Preserving DE&I When Onboarding Diverse Executive Talent
DEIDiversityDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion AdvisoryExecutive Search
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October 28, 2020
3 min read
DEIDiversityDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion AdvisoryExecutive Search
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Organizations need to ensure they properly onboard new diverse executives properly so their different experience can impact the company.
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If your executive onboarding program does not support diversity, equity and inclusion, then this might be the point at which your DE&I initiatives start to struggle.

Executive onboarding in many organizations is poor at best. It is often the first occasion to disappoint the executive you have just convinced to take a risk and join your organization. It also helps set the scene for what type of leader the new executive will be in this role and in your organization.

Is your organization setting new executives up for success or are you applying a one-size-fits-all approach? Do the diverse executives you have attracted need different onboarding support to transition successfully and to maintain their diverse voice and viewpoint? (This applies to executives internally promoted as well).

Here is what happened to one senior executive in the oil and gas industry, according to their chief human resources officer: “We thought we had done really well—we had managed to recruit a top female executive from telco into a traditional oil and gas, male-dominated leadership team, a real win for us. However, she was left to her own devices for about 6 months. When we got back involved with her, the organization had beaten her into our way of thinking (oil and gas) and we were not getting any of the telco thinking and in fact we were getting very little of her female point of view.”

What went wrong?

Much of the early research into onboarding sits under the heading of “new executive assimilation.” Studies describe a successful outcome to executive transition as the shortened time frame for the executive to “become one of us.” The strength of the organization’s culture overrides the individuality and inventiveness of executives from different industries, experiences and backgrounds all in the name of onboarding. With a growing focus on diversity and equity, and the increasing understanding of the benefits of inclusion, it could be argued that the concept of new executive assimilation is dead. Why would we want executives to assimilate?

While this approach may have worked well for homogeneous companies, the approach is rather outdated for this increasingly diverse world. For organizations working so hard to attract diverse talent, what are they doing to support and retain them? Hiring diversity in your leadership group is significantly undermined if you don’t foster inclusivity.

Running an assimilation program for new executives (at the time when they are most vulnerable) runs counter to any diversity, equity and inclusion goals an organization has. There needs to be a clear shift from simply hiring diverse executives to creating an inclusive environment that brings the entire organization along in the onboarding process. These new executives should not have to assimilate to be successful. They must be able to keep their own voice, identity, and thinking in order to be a full contributor to the organization.

For executive onboarding in particular, there are opportunities to orient new diverse executives to the organization and vice versa. This requires a willingness and commitment of the executive team to adjust the group dynamic to accommodate new thinking and ways of being. The first half of 2020 has shown us how vital it is for organizations to be agile and innovative to meet the public and market demands. The best way to do this is to create an environment that allows diversity to thrive instead of being assimilated. Special attention needs to be paid to onboard both the new executive and the organization, sharing the burden of responsibility for the new executive’s success. Otherwise, your onboarding efforts will kill your DE&I dreams before they had a chance to materialize.

Back to the earlier example: the recruitment process was sound, a diverse talent pool was considered and an outstanding executive hired. However, the lack of a deliberate onboarding program undermined the solid recruitment process. Examples included early meetings where the executive was not supported in expressing differing views, other executives pushed their thinking on her by highlighting her lack of industry understanding. She was not protected and they we not encouraged to listen.

While this executive survived, the organization lost the potential benefit of her experience and perspective. I suspect that they have also put at risk her long-term success and tenure.

How your organization brings new executives “onboard” is fundamental for their success in that role and within your organization. Unfortunately, many large organizations have at best a very basic onboarding program for executives, one that regularly fails to meet the executive’s expectations. A tailored or bespoke component of an onboarding program is a great opportunity for organizations to both improve their onboarding process and meet the needs of the specific executive and their situation.

This is especially important if the executive does not look and feel like most of your other executives.

AUTHORS
Yen Ling Shek is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Leadership & Succession and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion practices. She is based in San Francisco.
Ty Wiggins is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Leadership & Succession practice and focuses on Executive Transition and Development work. He is based in Sydney.