Never has it been more important to foster a high-trust leadership team. The workforce is still adapting in this time of change, and leaders are responsible for restoring a sense of stability.
The good news and the bad news are the same: Organizations are on the move. Executives have become recruiters, and they are trying to attract new talent to support unprecedented demands on their business. Many leaders are also recruiting their executive peers. Teams at the top of the organization are changing just as fast as anywhere else.
Considering the next career move isn’t limited to individual contributors. As an executive coach, I’ve noticed many leadership teams shifting to onboarding new leaders. The addition of any new personality to a core team is challenging. The culture and team dynamics of a leadership team must adjust around each new hire.
The good news is that a leadership team benefits from fresh perspectives and talent. The bad news: Teams don’t have a lot of time to gel. Friction, misalignment and lack of trust can usually be felt everywhere in the organization. Directors and middle managers often experience this most directly. However, people far from the center can experience a whiplash effect of a long-wagging tail. When competing priorities aren’t properly vetted or decided at the top, everyone else may feel the brunt of it.
When it comes to (quickly) forming a high-trust leadership team, it’s important to create a laser focus and expectations in two key areas: onboarding and transparency.
1. Develop a consistent onboarding practice.
Too often, companies who have developed world-class onboarding programs — only to allow executive hires to bypass the system. The rationale seems to be that executives need to “hit the ground running” or “don’t have the time” to sit through a few days of onboarding. However, their lack of participation almost always becomes a problem later.
Because of the demands placed on leaders, it can make sense to cut corners. However, their participation alongside everyone has a lot of visibility and is very much appreciated. Participation is most critical when it comes to the elements of our culture, such as service philosophy, or how to communicate as a team. Allowing an executive to bypass these trainings encourages them to default to past behaviors — or worse, to allow questionable team cultures of their past to infiltrate your team. Team dynamics are established by how we communicate with one another. In the past, when organizations placed a high value on positive and thorough communication, it was always painfully apparent when a leader communicated in “blurts.” An example: two or three-word emails with no consideration or emotional intelligence (EQ) like “What’s the status?” or “Please advise.”
Onboarding doesn’t end in the first week — or even after the first quarter. It’s an ongoing process of integrating someone into the larger culture and eventually getting them to own a portion of it. Many of the fast-moving chief executive officers I coach understandably want to hire someone and bring them up to speed in their first few weeks. The danger of this is to assume that onboarding has ended, and the new leader should magically understand “how we do things,” in addition to everything else expected of them.
Culture can be passed down in one-to-one conversations, with the founder or a chief executive. Also, culture is felt much more when there’s a sense that “we’re all in this together.” The other new hires don’t deserve the message that onboarding can be fast-tracked. Your new executive deserves the proper context and foundation to succeed.
Consider laying out onboarding milestones for leaders that build upon existing programs. Set clear metrics that you both will recognize once they’ve been fully integrated into the new organization.
2. Encourage and practice transparency in all interactions.
Here’s a common scenario: A new executive is hired, and they report directly to the CEO. The excitement of recruiting them wears off quickly. The demands of the team require fast, decisive action. Or maybe their input is needed on an upcoming pitch with a large client. The challenge is that, because they are still new, the CEO isn’t quite sure how to read “where they stand.” Their body language and tone are hard to read, and they seem resistant to what’s being asked of them.
Factor in a new reliance on virtual meetings, and this becomes even more problematic.
When we aren’t clear where someone is coming from in their communication, we fill the gaps with missing information. The negativity bias takes over, and last week’s rock star is on the hot seat. In the absence of verbalized, clear intentions, leaders make up interpretations of what motivates them, whether they have the experience we need or if they can be trusted.
According to a Black Diamond Leadership article, neuroscientist Evan Gordon found that our brains are unconsciously scanning the environment five times per second, asking “Is it safe here, or is it dangerous?
Conscious leadership practices such as check-ins — which encourage all leaders to share what they’re bringing into meetings — help us remember that we all have things competing for our attention. Check-ins also help us understand what drives each other’s behavior over time. There are patterns that show up. Familiarity and consistency foster trust.
It’s also important for leaders to reinforce and acknowledge authentic communication on their teams. When you appreciate a team members saying the bold thing, or demonstrating high EQ, you should thank them in front of their peers. It’s not about the specific thing they said. It’s about their willingness to say it.
By bringing more intentionality and consistency to onboarding new leaders, and encouraging them to communicate with transparency, they move beyond the relentless pressures that naturally erode trust over time. Values are strengthened around service and connection. Whenever someone new is added, there’s no better opportunity to establish a strong foundation of trust. That foundation is solidified by paying extra attention to onboarding and transparent communication.