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Onboarding a new leader has all the pain, glory of a political campaign

Corporate talking points won’t create connection – stories do


A new leader's first 90 days should mirror a political campaign in order to set them up for success and define the actions and proof points to earn credibility and establish their unique brand of leadership. (Olivier Le Moal/Adobe Stock)

Striking the right balance between leading and learning when starting a new position doesn’t happen automatically; it takes vision and a well-thought out plan.

It’s similar to politics — a new politician won’t win votes without both listening and sharing a vision. Onboarding effectively takes focus and a conscious effort to connect with key stakeholders and build trust, just like a political campaign.

Having worked for a cabinet minister and leading a mayoral campaign, I believe a new leader’s first 90 days should mirror a political campaign in order to set them up for success and define the actions and proof points to earn credibility and establish their unique brand of leadership.

The process starts with defining the individual’s brand by identifying clear, realistic and important actions. Not unlike politicians, we need business leaders to say what they are going to do and then actually do it.

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My political experience taught me that communication has to be straightforward, consistent and simple. No one wants to hear every meandering thought from their leader, instead they want to hear about the leader through storytelling, and their plans in the simplest terms, and then they want to be updated on the plan, what was done and how it impacts them.

Map the plan with key themes

When I think of a political campaign, I map out the overall key messages and then block time to correspond with each key message.

For example, the first week we may want to introduce the candidate as someone who cares deeply about helping families manage expenses — thus a story about their family leading to a key message or value about reducing taxes.

That first week we will spend all of our time communicating that same message to everyone who cares about family expenses to ensure everyone has the same information and have heard it consistently in many different formats.

This key message is the point of a story that starts to define the politician’s personality.

Similarly, when a new business leader starts it’s important to spend the first week clearly sharing a key message about the leader — even if that message is “I have an open-door policy” — and then ensure everyone knows that and hears it consistently.

To better demonstrate this key message, the power of storytelling is important.

  • What makes that leader “open?”
  • Is there an experience from their past that shares why this value is important to them?

That’s how they shape their personal brand. Corporate talking points won’t create connection; stories do.

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Balance consultation with action

Listening is a crucial part of leadership, especially in a new environment.

However, many new leaders take this honeymoon phase of listening too passively and miss the opportunity to define their leadership proactively.

Yes, everyone wants a leader to listen, but they also expect a leader to have a vision, a plan, some concrete actions that define them.

A politician who only listens and defers every decision to a “consultation” is seen as indecisive, and in some cases weak – too focused on being neutral and playing it safe to win votes.

This approach often does the opposite and results in people gravitating towards another candidate that takes a stand and has something to say.

A business leader can suffer from this same affliction if they focus too much on listening or simply following in the footsteps of the previous leader, they miss an opportunity to define their own leadership style by playing it safe.

Defining what to say out of the gate is also precarious because no one wants to be a bull in a China shop when they don’t fully understand the history or realities of the current environment.

It’s a balancing act. The goal is to set the stage in such a way that the leader can learn and share a high level vision and some key actions.

Create a scorecard and do what you say you’re going to do

In politics, we always want to be able to report back to the voters that “we did what we said we would do” in order to build trust and win votes.

Being true to your word is important and takes focus. Leaders have to know what they committed to, deliver and then communicate the outcome — that builds trust.

It’s a simple process to show progress and follow through. It’s the cornerstone of a well-run political campaign.

However, the corporate world is infamous for making everything a priority and then abandoning a goal or a project without saying a word, hoping employees will have amnesia and forget all about it.

These simple and relatable missteps can unknowingly shape a leader’s brand in and unintended but negative way.

Onboarding leaders with a campaign mindset creates a level of clarity, direction and success that cannot be matched with a passive learn-and-introductions approach.

New leaders need to have a hand in proactively planning their first 90 days with enough content to show who they are, and enough flexibility to acquire the knowledge needed to reflect the realities of their new environment.

Leaders need to build trust to succeed at the helm, and introducing a campaign-style approach to onboarding can quickly establish credibility and create proof points of strong leadership.

Want to mobilize your workforce, build confidence in your stakeholders, and demonstrate credible leadership? Focus on an onboarding plan to make the best first impression.

Crystal Hyde is a professional certified coach in Waterloo, Ont., and founder of Propel Leadership Coaching, which specializes in communications consulting and leadership coaching.