My family is hosting an exchange student from Australia next week and we’re really excited to welcome Ella to our home. While we may speak the same language (sort of), our suburban American life is worlds apart from her life in a small town in Northeastern Australia. It has been fun planning how we will introduce her to New York City and the American culture.

As I thought about the experience of our exchange student immersing herself in a foreign culture, it reminded me of some of my coaching clients who have stepped into new organizations which felt to them like foreign cultures. Just as we are planning for Ella’s arrival into American culture, it’s critical that new leaders are prepared to enter the culture of new organizations.

For successful onboarding of leaders, take these steps:

  • Adopt a beginner’s mind – When we first agreed to host an exchange student, we thought about what it is like to live in our house and be with our family from an outsider’s perspective. Step into the shoes of your new executive and see the world through their eyes. What questions will they have? What initial impressions will they have? What will they see and hear? Anticipating as much as you can will help you to best support him or her.
  • Ask – We received a questionnaire that Ella completed with information about who she is, what she likes to do, what her family life is life, etc. We had a video call where we got to ask her questions and she asked us questions. Your new executive will likely be proactive in asking questions. Nevertheless, engage them in conversation before they arrive to learn what questions they will have and what you can do to help make their transition easy and satisfying. Consider sending a questionnaire and possibly even ask their new team what questions they have for their new leader.
  • Smooth the waters – It’s surprising to me how little is done to ease the transition for many new leaders, especially those coming from outside of the organization. Onboarding is much more than providing a big briefing binder and giving the new leader a tour of the facility while meeting dozens of people at a time. Prepare for their arrival and make the transition as obstacle-free as possible. If there are unaddressed issues or problems, don’t sweep them under the rug.
  • Be available – Next week I have blocked off time to spend with Ella and to be home at the end of the school day. Lack of availability is another common mistake in onboarding. New leaders are left to fend for themselves, figure out the written and unwritten rules, and understand the lay of the land. Make yourself available in the early stages of their transition or assign a “peer buddy” who can help them navigate the organization.
  • Provide support – I enjoy coaching new leaders. It’s rewarding and challenging to offer coaching support to a leader stepping up to a higher level role or stepping into a new environment. Don’t leave it to chance. Offer individual support and development, such as executive coaching, to increase the chances of a successful leadership transition.
  • Ask again – After a few weeks, check in with your new leader and find out how they are doing. Have an in-depth conversation about their initial impressions, their early successes, obstacles they see, challenges they are having. As a leader, you should know what the first impressions are of your organization. There should be no surprises about the experience new employees have upon joining your organization. And there should be no surprises about what is happening for the new leader.

Preparing for Ella’s arrival has been exciting and a little worrisome too. We want to ensure that she has a great experience here, feels comfortable and safe, and leaves with a positive impression of New York and the US. The same is true for new leaders in your organization – that they have a great experience, feel at ease, and have an overall positive impression. Preparing your new leader as if they are entering a foreign country will help to ensure they receive the necessary information, guidance, and support to navigate your organization, understand the culture, and adjust accordingly.

What steps have you taken to ensure a smooth transition for new leaders in your organization?
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