What HR leaders need to know about onboarding new business leaders: Lessons from GE and Cisco

A company that’s in the scale-up phase adds new leaders to handle different functions and more often than not, they are from another organization, they are from a different function and culture and in some cases, some of the early employees are promoted to (first-time) leadership positions as the company grows. Bringing in new leaders into your organization and ensuring that you do everything in order for them to achieve their business goals and take the company to the next level is both an opportunity and a huge challenge.

I’m Nathan Sheranian, Senior Director of HR at Freshworks and in this session titled “Setting up a New Leader for Success”, I’ll walk you through what an HR leader/BP, short for business partner (the term varies from organization to organization), should do to help new business leaders hit the ground running in their executive roles. I’ll talk about some of my experiences of having worked with business leaders at Cisco and GE Power and GE Healthcare, prior to my stint at Freshworks. 

You can watch the entire session here:

Form solid partnership with the new leaders

The popular view is that HR leaders are mainly focused on hiring people and bringing them in through the door, which is, of course, critical to the growth of any organization. But, a lot of leaders, especially in companies that are in the startup to the scale-up phase, have not had the exposure to the idea of an HR BP and their role in an organization.

In this scale-up phase, the HR not only brings people in the door but also connects the dots with the business strategy and the people strategy and links those together. And that becomes a new and separate function right around the time of startup to scale up. Instead of growing the team just by chance or by the collection of talent that you have, you begin to be more thoughtful and strategic about the organization as it develops. And that’s really where the magic of HR business partnership comes in.

Therefore, an HR BP understands where to source talent from, the compensation practices, the value proposition that the talent would expect from the sector, career growth in that sector as well as training requirements or more broadly, talent development needs.

Earn credibility and influence the new leader: You need to learn the business and you need to make connections and get insights that won’t be readily available to create a partnership with the new leader. In other words, one of my mentors earlier in my career had explained the role of HR BP in this way and it has really stuck with me. HR BP are business leaders, full stop, whose role is HR.

It’s almost like describing you’re on a football team. What do you do? I’m on the football team. What position do you play? I play the goalie. And that’s the way that I view my role and it has served me well in my career, which is to view myself as a business leader, whose role is HR.

This kind of a viewpoint has brought a tremendous amount of credibility to my role because I take time to learn the business. I understand the financials and I make those connections between what the business is trying to accomplish and how that ties into the people strategy. Often in this phase of startup to scale-up, the HR function gets limited to talent acquisition.

Solve a pressing issue immediately: One of the ways to build your credibility and influence with the new leader is to solve some pressing issue of theirs right away, which may not be strategic or overly complex.

Sometime ago, I was paired with a leader at a brand new business unit. We both were brand new and we had to make some hard decisions about the organization. We had this challenge of putting different pieces of different parts of the business together. It was a hard sort of crucible to form a friendship and a partnership but we were able to solve some complex issues right off the bat that set this leader up to fly down the future.

So, my main message for HR leaders in this phase is to solve some pressing issues right away, though you may be tempted to think of some long-term, strategic plans. This goes a long way in building credibility to your function.

Add incremental value for the leader: Yes, the HR needs to keep the lights on and have the nuts and bolts in place such as making sure you have enough people, that you’re retaining, people you hire and the other things that you normally associate with a human resource role. Beyond that, there is one question that I hold myself and my team accountable for, which is, “What is the incremental value that I can bring to the table for this leader or for this organization?”.

It could be the way you ask questions, the way that we understand the unique nature of the talent in our organization or some unique industry insight that we just happen to know – a way to challenge yourself and add incremental value beyond just checking all the boxes in your role.

Help the new leaders understand the system

One of the popular books by Marshall Goldsmith, a common leadership thinker, is ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’. That’s a powerful learning that I’ve leaned on for a lot of my career in helping new leaders get assimilated into their new roles. Usually, a new leader has been hired because they have a proven track record of success in some shape or form.

The new leader may be an outside industry leader, they could have been successful as the head of another function and now, moving to be at the helm of a new function or they could be going from an individual contributor type role into a big management position. The learnings from their previous roles don’t necessarily cleanly translate from one context to another. As an HR BP, your role is to help them understand the new context and how work gets done in the new organization. 

Connect the new leader with key players: This sounds pretty obvious – to connect the new leader with the key players in the organizational chart. However, there’s also a hidden organizational chart, which is how work actually gets done in a company. This may not be so obvious in the actual organizational chart and knowing the historical context is critical to your role as an HR BP.

You should be able help the new leader make connections with the people who will unlock their ability to drive their agenda forward to make an impact in the organization. For example, someone in a cross-functional team may have served a particular customer segment and their support may be important to help the new leader in their new mandate.

