How can we prevent so many new executives failing in their work role? Could onboarding coaching hold the key, asks Vicky Lawton?


As specialists in headhunting senior executives and supporting them in excelling once they are in place, we know only too well just how important the first 100 days are to success or failure. Onboarding coaching ensures the executive gets off to the best possible start – for themselves and for the organisation.

It is estimated that around 40% of newly promoted executives ‘fail’ within 18 months, either by under-performing or by moving on, voluntarily or involuntarily ( At the same time, research by McKinsey (2018) suggests that three-quarters of new executives feel unprepared when they start their new role.

Given the enormous financial and emotional cost that failures represent – to individuals, organisations and other stakeholders – it’s in the best interest of all parties to redress the preparedness gap and help new executives meet performance expectations.

So it isn’t just forward-thinking companies, those operating in very competitive markets and those who have experienced poor assimilation in the past, that benefit from investing in onboarding coaching. Nor should such coaching be focused solely on the new appointee. It can be valuable to involve other key stakeholders who will ensure the new appointment is a success.

It’s also fairly common for senior executives to invest in their own coach during this period. And it’s not just executives who can benefit from a helping hand. In our experience, non-executive directors (NEDs) can too, especially first-time NEDs, even if they have an extensive track record in a similar business.

The first 100 days is often viewed as a crucial window of opportunity during which a new executive can establish credibility. In fact, it is a very short period in which to make your mark. Even if the promotion was internal, the newly appointed person will still often have to come to terms with a different political landscape and new relationships with peers and direct reports.

Make it work

Coaching interventions at this stage are essentially about gaining clarity, accelerating the learning curve, including by expecting the unexpected, and helping the new appointee get to grips with an unfamiliar culture.

Get clarity

What does success in the role look like? What is expected of the new incumbent and what are they expected to achieve? Once this is clear, the skills they need will also become apparent and so, too, any gaps in capability or other personal issues that need to be addressed.

Expect the unexpected

This can be a very intense or stressful period with a steep learning curve. Moreover, things don’t always go to plan. A newly appointed executive may find themselves dealing with legacy issues from a predecessor or may inherit a team that is far from ideal. There could be critical issues to resolve before they start to focus on the job itself. Speed is of the essence. As an executive coach, you can help them see the wood from the trees, prioritise effectively and ensure they don’t get knocked off course by anything unexpected.

Grasp office politics

Anyone starting in a new senior role, including NEDs, needs to size up the organisation and its people as quickly as possible. Spend some time with key employees at all levels across the different functions. This will help them gain valuable insights into the culture of the business and how it operates as well as cementing their credibility and commitment with the top team. Finding out who the key stakeholders are – both obviously and less so – is clearly critical.

Questions to consider include:

  • What do these stakeholders think about the new appointment?
  • Who was the previous incumbent and what sort of relationship did they have with their team?
  • Was anyone internally also considered for the role?

Listening not hearing

It can be all too easy to get caught up in the pace and excitement of a new role. But is the newly appointed executive really listening to what people are saying or are they just hearing what they want (or expect) to hear?

In this initial period, it’s particularly important to take a step back and listen, especially to key conversations. Are they remaining open-minded to what they are hearing, and developing an accurate picture of the organisation and its people?


Fatal flaws

Jumping in too quickly

Leaders are expected to deliver results more quickly than ever but striking the right balance between action and analysis is critical. It’s normal for someone new to their role to be enthusiastic, but it can be tempting to start making changes too soon.

While early wins are helpful in building credibility, reflection and careful analysis are more likely to win the day in the longer term.

Failing to get backing

In their enthusiasm to make a difference, new executives can forget to get buy-in and backing from key stakeholders. This is vital before trying to make any major changes.

Missing shifting goalposts

Senior executives are measured on their ability to resolve issues, set strategy, grow the business and achieve objectives. Having a personal success plan for a new role can do much to help ensure vital goals are achieved. As a coach, you can add enormous value by helping the executive craft and execute this plan, putting in place a sound platform for the longer-term delivery of the goals of their job descriptions.

This will ensure they are crystal clear about their targets and objectives but also help avoid them being blindsided if objectives change (as they often do).

Not ensuring proper alignment

If you are working with a new CEO, the relationship between that person and the board chair is critical. Every leadership changeover requires re-evaluation of this relationship.

Ultimately, the chair is accountable for a smooth CEO transition and sets the tone for the relationship with the rest of the board. Ensure both the chair and CEO have mutually agreed goals with clear expectations and a timeline for what has to be achieved.

  • Vicky Lawton is managing partner at Warren Partners