It all starts at the time of selection and hiring. If we miss the opportunity to set expectations for feedback at the beginning, why should we be surprised when feedback feels more difficult and unexpected during the onboarding process?
Three Things to be Clear About
If you've done a good job of implementing an assessment-based selection process, you should have a clear picture of what you need and what the new hire has to offer. Your thoughtful interpretation of these data should yield a summary of candidate strengths and potential gaps. But this is of little practical benefit in the post-hiring phase (onboarding) if you have not processed it with the candidate at time of hire.
Not only should this interaction occur prior to and in parallel with discussion of the offer, it should be the basis for a final gut-check on fit. How is the candidate receiving and processing the feedback? Is she curious and does she see it as an opportunity to better deepen mutual understanding about expectations, norms, and culture? Does she indicate an appetite for and openness to feedback?
And what about the onboarding plan as a way of doing business? Have you thought this through, formulated a proposed (draft) approach for managing the new hire's startup? Is it anchored in a practical appreciation for vital interdependencies and key relationships? Is it clear from the plan that it is intended not as a mere individual orientation of new hire to company? It should be a roadmap for engagement that involves and benefits all!
The Predictable, the Unforeseen, and Feedback
Generally speaking, the predictable challenges are those that occupy our conscious field of awareness as possibilities, probabilities, or certainties. They are in the foreground. We we can plan for them, never as fully or adequately as we might expect, but they feel more manageable than the unforeseen. And it is when we silently conspire to withhold discussion of the unforeseen that things can go badly.
The unforeseen may include objective facts and circumstances we could only see from the inside, but also the subjective and inter-subjective aspects of people and relationships. No matter how much we strive to be objective in portraying the situation, the challenges, and ourselves, we have a tendency to project the more positive and rational aspects of our behavior and personalities. This is true for the candidate and for those doing the hiring.
Paradoxically, then, coming to grips with the unforeseen must be factored into the equation. There should be opportunities to share observations and impressions along the way with key stakeholders. Processing the technical and task-oriented discoveries will usually be the easier part of this process. Noticing and commenting upon experiences of frustration, disappointment, or tension will be more difficult, more laden with emotion, and more important to work through.
"Unlike fine wine, problems don't improve with age"
If relational dynamics and/or patterns of performance are problematic, and if responses to your early efforts to intervene prove unsuccessful, do not wait too long before bringing in some professional help. Failure to take timely action can deepen ruts of ineffective action, causing all to lose hope, sometimes prematurely and unnecessarily. Sometimes a bit of fresh and independent perspective can help get things unstuck rather quickly.
Indeed, one of the best reasons to engage an outside expert to assess the candidate in the selection process is because this same resource can help the candidate (feedback & coaching) and management (consultation on progress/issues). The expert participates with a background of understanding about the role, the candidate, the organization, and the fit and potential gaps. Therefore, he or she is available to provide timely help as needed.
Finally, it is very important to remember that when we hire an executive or senior manager, we are introducing change for and requiring adaptation from many. The new hire is a vital addition, but her success will be contingent upon the active engagement of peers, direct reports, upper management, and external stakeholders. Selection and onboarding must proceed with this larger goal of capability building in mind.