Make It or Break It: Onboarding for Mid-Career Leaders

There is a big assumption that mid-career leaders are experienced and come into a new organization knowing how to onboard, when in reality, onboarding is a make-it-or-break-it proposition and they need help.

Onboarding in a new job can shake up your way of seeing and dealing with the world. For mid-career executives onboarding at a new company, half the problem in onboarding is unlearning the way you organize your reality and replacing it with new language and new models. At best, it is a process of creating a new self-concept and relationships, setting new goals, and making new plans. At worst, it can bring into question your sense of self and your expectations as you consider your new role and the decision-making that got you there.


Mental models usually are so well ingrained that we unconsciously act out our expectations. You are a finely tuned instrument with a sophisticated way of working. Your new company also has a particular (or peculiar) way of “how we do things around here.” Just remember that your “role performance is reduced until such time as [you] achieve this understanding” of how the company does things (Blenkinsopp, J.A., 2005, Making Sense of Mistakes in Managerial Careers, Career Development International, 359-374). Politics, cultural norms, and “unwritten rules” abound in every organization, and it often takes a newcomer to point them out—or at the very least, notice them. In fact, you are likely to be at your most valuable during this period of unfamiliarity because you are in a position to question existing practices and bring new ideas and insights. What matters is how you go about doing that.

It is interesting that we tend to sort norms into “good” and “bad” when what we really are talking about are organizational “contradictions” (Voronov, M. A., 2015, Did You Notice That? Theorizing Differences in the Capacity to Apprehend Institutional Contradictions, Academy of Management Review, 40(4), 56-586). Merely recognizing and surfacing things that are unwritten rules and asking about them or subjecting them to rigorous reflection can make others uncomfortable. Contradictions alert people to the gap between the way things are and the way they might be. Remember that if enough people share this view of the world, it is reality. As a newcomer, you will face a choice in whether you accept this view of reality. It takes time to adjust to another paradigm.

What to do? Ask about the way things are done, and take it on board without judgment. Write down your reflections, and six months into the new culture, look at this list again and see what it all means to you. Early judgements can be wrong until you understand the complete context. Take it one step at a time.

What not to do? By all means, lose the “at ABC company, we did it this way.” No one is interested in this point of view, and people tire easily when you provide example after example of another way of doing things. It sounds like a put-down between your old company and its “best practices” and what you are seeing in this new situation. Plus, behind your back people will wonder, “If you thought the other company was so perfect, why did you leave?”

If you joined the organization for a specific purpose, such as changing the culture or bringing about other significant changes, you probably were selected precisely because you are different. HBR in November 2015 quoted Steve Jobs as saying, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do…” But that is exactly what some people experience at their new companies. Being recruited because you are different certainly makes your transition more challenging. So it is important to make new meaning from the flood of information and your experiences as you onboard. Otherwise, it will wash over you and you will work only from an intuitive, emotional level.

Advice? Keep a daily “Lessons Learned” journal, review it weekly, and at the end of your first three months, step back and ask yourself what you have learned about your new company, team, and situation.


For most, onboarding at a new company in a new role during mid-career is a journey of selfdiscovery and a process of creating a new identity for yourself. All advances in our career require us to move beyond our comfort zones. They also trigger a strong defense to protect our identities. Increasing self-awareness is important for a leader’s development. Don’t latch onto authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what is comfortable. Few jobs let us do that for long. The person you become through this process will be far reaching, often helping you develop a new sense of identity and purpose. This is the joy of transitioning to a new role. Following my four-step Mid-Career Onboarding Process ( for your first 12 months on the job can help you feel the satisfaction of performing at your best.

No one knows better than Learning professionals that a learning journey is troubled at times, and there are points along the path that interfere with or paralyze our ability to perform. Thinking differently in a new, larger role is linked to new and unfamiliar strategic levels of thinking, being able to make strategic decisions, and following up with the right actions (Reynolds, G., June 2011, International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring, 5 (Special), 39-53). Promotions mean leaving behind old patterns of thinking, skills, and behaviors to step up to levels that are more senior. For example, you may have to delegate work you love and feel competent doing; your new business partners may not offer you the same trusted advice; or certain peer relationships you have cultivated over time now report to you. These are critical and difficult personal challenges.


Research provides ample evidence that Day One is a formative experience, and poor formative experiences might cause us to look for other experiences that confirm this initial impression (either good or bad). It is important to support those coming into the organization with a different skill set or a bias for action. Even the most senior leaders need help. It is a common mistake to think you should start working on important projects and make a difference as soon as possible to prove the company and the hiring manager made the right choice.

As I note in my book, “Successful Onboarding: A New Lens on Mid-Career Onboarding,” as odd as it sounds, the most important thing the new executive can do is slow down and look around. Take stock of the people…what seems to get noticed and by whom. In other words, understanding the new culture is the most important part of the leader’s job for at least the first six months. The critical factors of success are intangible. But make no mistake: The intangibles are measurable by everyone on the leadership team. They know what it looks like when someone “fits,” and just as quickly, they know when someone does not.

For a “Top 10 List” to help leaders onboard, visit For other resources to continue your learning, visit

Louise A. Korver is the managing partner of Global Executive Development Partners, LLC. She is an executive coach, program designer, speaker, and author with 25 years of experience in progressive leadership roles as head of executive development at Ingersoll Rand, Bank of America, EMC Corporation, and AT&T. She holds a Masters in Human & Organizational Systems. For more information, visit; Linked-In:; Blog:; Twitter: (LouKorver).