• CALL US +61 29950 2000

Executive onboarding: when failure is not an option


The Art of Leadership

It was an absolute delight to see our last blog – on the organisational impact of the banking Royal Commission – featured in the Australian Financial Review. In this month’s issue, we take an entirely different angle on the subject. With the fall out leading to the premature end to the tenure of a number of high-profile leaders, we ask: How do organisations ensure that a C-Suite executive is set up for success?

We explore the critical time during their onboarding, when not only is success imperative for the individual, but for the teams and employees under them. We introduce the concept of the trusted leadership advisor as a counsel and mentor to a new C-Suite hire, sharing their experience and wisdom especially during high-stakes situations.  Harvard Business Review concurs that CEOs Need Mentors Too, and provide the sounding board required.  A trusted leadership advisor can empower an executive to share vulnerabilities and fears enabling the best foundation for success, because as the saying goes, ‘it’s lonely at the top’.

This month, we are offering again our popular Executive Presence and Impact workshop with ex-NIDA director Peter Kingston in Sydney. If this is a need for you or members of your team, get in quickly as we have almost sold out. And remember that if you would like your whole team to do the workshop, we can also offer it in an ‘inhouse’ basis.

Listen to Peter as he outlines some of the details and themes discussed during the workshop.

We are also happy to announce that registrations for the Melbourne Perspectives on Leadership for Women in September and October are now open.

Virginia Mansell


Executive onboarding: when failure is not an option

Do you remember your first day of school? Do you recall the unfamiliar knot in your stomach of apprehension and anxiety, not knowing if you’d be able to find your classroom, or make new friends?

Turn the clock forward a few decades, and starting a new job—even if you’re a battle-hardened executive—can feel just as daunting.

Whilst as children our nerves were probably etched on our faces, as adults we’ve learned to conceal our vulnerability behind a mask of confidence. Let’s face it, anything else would be ‘career-limiting’, wouldn’t it?

But therein lies a huge problem.

In this scenario, what’s being hidden from an organisation isn’t just a leader’s true feelings of uncertainty, but the significant possibility that he or she might fail.  In fact, 50% of executives leave within the first 18 months of taking on a new position, with significant cost to the organisation.

The good news is that there is an obvious solution. Obvious even to a six-year-old. On his first day at primary school, my son was introduced to a ‘buddy’.  Isabella was in Grade 6, knew her way around the school, and her job was to help ensure he didn’t feel lost (or get lost) during that first year. She became his friend and, as the famous children’s character  Christopher Robin from the Winnie the Pooh books once said, “Friendship is a comforting thing to have.” Designed to integrate preps into the school system, and create confident and successful students, that buddy system worked.

New research is suggesting that senior executives can benefit from a similar type of support.  The corporate playground is fast-paced, complex, stressful and uncertain. You might think you’ve learned all the rules, but there will always be new obstacles (think artificial intelligence or digital transformation) that could trip you up.

In 2017, Karol M Wasylyshyn writing in the Consulting Psychology Journal: practice and Research  (From Here to Certainty: Becoming CEO and How a Trusted Leadership Advisor (TLA) Helped the Client Get There) 69:1,  p. 1-25), created the concept of the Trusted Leadership Advisor (TLA): “It requires a highly trained, expert, senior executive coach and mentor who possesses commensurate corporate experience to work with C-Suite executives, to enable them to meet and exceed their personal and professional objectives in the context of their organisation’s goals.”

This makes even more sense when you think about C-Suite hires. With Wasylyshyn’s TLA to support their integration, that large number of talented and experienced executives who flounder or walk away from their new playground within the first 18 months could be reduced.

For external hires stepping up to their first CEO or Executive Teamrole, the new playground is an even tougher place to survive. It’s not just the new environment with new games and new rules they need to learn. They’re also suddenly playing a bigger and more visible role, without the support of the team they’re used to playing with. Unsure who to trust and rely on, and under pressure to build credibility and score a few quick wins, they can feel lonely, isolated and unsupported very quickly.

In a global online survey, Egon Zehnder heard from nearly 600 VP-level executives who had been hired into new roles over the previous three years. Less than a third felt they’d received meaningful support through their transition, while 80% of the minority that did (about 150 executives) believed that support had made a major difference to their early impact in the role.

