Laying a Foundation for Success for New Academic Leaders

There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned all-day orientation program to get new academic leaders acclimated and ready to tackle the challenges of their new positions, right? Wrong.

Actually, there is a better way. It’s a much longer, more structured process that goes well beyond the type of orientation academic leaders typically receive when they step foot onto a new campus, or get promoted to a new leadership position. It’s called onboarding and while it got its start in the corporate world, some universities have started to adapt its principles to the higher education community.

In the recent online seminar A Good Start: Institutional Support for New Academic Leaders, Anne Massaro, project manager and organizational design consultant to The Ohio State University, outlined the key distinctions between orientation and onboarding, and explained how Ohio State has structured its onboarding program.

For example, while orientation is about learning the written rules, onboarding is about learning the written and unwritten rules that make up the campus culture. Also, while orientation is a one-time event, onboarding is a process that could last from one month to one year depending on the person’s leadership position, and includes a variety of formal and informal learning opportunities.

Ohio State provides onboarding for provosts and vice presidents, and plans to launch a program for department chairs soon. For the senior executives, it’s a 12-month process where each new leader works with a “transition coach” to build relationships, understand culture, and achieve results at individual, unit, and institutional levels.

Massaro notes that the transition coach is a critical resource because new leaders need “a safe place where they can go and reflect on what they need to do in order to be an effective leader, and have an open dialogue about what they’re learning and what their plans are.”

The onboarding process also ensures the new leader receives regular feedback regarding how well he or she is performing on the established objectives – at the two-month mark from the person’s hiring manager, and anonymously at the six-month mark from the person’s direct reports.

Massaro says the benefits of onboarding include it:

  • Minimizes the possibility of derailment;
  • Accelerates performance results;
  • Facilitates smoother integration experience; and
  • Ensures the new leader understands the organizational norms and performance expectations; integrates into the new university; and is highly productive and engaged.