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The 3 Biggest Mistakes Companies Make When Hiring Leaders

For every Alexander the Great and Queen Elizabeth, there’s dozens of other leaders who fell flat and whose achievements left nary a mark on history. Fast forward a couple hundred (or thousand) years and it turns out that good leaders are still hard to find. But unlike empires of the past, corporations these days have the luxury of ample self-assessment and data to better understand why it’s so difficult to hire great leadership. As it turns out, much of the blame lies on the companies themselves.

So when 50+% of senior-level hires are destined to fail within the first 18 months of employment, how do you ensure your newest executive doesn’t fall prey to this abysmal trend? Here are the 3 biggest mistakes companies make when it comes to hiring leaders.

One - Companies don’t invest in onboarding.

A report by McKinsey found that 75% of executives feel underprepared for their new role because of insufficient onboarding processes. Many companies simply hire a leader with proven experience at another company and incorrectly assume that the leader will simply know how to repeat their success in their new position. The data says otherwise. Even very experienced business leaders need help getting to know the organization and the nuances of their role. 

Companies need to think about what’s necessary to onboard senior-level hires for leadership success based on the unique needs of their organization. While this will look very different at each company, a few points remain true.

  • Don’t assume new leaders will forge connections with the team. Create those opportunities for connection for them. Whether it’s lunch, one-on-one meetings, or town hall sessions, creating a relationship building baseline from which leaders can build upon is important. And this should extend beyond just direct reports. Think about who the key stakeholders are within the organization. Who do they need to know in order to get things done?

  • Clearly outline the challenges of their role. Chances are, the interviewing team did this throughout the new hire’s interview process but you know the old saying about giving a presentation? Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em. It doesn’t hurt to point out the obstacles ahead for a new hire–especially as they begin to learn how to navigate the organization. Making the challenges known gives new leaders the opportunity to recognize what they’re up against, think strategically about how to tackle problems, and know who to go to for help.

  • Set clear and realistic expectations of success. This one might seem obvious but in many roles, goals are large and ambiguous. Try to distill down what this person will have achieved at the end of year 1 in the role in order to be considered successful even if it’s simply gaining trust and buy-in from the team (but be sure you have a way to measure this–like 360 performance reviews!).

  • Create an onboarding checklist that covers the cultural components of working at your company, the unique personalities on your team, the systems and processes they need to learn, and introductions to important internal and external stakeholders. Still lost? Don’t worry. We’ve got onboarding templates for every role.

Two - Companies don’t offer mentorship, coaching, and formal leadership training opportunities.

Coaching, mentorship, and formal training… they aren’t just for junior-level employees. An outside perspective has been proven to be immensely valuable for not only assessing new strategies and ways of innovating but also for learning how to be a great leader. Think about it: Does your company have a formal leadership training program? The answer is likely no. And you aren’t alone. Less than 5% of companies offer leadership training to all employees. 

In short, the chances that your organization has hired an executive with any formal leadership training is incredibly low. But the benefits of offering leadership training, executive coaching, or mentorship are high. In fact, employees who underwent leadership training, improved their performance by 20% according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. As if that wasn’t enough, leaders have been shown to be 1.5x less likely to leave their company in pursuit of career advancement when they receive quality coaching from their managers.

Three - Companies aren’t interviewing for the right skills in the first place.

Oh, the question of “Who?” When hiring a new leader within an organization, the stakes are raised even higher. But, in many companies, if you ask a dozen people what key attributes a leader must have in order to be successful in a role, you’ll get a dozen different answers. Drilling down what’s going to make a new hire successful is never easy, but there is some guidance to help make the selection process easier.

First, start with the goals you want your new leader to achieve. What metrics must they hit? What projects will they need to complete? How will they make people feel? Once you know that, you can begin to work backward to assess other critical questions, such as:

  • What are the biggest obstacles this person will have to overcome in pursuit of these goals? Break this down into internal factors (different departments, personalities, processes, etc.) and external factors (market factors, clients, etc.).

  • What attributes are necessary to be successful in overcoming these challenges?

  • What questions do we need to ask in order to properly identify whether this person possesses these attributes?

  • Do we need any other supporting documentation or assessments to confirm that our chosen candidate(s) has the proper skillset to be successful?

If you’re stuck on what to ask candidates to get to the root of who they really are and whether they’ve got the proven experience to crush it in the role they’re interviewing for, visit our behavioral interviewing question guide that has hundreds of options for great interview questions for every major professional competency.

Avoiding these 3 big mistakes certainly won’t guarantee the success of your new executive hire but it will make their success much more likely. Senior-level hires are high stakes hires for companies of all sizes, so why not give your leaders every single opportunity to thrive in their new role?

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