Enter Wasylyshyn’s TLA , aka the C-Suite Buddy. As a senior business leader, they’ve dealt first-hand with the complexities of the C-Suite, and also understand how global or local relocations impact professional and personal support networks.

In a relationship bound by confidentiality, they’re an experienced sounding board in a safe environment.  They create a space for the senior executive to test ideas and strategies, to confront fears, challenges and behaviours, and to ask questions.  As one new-to-CEO confided to me: “It’s a relief to have someone to talk to. And those questions about how to work with my Board – until now I didn’t know who to ask.”

The TLA can also support communication around time-poor, stressed executives and their colleagues. One recently hired executive I worked with was under pressure to deliver against stretch KPIs in a tough market. Five months in, she felt frustrated, unsupported and exhausted. When I checked in with her manager, he praised her as “A breath of fresh air,” and “Absolutely the best hiring decision I’ve made in a long time.  Everybody says good things to me about her”. Unfortunately, his schedule was so frantic he’d cancelled their last two scheduled meetings and hadn’t mentioned any of this to her, until, his TLA pointed out this misstep to him. Their subsequent call had many positive outcomes – he broadened her internal network, connecting her to two colleagues important to her role, and (unbeknownst to him) she cancelled a lunch with her previous employer who was keen to re-employ her.

Trusted Leadership Advisors bring broad-ranging and senior level experience from their executive and non-executives careers, and yes – there is a cost involved in working with them.  But as one global HRD summed it up: “We invest huge amounts of time and money to bring a senior leader in, and then we let them fail. Everyone’s busy and we assume they’re smart enough to work things out from day one. This approach is really an insurance policy. Given the expense of the hiring process, and the higher cost of failure, it’s worth the investment.”


About the Author: Karen Spinley is the Victorian State Director of Stephenson Mansell Group (SMG). She has over 25 years of experience as a senior executive, including as a Global Managing Partner for the executive search firm, Heidrick and Struggles. She now specialises in coaching and onboarding senior executives, and provides leadership for SMG’s Melbourne-based team. Born in Canada and educated in the UK, Karen is considered a global thought-leader in her field. 

Stephenson Mansell Group’s panel of Trusted Leadership Advisors, coaches and mentors work with more than 300 senior executives each year across Australia and the Asia Pacific Region.   


What’s On

Executive Presence and Impact Workshop with Peter Kingston, Specialist Communications Coach

Workshop on next week in Sydney! Only one place remaining!

Make the most of this opportunity to experience an immediate impact on your presence, and deliver with improved confidence; understand how to quickly connect with audiences; and learn the secret to speaking less and saying more.

Click here to register.

“Peter was amazing – having such a talented, witty, charismatic facilitator made this workshop educational and enjoyable. I was gently guided out of my comfort zone”.

Have you been flagged as a potential high performing female leader?

Melbourne registrations have now opened for our Perspectives on Leadership for Women Program.

Designed to help female senior leaders to align who they are with how they lead, this program has a practical and hands-on approach and focuses on personal presence and communication; resilience; change and complexity; and finding your mentors and sponsors.

Melbourne – Perspectives on Leadership for Women – 5 September & 10 October 2018

Sydney – Perspectives on Leadership for Women – 19 October & 16 November 2018

Brisbane – Perspectives on Leadership for Women –   26 October & 30 November


What’s Trending in Leadership

Onboarding a new executive may not always happen when it’s ’business as usual’. Given the profound impact of the Royal Commission on some financial services organisations, how do you ensure success for your new hires when they join at a crisis point?

George Bradt outlines, via Xerox’s new CEO John Visentin, what he sees as critical in ensuring effective executive onboarding when landing in the hot seat.

In the Harvard Business Review article, ‘Onboarding Isn’t Enough,’ Byford, Watkins, and Triantogiannis share five ‘integration’ tasks that are required for success by new C-Suite hires.

Alongside C-Suite roles, the process of onboarding new directors is imperative to ensure a company’s vision, culture and strategy is brought to fruition.  SpencerStuart spoke with four senior executives with significant board experience to examine the most successful approaches to bringing on new directors.


