How New BofA Executives Learn its ’Deep Smarts’

Bank of America's stringent onboarding process for new execs ensures they understand role expectations, quickly develop networks, and learn from other leaders what it takes to succeed. From the new book by Dorothy Leonard and colleagues, Critical Knowledge Transfer.

Editor's note: How does an organization hold on to its wealth of accumulated knowledge when the knowledge-holders depart? It's a very real dilemma made even more critical as Baby Boomers begin their mass exit into retirement. The new book Critical Knowledge Transfer: Tools for Managing Your Company's Deep Smarts offers a roadmap for ensuring that critical knowledge remains in the organization. This excerpt focuses on the executive onboarding practice at Bank of America.

Dorothy Leonard is the William J. Abernathy Professor of Business Administration Emerita at Harvard Business School. Her coauthors are Walter Swap, professor of psychology emeritus and former chairman of the Psychology Department at Tufts University, and Gavin Barton, principal and founder of GB Performance Consulting.

Critical Knowledge Transfer: Tools for Managing Your Company's Deep Smartsbook excerpt

Bank Of America's Onboarding Program For New Executives

From the book Critical Knowledge Transfer: Tools for Managing Your Company's Deep Smarts

Dorothy Leonard, Walter Swap, and Gavin Barton

Bank of America has recognized the need to ensure that leaders get off to a fast start as well as the need to reduce the high rate of failure among newly hired or internally transitioning executives.

To address these needs, the bank has created an onboarding program for executives one to two levels below the C-suite. The program aims to ensure that the new executives understand role expectations, quickly develop a network among key stakeholders, build relationships with their team, and learn from other leaders what it takes to succeed, especially in their particular role. To achieve these objectives, the program must transfer not only explicit knowledge, but also implicit cultural knowledge and unwritten norms.

Three elements of the program are briefly described here: an onboarding plan or navigational guide, the appointment and training of a peer coach, and a dialogue between the new executives and their direct reports, managed by a trained facilitator.

The onboarding plan identifies both formal and informal stakeholders (ten to fifteen managers, peers, business partners, and direct reports) who can provide critical knowledge about the organization, including cultural norms, and who can subsequently review and assess the performance of the new executive over the first two years of employment. The objectives of the plan are to clearly lay out the roles of the peer coach and stakeholders and steps the new executive can take to manage the transition, including building necessary relationships and adapting to the culture. The plan also identifies archival materials that would be useful for the incoming executive.

“The new leaders are expected to actively query their peer coaches about lessons learned, factors that have led to success, and what the coaches wish they had known”

A successful colleague employed at the bank for at least two years is appointed as a peer coach; he or she will have an extensive professional network and significant experience in the area of the business the new executive is entering. The coach is responsible for meeting regularly with the newcomer, explaining expectations, serving as a sounding board for any issues that may arise, providing feedback and guidance, and offering candid information about the organization, including unwritten rules and possible challenges to expect in the new role. For example, one unwritten norm critical for a successful entry into the organization is the need to build strong lateral relationships that cross several boundaries, such as geography, functions, and line of businesses. For their part, the new leaders are expected to actively query their peer coaches about lessons learned, factors that have led to success, and what the coaches wish they had known when they started working at Bank of America.

A third element of onboarding is a facilitated integration session held within the first thirty to sixty days of entry. The facilitator is a leadership development executive who has a deep understanding of the leader's business issues and is familiar with the specific leadership team's interpersonal dynamics. The facilitator first meets separately with the team to gather data on such issues as what the new leader needs to know about the inherited leadership team and the challenges that the new leader will face. Team members may also raise questions that they would like to have addressed by the new leader, such as management style and aspects of the new leader's experience or background that have not been already described to them. The facilitator then shuttles this information back to the new leader, to prepare him or her for the discussion with the team. The discussion ends with agreement on action items, issues to be addressed in the future, and sometimes a team-building exercise.

Information provided by Joe Bonito, senior vice president, leadership development, Bank of America, interview with the authors (DL, WS), August 5, 2013.

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    • John G. Agno
    • Certified Executive & Business Coach, Signature, Inc
    Executive search firms, leadership coaches, and consultants are building specialized "executive onboarding" services to add to their client offerings.

    Onboarding, as the name implies, helps new managers get a running start through coaching that assists them with detecting cultural nuances, accelerating strategic plans, and navigating the personality mine fields of their new teams. The term is also now used to describe orienting new hires.
    - See more at:
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC((India) Private Limited
    Onboarding is very necessary for ensuring the new ones understand every thing essential for them to get properly started and fixed up. Every company has its own work culture and vision for growth. Unless this is properly understood, there will remain causes for misunderstanding and operational discomfort.
    A genuine priliminary induction training is very essential for this purpose.