How can you successfully integrate leaders who have made a lateral entry into your business? This was a topic of debate at the three-day HR Leadership Congress, India, organized by UK-based media and research organization Ideas Exchange in Delhi last month. One of the speakers at the event was Ed Cohen, executive vice-president of Nelson Cohen Global Consulting, which helps companies develop their leadership pipeline and learning strategies.

Cohen, who spoke to Mint about helping leaders adapt to their roles in a new team, company cultures and attrition, was senior director at strategy and technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton’s corporate university, the Centre for Performance Excellence, from 1998-2005. Between 2005 and 2009, he was chief learning officer at information, communications and technology company Satyam Computer Services (now Mahindra Satyam). Cohen and Priscilla Nelson, his partner at Nelson Cohen Global Consulting, are presently dividing their time between the US and India.

Cohen and Nelson are authors of Riding the Tiger: Leading through Learning in Turbulent Times. Cohen has also authored Leadership without Borders: Successful Strategies from Global Leaders. Edited excerpts from the interview:

What are the things HR should focus on while hiring a leader?

Success mantra: It’s important to understand the work culture and build relationships with the team.

• Clear understanding of role, including how performance is measured, evaluated and rewarded

• Understanding of culture and how to get things done

• Can build a trusted relationship with the boss

• Rapidly grows an internal network

• Can build relationships with team

• Secures early wins

• Participates in ongoing development

I suggest don’t put a job description according to who has left and whose position you have to fill. Make it according to what you need from that position five years down the line.

After acquiring a leader laterally, what is it that HR typically does wrong?

Typically, before someone is hired, a very beautiful picture is painted for them, but when they join they are left hanging in limbo. When I was hired at a consulting firm as a senior leader, I was given an office where I had to sit with my back to the window. To start out with, I was extremely uncomfortable with that. An empty desk and my boss out of town for two weeks—if I hadn’t found out what I’m supposed to do and do it on my own, I would have done nothing for those two weeks. A good idea would be to assign someone to help out the new leader, a learning buddy, to make sure the new leader has everything he or she needs.

Organizations have cultures that are sometimes deliberate and sometimes accidental. How should you familiarize a new leader with these?

It often happens in a workplace that, for instance, after innocently questioning in a board meeting, you learn the unspoken rule of never challenging the chairman. But in another time and place not asking questions, even of the chairman, could mean you’re in trouble. So what does it do to people’s motivations if they stumble like that? Most new employees are left to find their own way and make their own network. This is why clarity about the written/unwritten/spoken/unspoken rules of the company is absolutely critical for success.

How should a person joining a new company in a leadership role approach the job?

If a leader hastens in reshaping the team, this person may be seen as too controlling, and if the leader takes a longer time that person might be seen as too passive. In such a case, getting feedback is critical. When a leader is acquired, organizations have expectations. They’ve hired, they’re paying big bucks, so they expect them to lead. But this new leader has no idea about time frame in the organization—how fast is too fast and how slow is unacceptable. It is important for them to know these rules of the road.

Should a new leader adapt to the company or should the company adapt to his ways?

It’s better to be interested than interesting. A new CEO can easily come and throw things haywire. Honouring the strengths of the past and the legacy of the company is a good idea. It is a process. The leader’s approach should be—understand what the company has and what it lacks, and then ask for help on how to successfully implement change within this ecosystem. He or she should have a dialogue with colleagues and not work in isolation just to prove a point.

What is the right question to ask in a leader’s exit interview?

Typically, HR executives ask a person who is leaving, “Why are you leaving?" What they really need to ask is—“Go back and think of the day you decided to update your resume, what was the reason for that?" A person decides whether he’s going to stick—and give his or her best to this company or just spend two years (or even less these days) and move on—in the first six months of his tenure. People ask themselves, is this the place I want to be in, is this where I will learn?

Attrition is a constant challenge for HR professionals. How do you think it can be arrested?

Attrition happens and it’s probably best not to fear it so much. Companies believe in minimal investment in people till they are at least three years old in the company, because they believe they will go anyway, but if you nurture them right from the beginning, maybe they won’t leave. The cost of replacing a leader is from 50-100% (or more) of the leader’s annual salary.