Help the new leader learn to execute in the new context: What worked as an individual contributor may not work as you’re beginning to guide a team or a team of teams. We see this a lot in certain functions such as engineering. Having worked with a lot of engineers in my career, I can tell you that one of the common things you’ll see in a company that’s in the scale-up phase, is that some engineers are selected to become engineer leaders because they’ve got brilliant technical minds.

Such leaders are really good at things such as product design, systems thinking and are innovative in terms of how they approach solutions to problems. This is what makes them great engineers but these aren’t necessarily the same things that make them good people leaders.

The role of an HR BP is to help the leader shape and change their thinking in terms of how they show up and do their roles. One of the biggest challenges new leaders face in this mode of growing into a bigger role is the concept of delegation. Many leaders got to where they are today because they’re very good at controlling the details of the outcomes. When you’re at this inflection point of going from startup to scale up, you can’t go into that level of details.

This is where the HR BP should step in to help shape/guide and craft this leader’s approach to leading the organization so that they can delegate, think strategically and begin to grow the bench of leaders they have in their teams.

Offer unique insights to the new leader in the context of their new team: You may or may not have institutional knowledge to offer to the new leader. This is especially challenging if you both are new to the organization. So, how do you understand what’s going on in the organization? By listening. Though it sounds basic, it works like magic.

With all the love and admiration I have in my heart for all the leaders I’ve worked with, as a general rule, I’ve found that leaders have a tendency to live in an ivory tower. And what I mean by that is it’s fun to strategize on a whiteboard, bring your management team together and set up OKRs. But quite often, you find that leaders are a little blind or a little deaf to what’s happening in the organization at the ground level.

So, it’s important for a leader taking up a new role in a new context to be present and engage with people in small groups. The new leader could have a roundtable or a fireside chat with no particular agenda and they could lead with questions. 

The most powerful leaders I’ve ever worked with in my career are those that understand the power of listening to employees at all levels in the organization.

Your role as an HR BP is to facilitate interactions between the new leader and others in the organization, to help them listen, ask good questions and then, listen some more. You need to ensure that leaders understand what’s going on in the organization (such as product development, sales and engaging with customers) so that they can make strategic changes to help those who are growing the business.

In my very first role as an HR professional, I worked in the technology division at GE. I was working with an engineering leader who was in charge of a segment of the R&D department. GE had this established process called ‘New Manager Assimilation’. As part of the program, I took the team members through a process where they had to share their thoughts on what aspects/processes should be introduced, which ones should be continued and which ones should be stopped.

I had a readout with the leader followed by a rich conversation with him. I felt the team was set up to fly high as there was alignment. But, what happened then was that the business unit was reorganized and a new leader was called to head the team. I didn’t subject the team to a brand new manager assimilation but as an HR BP, I had a wealth of insights regarding the concerns of the team and I was able to help the new leader connect the dots, which he may never have seen otherwise.

Ensure the new leaders are asking the right questions

It’s not enough to just get into a room and chat but what really unlocks great insights are great questions. The benchmarks and guideposts that I use when I’m helping a new leader in a new environment are:

  • How well does this leader ask questions and listens? 
  • In a team meeting, how much is the leader talking versus listening? 
  • And then you ask yourself the question – How can I enable him or her to ask the best questions?

In one of my previous stints, I worked with a new leader in a new context and one of the things he struggled with was organizational communication. He was hesitant to send out newsletters and had infrequent all-hands meetings. There was a perception that he was a bit disconnected from reality.

So, I approached the leader and gave him some good suggestions as to what this leader should do but it was going nowhere. I knew that I had to revisit it and somehow, address it. It so happened that there was some really great communication that came to my inbox which had the company’s business strategy and key takeaways. All I did was forward it to the new leader without any comment. And, two weeks later, we had our own communication strategy around this.

If you were to ask this leader today what prompted him to the new kind of behavior and communication, he probably would say he doesn’t know and that he just did it. But at the end of it all, some influence is built by keeping an eye on what’s important for the organization and guiding the leader accordingly.

The HR is a support function and it’s okay to be that because the goal is business success. 

Credit is ultimately irrelevant and for some HR people, understanding the role of a support function can be a bit challenging.

We’re not the ones that are in the revenue right? We’re not the ones that get the patents on the engineering side, we don’t come up with intellectual property but we are really instrumental in helping guide and shape the organization from the background.

Another way in which you can support the new leader is to help them gain first-hand experience with the organization. It’s not just enough to have round table or team meetings to understand what’s going on but the new leader needs to spend time in the setting in which their team members are functioning.

In a software environment, the leader could join a scrum for a couple of sprints. In the services sector, they could go on a ride with a service technician to understand what it looks like to face a disgruntled customer. If the leader is heading a sales function, it could mean joining some sales calls. You should help the leader realize it’s important to gain first-hand experience that shapes so much of how a leader shows up.

Also, these are the types of things that really matter to the team members. It helps unlock their trust in the leader because it shows that they care and are invested in optimizing the organization, not only from a strategy point of view but also from a practical, feet-on-the-ground approach.

