. To everyone’s surprise, much more was capable and effective in this new virtual onboarding format.
The ultimate testament? At many organizations, leadership team members began asking their internal HR stakeholders to facilitate similar sessions their individual teams. Leadership team members were seeking to leverage their context and frameworks from the CEO onboarding sessions to drive broader alignment with their teams. This is powerful because it proved the virtual onboarding process was a constructive use of time and could become a valuable pilar of future processes for all organizations—especially those considering a permanent hybrid or work-from-home approach.
Virtual onboarding is not meant to be complicated. In fact, templates were created for self-facilitation of many of these sessions. According to many HR leaders, the creation of shared virtual learning experiences has proven crucial for middle management, as onboarding and bringing new team members into the fold during the pandemic has been one of the most complicated challenges for leaders. But why is this important for CEOs and even teams many levels down in the organization?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 69 percent of employees said they were more likely to stay with a company for three years if they experienced good onboarding.3 However, in the virtual environment it can be difficult to onboard new team members and form teams. For instance, building deep relationships with coworkers requires more concentrated effort, and there’s less incidental contact and onboarding support because everything requires scheduling and video conferences. Instead, consider a virtual onboarding format to accelerate high-performing team formation.
One of the most effective CEOs we have observed had a relentless and consistent approach to onboarding. Every time a new member joined her team, she hosted an offsite that focused only on the team’s culture, processes and norms. It was a powerful signal about the importance and expectations of the leadership team. As important as that may have been in in-person settings, the hybrid and virtual work world we now navigate makes it a doubly important skill for CEOs to master.
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