Onboarding vs.Waterboarding: How Not to Drown at the Outset


‘Onboarding? More like waterboarding,’ said a friend when I asked if his new company was onboarding him at all. I later met up with someone else who said the new company’s onboarding strategy was to go around the office and introduce the COO, CMO, CIO (who essentially said ‘don’t bother me if you have questions, go to global HQ’.) and that was it—and a fairly senior level hire.

Surprising as that may seem in the day of the ‘strategic hire’ and ‘war for talent’, the best way to onboard – as is true in life- is to do it yourself if you want it done well.

A new job is fraught with expectations by both the new hire and hiring company. The onboarding process should allow a new person to move into the new role confidently, smoothly and realistically in the first few months.

As is stands, onboarding still runs the gamut, from fairly useless (anyone remember ‘orientation’?) to helpful,empowering and secure. However, most are still subpar. The typical rejoinder to a new hire is, ‘Now that you’re here, you’ll figure it out. You’ve been around, and are a smart operator—and we definitely do not want it done the way it was before. Over to you, and you’ll be fine.’

I’m over-dramatising to make a point. Some bosses claim to be far too busy, and travel too often to have more than a couple of meetings with their new hire in the first few weeks or even months So let me repeat;  it is incumbent on the new hire to do his or her own on boarding, which is preferable, in fact.

Once inside a new company, your time is best spent understanding the rhythm and pace, the culture and nuances, reading the room, building alliances, and learning precedence. It is NOT rolling your sleeves up and ‘getting into the job’. Certainly not if you’re at a senior level.

No one can succeed—no matter how smart and enthusiastic—if they are not liked or respected in a new company. No one. They will either be pushed out, or leave in a huff, muttering about what a difficult place it was to get anything done.

Here then are some onboarding ideas for senior executives:


  • Do learn how to communicate with peers and senior management while developing your own style of leadership within your new surroundings
  • Do know how to deal with the less visible rivals and predecessors; accept life as it is, not as you wish it to be
  • Do impart confidence and knowledge to others close by, as often as possible
  • Do pace yourself and don’t be seen as a worker bee, always at the office
  • Do take time to determine your predecessor’s legacy, good or bad; both are necessary in order to do your job.


  • Don’t spend an inordinate amount of time on the job function. However, do spend plenty of time developing key relationships–internal, external, up, down and sidewways
  • Don’t take too long to get your bearings straight—the honeymoon gets shorter and shorter
  • Don’t accept hazy expectations from top management at the start—get clarity so you are all clear on agreed measurements
  • Don’t accept too many tasks at once—that’s being a drone, not achievable and setting yourself up to burn out quickly. Again, you are not judged by how hard you work, not by how much you help everyone, but whether you have credibility, impact, and are respected properly within the organisation. Use your on boarding time wisely, not foolishly
  • Don’t try to go it alone, and don’t ignore resources close by

Onboarding is serious stuff, and management needs to better understand that. But until such time, DIY is the best recourse.

If you can’t figure out the job, you’re either in over your head, jumped too fast, or in a bad cultural fit — or all of the above. It happens. If so, get help to see how to salvage it, as it can often be remedied.

Many executives ironically think what succeeded at the last place will work at the new place. ‘Tain’t necessarily so.. And if you’re experienced, you’ll know if you’ve made a mistake. Always better to leave quickly than tough it out, hoping things will change.

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