Meet our Team

This month in ‘Meet our Team’ … Meet Melbourne-based mentor Philippe Etienne.

Tell me a little about the industries and/or areas you specialise in?

I spent most of my working career with ICI Australia which became Orica in 2009. During that time, I worked across many industries including plastics, water treatment, coatings and adhesives but the main sector of activity was mining where I held a number of roles in the international mining explosives space. I then had a fascinating role leading the resurrection of an Australian business that had been embroiled in a bribery and corruption scandal.

Tell me how you first became involved in the mentoring space?

During my executive years, I always saw the value in spending time with people who were seeking assistance in improving their performance or making decisions about how to address some issue. Over those years, people in the company would approach me to be their mentor and I was always happy to do so but I’m not at all sure I knew exactly what I was doing. Later on I attended a particularly impactful leadership development program run by the company that gave me a huge ‘ah ha!’ moment about my own leadership style and the difference between pace-setting and coaching/mentoring and this only redoubled my interest in being a useful mentor to others. It was only in 2014 when I was approached by the CEO of a Melbourne-based firm to be his mentor that I undertook  my first external mentoring role.

What has surprised you most about working as a mentor?

I have been a bit surprised by how often I encounter similar issues and challenges being raised by the people I work with despite their different roles, industries and career stages.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about starting a mentoring program with you?

I would most likely not tell them much. I would ask them to reflect on what it is they want to achieve, what alternative ways they could get that and I would try to help them understand what a program can and cannot achieve. I recently met with someone who wanted me to mentor them but through our discussion it became apparent that what they were really looking for was technical advice on a particular aspect of their new role. I thought there was a better way for them to meet their needs than via mentoring.

Is there any advice you would give to someone who is progressing their career towards a key leadership role?

The advice I have given people most frequently revolves around authenticity both in terms of resisting the pressure to pretend to have  all the answers and also in devoting lots of time to explaining your business agenda (it has always surprised me how many times you need to re-tell the story before it has really been communicated). One of the key themes coming out of a recent Davos meeting was about leaders moving from those who have the best answers to those who could ask the best questions. I like that a lot. 

Did you have any key mentors or people who deeply influenced who you are, what you believe in and what you’re committed to in your work and life?  Tell me about them.

Yes, over some 20 years I worked on and off with the same coach. She is based in Boston so it was a phone and video conferencing relationship most of the time but I have many stories of the career-changing impacts she had on me. When I think about being a mentor, it is my experiences with her that sets my framework.

As you know we are always growing and learning. Is there any one thing you would like to take the time to learn more about?

There is no one thing because I’m always finding something new to get interested in. I would love to learn to speak Italian and will do that one day

What are some of your passions outside of the office?

I am a serial hobbyist. I love competing in motorsport where I navigate in tarmac rally events with a long-term friend and also participate in track days, I am very interested in fine wine and regularly participate in blind tasting lunches. Photography and carpentry get some attention too.

What might someone be surprised to know about you?

Not sure. I have my pilot’s licence and I have a black belt in Taekwondo.

Where will we find you on your days off?

We are lucky enough to have a beach house on the Mornington peninsula and we love spending time down there when my younger son’s sporting commitments allow it. There is something incredibly relaxing and cathartic about sitting on the deck looking out at the ocean. If I am not there, I am probably doing some home handyman activity around the house.

My greatest inspiration is

My family. My decisions and focus are always based on the needs and best interests of my wife and two boys.


Beating Burnout Part 2

Beating Burnout Part 2

Exactly a year since social distancing rules came into effect, we present Part Two of the model that helps explain why the emotional rollercoaster ride that we have been on has left our tanks empty -- and how to recover.

Putting Burnout in the Crosshairs

Putting Burnout in the Crosshairs

To help our clients take a more holistic approach to burnout, we developed a ‘Diagnostic Crosshairs’ model which we showcase in this month's insights article

Four Steps to Recharging Your Energy

Four Steps to Recharging Your Energy

The Art of Leadership Newsletter The global pandemic has been a test of leadership like never before: what we have been observing is that so...