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Surviving Your New Boss

August 15th, 2007 · 3 Comments

Dave Christiansen, Managing Editor

In the May 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review, Surviving Your New CEO by Kevin P. Coyne and Edward J. Coyne, Sr. describes the fate of senior managers under a new CEO (bad, as a general rule) and steps senior managers can take to reduce their chances of getting punted like a squishy brown banana (blech).

I’m not a senior manager. Heck, my boss isn’t even a senior manager. You might even say I’m a nobody, and on the organization chart scale of things that would be true. So why am I reading articles for senior managers about surviving your new CEO? Two reasons – 1) I’ve got my fourth CIO in five years recently, and it helps me understand what’s going on at the top, even though I don’t play there, and 2) I’ve just got my sixth boss in five years (in spite of the fact that I’ve never switched groups of my own accord), and this article, even though it was written for senior executives, helps me get some ideas on how to make my relationship with the new boss work.

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen a C level exec come and go, but the prognosis for senior managers in such changes is pretty bad. According to the research of Kevin and Edward Coyne, the odds of a senior manager finding himself pushed out under a new CEO is are 1 in 5.

Worse still, the majority of the time this job change is not a change for the better. The Coynes’ research shows that most executives in this situation have difficulty landing a job that is as sweet as the one they just got axed from.

So, if you’re a senior manager in a firm that changes CEO’s annually, what are the odds you’ll survive for four years? Not good!

I don’t think the same sort of statistics apply at the worker bee level. In all the management changes I’ve seen, replacing the CIO or replacing my immediate manager hasn’t resulted in substantial firings of my co-workers. I haven’t felt I was at risk of losing my job in those situations. Most of the time, management changes at my level don’t result in major staff changes.

So, relax. Odds are, your new boss isn’t going to fire you. That’s all that matters, right?

Wrong. Even though new management doesn’t automatically mean high risk of getting booted out the door, it can mean a high risk of getting booted out of your position of authority, assuming you have one. This is most likely when the authority is derived from your role, not your title. Untitled roles like tech lead, project coordinator, etc are hard to understand for a new manager. Most likely he’s going to see you for your title and not grasp the importance of your role. You should be ready for changes in this regard.

There are other ways a new manager can impact your work life. He or she can dramatically change the culture of your organization, for better or worse. A new boss can turn a peaceful, cooperative team into a warring, obstinate group (or vice versa). At any rate, you are going to have to go through the storming phase all over again when you get a new boss.

The Coyne’s research also yielded some insight into how to cope with changes at the “C” level. I think their recommendations are as useful for us nobodies as they are for senior managers. Here are the Coyne’s tips (editor’s note – this is an excerpt from HBR, with much of the text of the article removed to meet HBR’s guidelines for fair use – go to HBR to read the full article, which is well worth it).

Show your goodwill.

“It may be tempting to wait and see what the new CEO wants of you instead of taking the initiative to talk about your responsibilities, but this is the wrong approach. Most of the CEOs we interviewed indicated that too many executives doomed themselves from the start simply by failing to manifest a willingness to be part of the new team…

It is also dangerous to assume that your new CEO already understands that you want to cooperate… If you decide you want to stay, let the CEO know, proactively and without being sycophantic, that you want to be on the team, and follow up with actions that demonstrate your willingness to go along with the program.

Study the CEO’s working style.

Our interviewees also told us that they wanted their direct reports to be sensitive to their working style and then match it. Because it can be difficult to discern your new boss’s proclivities simply by observation, it pays to ask about them specifically. One CEO recalled a meeting with a plainspoken executive who company gossips predicted would be an early casualty of the new regime. “He told me he had a reputation for being blunt and then asked how I wanted him to disagree with me,” the CEO told us. “I wasn’t sure what he meant at first, but he went on to explain: What kind of facts cause me to change my mind—stories from the front line or statistics? Could he disagree in public or only in private? Once he had made his case and failed to convince me, should he try again or just accept that the decision was made? How did I feel about his subordinates or peers knowing he disagreed with something?” By asking intelligent questions about his new boss’s working style, the executive prospered throughout the CEO’s 12-year tenure…”

Understand the CEO’s agenda.

“According to our chief executives, senior managers could be substantially more effective if they simply took a little time to put themselves in the newcomer’s shoes and made an effort to appreciate his or her agenda.

First, consider the pressure your new leader is under… Can you help?

The CEOs we spoke with also pointed out that executives need to confirm their understanding of the new agenda directly with their new boss… Even if you’ve talked to board members about their possible directives for the new CEO, his plans for the company will be influenced by his background, judgments, and expertise, not just the board’s disposition. It’s important to hear about those ideas directly from him.”

Present a realistic and honest game plan.

“It’s only reasonable for a new CEO to expect you to be prepared to discuss the situation in your division and your plans for progress. Make sure you’ve thought everything through and then present the facts as clearly as possible. Don’t make the mistake of sugarcoating them, however—that would be exactly the wrong approach…”

I don’t think it’s hard to apply the same advice to a change in management at my level. This article really made me think about what I should do to deal with management change in a positive way. I’d like to know if it gave you any ideas about how to deal with a new manager. Post a comment and let us know.

Dave Christiansen is the founder and managing editor of He manages projects for a Fortune 100 financial services company and writes and talks about project management. He can be reached at

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Tags: Job Advice

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dennis Gorelik // Aug 15, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    These are very good questions:
    Could he disagree in public or only in private? Once he had made his case and failed to convince me, should he try again or just accept that the decision was made? How did I feel about his subordinates or peers knowing he disagreed with something?

    Do you know what are typical answers to these questions?

  • 2 David Christiansen // Aug 29, 2007 at 5:59 am

    I don’t know what “typical” answers are. I just received a new CIO and I’ve been very tempted to just ask him to answer all of these questions publicly. I wish more “C”s would blog to their employees. It would help us get to know them better.

  • 3 49 Of the Worst Bosses Ever and Some Advice in Dealing with Them | // Jun 22, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    […] Suriving Your New Boss: An article mainly describing how anyone can survive the new boss.  The job may be satisfying, but that doesn’t mean the boss is the same way. […]

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