Pre-Marital Counselling

Pre-Marital Counselling

23 Jun 17 5mins Jon Midmer


“It was truly love at first sight”, John Mackey, founder and CEO of Whole Foods, told his employees at a company town hall last Friday, when the $13.7bn takeover by Amazon was announced. Stressing how good the deal would be for both sides, as well as talking about the great strategic fit, Mr Mackey indulged in the language of romance. Referring to “blind dates”, ”a whirlwind courtship” and “an engagement”, Mackey sought to reassure employees that their liaison was not a “Tinder relationship”.

For all the soft soap, Mr Mackey did, however, strike a note of caution: “Some marriages end up badly. There’s an industry of divorce out there. But I think we’re choosing very, very well for ourselves”. Even more realistically, for those who are aware of the cultural differences between the two companies, he said: “Amazon is gonna change our culture […] It’s inevitable. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing.” This statement got me thinking about two things: first, how hard it is for companies with dramatically different cultures to integrate, however sound the strategic fit; and second, how the same is true for senior executives joining new organisations, particularly mid-career.

How, not What

Having led hundreds of executive search processes, to stretch Mr Mackey’s analogy, senior-level recruitment involves a number of dates, a good deal wooing and the eventual signing of contracts. And along the way we, as executive search consultants, the client and the successful candidate all put a huge amount of planning, thought, effort and due diligence into making a suitable match. Executive search is a major investment, and one is that is expected to pay off.

In the same way that Mackey is right to highlight cultural differences up front, I believe any company hiring a new executive should focus on these not just in the first six months to a year, but immediately post-hire and up until start. Interestingly, a former global Chief People Officer told me last week: “During the 20-plus years I’ve been in business, whenever I have seen executives fail to integrate into a new organisation, it’s never been down what they’ve done, it’s been down to how they’ve gone about it.

Not leaving integration to chance

At board level, while new recruits are scrupulously vetted and referenced for their skills, leadership qualities and ‘cultural fit’, all too often organisations leave cultural integration to chance, almost assuming that hiring the best candidate for the job will, in and of itself, ensure success. This would be the same as assuming that a successful long-term relationship simply depends on choosing one’s partner well, without having to work on the relationship after that. As we all know, however strong the initial attraction, different backgrounds, prior experiences and unspoken expectations about how a partnership might evolve inevitably cause it to jar and both sides have to re-calibrate.

There are countless models, checklists and scorecards for the onboarding of new hires. Assuming the eminently well-qualified executive you have hired has the necessary IQ to develop the right strategies and put the right structure to deliver them, a successful onboarding should, then, major on ensuring cultural integration. A number of studies have shown that the better an executive is accepted earlier on, the likelier it is that he or she will not just deliver maximum impact in the first year, but also set themselves up for long-term success.

Planning for awkwardness

Indeed, as one Global HR Director who has been with his company for 20 years told me this week: “Our company culture is, on the surface, very friendly and welcoming, but underneath extremely hard to crack. It’s in the interpersonal interactions in the first three months on which reputations can be made or broken”. The only problem is this: if you accept that it’s almost exclusively on a cultural level that a new hire will succeed or fail, failure to integrate really goes to the heart of who someone is: if they fail, who they are as a person is also ‘a failure’. This is, perhaps, why, when a newly-hired executive puts a foot wrong in their first few months, their boss will often hold his or her tongue or give feedback to an HR leader to pass on to the individual on the quiet, rather than be upfront about it.

A great way of maximising the chances of cultural integration from the word go is for the hiring manager and/or supporting HR partner to be really honest about “how things get done around here”. In the process, they should be equally open about how even the most talented executives they have hired in the past have had to work on aspects of their character to adapt. Engaging in such ‘pre-marital counselling’ and being completely accepting of the fact that there will be cultural differences that will be addressed in a non-judgemental way takes a lot of the awkwardness out of onboarding.

Boosting the chances of success

Even with this frank approach, one problem is that even if just the new hire and their boss are involved, given different frames of reference, even the use of simple descriptors such as “action-oriented”, “fast-paced” or “data-driven” can be problematic, as they can connote very different things to different people. To remove doubt, we recommend articulating at a granular level the expectations around ‘what being successful looks and feels like’, however senior the new hire.

If both parties start out from the premise that areas of cultural misalignment are inevitable rather than unwanted, when these situations arise they are seen as opportunities to learn and develop, rather than issues to fret over or sweep under the carpet. Some simple but critical questions we recommend addressing include: What is the tone of voice of the organisation? How do the most respected leaders lead? How are effective decisions made? How does communication happen? What does fast and slow look like?

In the same way that the love-struck CEO of Whole Foods is right to be cautious (while also open, accepting and positive) about the up-coming challenges of cultural integration with the Seattle-based behemoth, any hiring organisation or new recruit needs to act the same way. It is only then, and ideally with some effective ‘pre-marital counselling’, that the chances of success for a long-term success will increase.