Why your senior-level new hire isn’t working out

Avoid these three mistakes as you plan for your next experienced hire, and you’ll build a team that can grow faster — allowing you to grow, too.

After four months of meticulous recruiting, my COO client eagerly made the decision to hire Eric as the new senior sales leader. Internally, the hire sparked celebration, promising swift outcomes due to Eric’s prior experience in a comparable role at a competitor.

Within three months, though, Eric struggled to meet performance expectations. My client began to question how a match that seemed so perfect could go so wrong, so fast. 

When it comes to new CEOs, a McKinsey study uncovered that one-third to half were considered to be failing within 18months of taking the role. More recently, we’re witnessing the next iteration of this trend—one where experienced senior hires are flailing (and often failing) in their new workplaces. 

These situations cannot only crash the careers of otherwise strong players, but leave behind a trail of frustration and team chaos in their wake. Why isn’t the senior talent we thought we needed winning in the way we expected? Here are the three mistakes my team uncovered in our work teaching leaders how to increase retention. 

Mistake #1: Expecting the hire to ‘hit the ground running’

If you’ve ever advocated for an increased budget to hire a more experienced person, your argument probably noted the hire would “hit the ground running.” It’s time to rethink that language. 

The idiom “hit the ground running” appears to have originated in the military, when troops would be deployed from the air or moving vehicle and need to move fast to accomplish their mission—and avoid capture or death). But let’s look deeper. 

Before troops are in motion, they go through extensive preparation, briefed by detailed intelligence to help predict will be happening on the ground. Plus, they’re armed with tools and backup plans so they can make the best decisions possible once the ground is under their feet. 

That’s rarely the case when we hire a senior-level person from the outside. The “ground” at our company is never the same as where they’ve been, even if the industry or role is similar. For example:

  • The territory or region covered might be new. What works in Bangalore may not work in Beijing or Boston. 
  • The customer, client and internal relationships are new. 
  • The internal systems, processes and rules—spoken and unspoken—are new. 

When we assume our senior-level hires can “hit the ground running,” we set them up to fail. 

Mistake #2: Overlooking onboarding 

A company-wide onboarding process (if you’re lucky enough to have one) is rarely sufficient foundation for your senior-level hire. Too often, we make the mistake of reducing onboarding time for a more experienced person when we should increase the time proportionate to their salary. 

Plus, if we’ve brought the experienced person onboard to create change, traditional onboarding may stifle their innovation, rather than support it. 

As a manager, resist the urge to lock yourself up in a room and sketch out the onboarding plan alone, handing it over with a hearty “good luck.” Instead, co-create a plan with your new hire. Together, you can design an onboarding plan that outlines:

  • Key people to know
  • Top tools to use
  • Best-case and worst-case scenarios they’ll experience
  • Communication expectations
  • Rules or agreements to follow (both formal and informal)

Your experienced new hire will bring a different context and curiosity to the conversation. They’ll identify potential areas of conflict or confusion you might not have realized from your “inside” perch. Plus, your new hire doesn’t have to learn everything in the onboarding plan at once—it’s a roadmap of learning you’re agreeing together they’ll need to accumulate over time. 

If your senior hire is already struggling—and you’re not sure why—consider hitting the mental “reset” button and engaging them in the onboarding conversations they may never have had. 

Mistake #3: Assuming they don’t need to be ‘managed’

It’s a common assumption that a senior-level person needs less direct management. The argument we hear is that “at that level, we expect them to manage themselves.” But failing to invest time and attention in your highly paid, high-impact people is like garaging the 10-year-old Volvo and parking your brand-new Bentley on the street.

The experienced new hire needs different management than your younger players do—but not less time, especially in their first year. For example, the senior person may benefit from a thought partner to work through relationship challenges or decision-making structures. 

To help your hire be successful, managers need to block space in their schedule even while recruiting is underway. It’s an error to believe a new hire frees up your time immediately. Over time, though, every hour spent making this person effective will pay off 10 times in the future. 

As the costs and risks of sourcing and recruiting talent increase, let’s stop setting our senior-level new hires up for failure.