How to help leaders ask calibrated questions

Help the new leader focus on ‘what’ and ‘how’ and avoid ‘why’: As an HR leader, if you’re thinking of putting together a round table or a fireside discussion while working with the new leader, how can you prepare effectively for that? You could go into a session and just say what’s going on and just have a free-flowing, open-ended dialogue that could seem a little bit rudderless. 

Or you could take up a specific sort of an interrogative approach such as the Five Whys methodology (repeating the question ‘why’ five times to get to the root of the problem). That’s good to some extent but for some reason, in my experience, the ‘why’ questions end up having an attachment of some sort of judgment behind it.

When you think about it, the question ‘why’, especially the way it’s asked, can be perceived as judgment by the person on the receiving end (who is responsible for a particular task). 

A better question would be: what’s happening and how does it happen. This takes the tinge of judgment from the question and lessens the effect of creating a defensive wall by the other person.

Nobody likes to be criticized even if they’re in the wrong. In Dale Carnegie’s book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, he says, “Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s previous pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.”

Help the new leader focus on the system and not the individual: If something is not working right, don’t default the answer to the person but to the systems in the context. That leads to a much more rich and productive dialogue on process improvement because I’m a firm believer that people operate in the systems that they’re involved in. Some people may have shaped those systems unwittingly. Maybe they’re not optimized for it. Other people may have inherited a poor system and they’re doing the best that they can.

In one of my previous roles, I was the HR director for a high-tech manufacturing facility of GE. In the event of a defective part generated, there are two approaches to figure out what was going on. The leader could hold some person (in charge of the system) responsible for the defective part. Or they could analyze the system and ascertain the chain of dependencies that led to this outcome, irrespective of who was in control of the system. The leaders who can do the latter are the most effective.

New leaders should use “So what I’m hearing is…” in conversations: This is my own personal skill I’ve developed over the years and use it to coach the leaders I work with. After the leader has asked great questions and developed a systems-thinking approach to listening to the organization, they should say something to the effect of “So, what I’m hearing is (complete the sentence)” and then pause and listen.

As an HR leader or a new leader in a new context, you’ll be stunned at how often you get it wrong. Or even if you didn’t get it wrong, you didn’t get the full picture. According to me, this is a critical skill that leaders should incorporate in their conversations. Mirroring a conversation prompts dialogue and discussion, which helps one get rich context and insights.

How can HR leaders deal with leaders in tough situations or with tough leaders

Leaders in tough situations: Every role is fraught with political landmines and some organizations are more political than others. Others are more confrontational in the front than others. Then there are others where you might see confrontation that’s more on the passive side. As an HR leader, helping your leader successfully navigate that is a really important mandate.

In one of my previous roles, I worked with a new leader in a newly-organized company and with different pieces sort of cobbled together, we pretty much had a clear idea of what we needed to do from an organization-strategy-vision perspective. About 2-3 months later, the management said it was adding another senior person to the leadership team. We weren’t really clear about why that move was made.

We felt it didn’t make any sense as it ran counter to everything we had been trying to do. And the new leader I was working with had some challenges with the new appointment. It got emotional for him as his whole world had sort of turned upside down. I’ll never forget the conversation we had over the phone then but I actually had nothing to say. I just listened to him.

And sometimes, it’s less about what you say and more about how you listen, as an HR partner.

And as I listened and asked those ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions, it led this particular leader to a different way of approaching the problem and in the end, it turned out to be okay. But it was all contingent on me having an effective partnership with this leader in the first place.

Tough leaders: One of the main challenges of working with new leaders, especially in the startup to scale-up phase, is that they’re unfamiliar with the concept of working with an HR BP. In one particular startup I worked with as a consultant, the leader of the organization was a big personality, incredibly charismatic who had a crystal clear 30,000-ft view of what needed to be done in the company. 

I had taken on a project that allowed me to sort of look into what was happening in the organization. It was really not set up to be optimized for growth in terms of the actual organization design. And it was a kind of a battle to say here’s how the organization should be set up, to be optimized for this high-level vision, that was so compelling. And, you know, I’d love to say that two weeks into it, we got there.

In this particular case, it was not a long-term engagement. It was very challenging and I wasn’t able to be really successful. But what I could do is that I helped this particular leader uncover insights into the organization that he never had had before.

Sometimes, in your role as an HR BP, you may not be able to get everything all at once. You may not be able to reach your goals. But if you can take a few steps in the right direction, that’s a huge win. 

And sometimes, in the world of HR, you have to play the long-term game. Had I been in this organization for a longer time, I may have played the game a little longer.

But yes, some leaders don’t get it and they may not submit to everything that you say but if you can help them inch incrementally forward over time, those increments accumulate and you’ll be able to leave a huge impact on the leader’s performance and the organization’s success.