Onboarding vs. Orientation: Getting New Leaders on a Path to Success

The transition to a new academic leadership position is full of complexities, unwritten rules, and new challenges. Whether the new provost, dean, or chair is new to the institution or has years of institutional knowledge, a simple orientation is not enough to get him or her off to a successful start, says Anne Massaro, project manager and organizational development consultant at The Ohio State University.

Massaro recommends a process she calls “onboarding,” which can take several months and offers clarity and mutual understanding among multiple constituents about the new leader’s role.

Onboarding goes beyond the orientation that leaders might typically receive. Here are several key distinctions that Massaro makes between onboarding and orientation:

  • Orientation is usually about learning the written rules. Onboarding is about learning the written and unwritten rules.
  • Orientation is typically an event. Onboarding is a process.
  • Orientation is usually short term. Onboarding can take several months.
  • Orientation is usually focused on a specific job within a specific department. Onboarding focuses on the individual, the unit, and the institution.
  • Orientation is typically linear. Onboarding is nonlinear and nonsequential.
  • Orientation typically builds on past successes. Onboarding may involve unlearning past successes.

“If we think of a faculty member who has been very successful, has been promoted in the faculty ranks, and then moves into an administrative role, his or her past success may very well have been individual and focused on a very narrow piece of a discipline,” says Massaro. “The chair’s role is much more collective and collaborative, and new chairs have to broaden their perspective beyond their own passion for their piece of the discipline. They are now accountable for the entire department and all the pieces that come with that.”

A critical piece of onboarding is establishing an agenda and performance indicators. “I recommend that the new leader put forth priorities and an agenda for the future direction of the unit. That would be through conversations with multiple constituents—alumni, students, administrators, faculty—but most important it’s an agreement with the person to whom the new leader reports,” Massaro says.

Initially, the new leader’s priority will be learning rather than implementing major initiatives, Massaro says. For chairs, the first month should be focused on listening, learning, and building relationships with the people who are important to his or her success. For deans and provosts, the first two or three months should be dedicated to learning.

Although learning is the main focus of this early period, new leaders also should think about scoring a few “quick wins,” something to implement right away that will make a difference to those he or she serves.

Excerpted from Collaborating to Build a Solid Foundation for New Leaders, Academic Leader, vol. 25, no. 9.