Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss

Imagine that you have your IS organization under control. Priorities are in order, targets are being met and everything is running smoothly. You decide to take a well-earned vacation. But on your return you discover that a management shuffle means you have a new boss.

How you react to this news can be either a career-enhancer or a career-killer. I have seen some otherwise excellent leaders stumble in these situations. Here are some things you can do to ensure a successful transition.

Expect change

Don’t delude yourself into thinking your job might not change. A new boss will almost always bring a new set of expectations and priorities. A new boss will want to put her own stamp on the organization. Demonstrate your openness to the changes. Now is not a good time to be defensive.

Find out what brought about the change in management. Is this a normal rearrangement of the deck chairs? Was someone promoted elsewhere, generating a ripple effect? Was there some discontent (perhaps unknown to you) with the organization’s status quo? Knowing the reasons will help you craft a strategy for succeeding in the new order of things.

Take the time to study the new boss’s management approach. This will help you respond appropriately to the changes. What kind of communication is most effective — written, verbal, graphic? Is he interested in details or only an overview? Will he be involved in technical decisions or focus on the business issues? Does he like to be the star, the visible leader of the organization? Is he a nurturer who will be interested in your development and success? Knowing these things early on can save you many missteps. How can you determine these things? The most direct way is to simply have a conversation with the new boss and ask about his requirements. You can follow that up by talking with others who have worked for and with him in the past. This will confirm or emphasize those critical elements of management style.

Get with the program

Because of your experience, you can be a big factor in the success of your new boss. Visibly support her ideas and actions. Provide insight on potential problems and sacred cows. Supply background on projects and other initiatives.

Some people resent the notion that part of their job is to make the boss look good. But no one wins if the head of the organization loses respect and support from vital decision-makers. Make yourself part of the new success.

After realigning your priorities, focus on early accomplishments. These quick wins will be the building blocks of your personal credibility with the new boss. One of the advantages of a new leader is the opportunity to make new alliances. You can build fresh networks by leveraging the relationships of the new boss. Take the opportunity to broaden your base of support by tapping into those resources.

Do you think the boss’s job should have been yours? Too bad. How you handle this disappointment may determine whether you ever get beyond your current job. So often I have seen people follow a departing boss to her new organization. While this may seem more comfortable than adjusting to the changes a new boss will bring, in the long run it will be limiting. Successful leaders learn to work effectively with other leaders, whether they are above you, beside you as peers or deeper in the organization. Better to develop the skill to succeed on your own than to hook your wagon to someone else’s star.

But what if your former boss is your mentor? No problem! Work hard to keep that relationship alive. It’s OK to briefly mourn the passing of the baton, but don’t let the politics of personal loyalty stymie you. There are no boundaries limiting the relationships you can support. It’s only self-limiting behavior that establishes those boundaries. Continue to nurture your established relationships, but use new alliances to broaden your network and give you new perspectives. While you’re getting used to the new leadership, don’t forget to help your staffers’ transition too. You must be the role model. Whatever your personal situation, you have an obligation to help your people succeed. Everyone will be stressed and overburdened during the transition. Be certain they understand the new job requirements, so as to avoid wasted effort. Be sensitive to their own career uncertainties in the face of new relationships and assessments. Be an advocate for your people with the new boss: Point out the strengths and skills of key players. At the same time, act as a conduit for change — project a positive perspective on new decisions and priorities, explain the rationale, and actively solicit staffers’ support for the new directions.

Dead ends

Some emotions and responses to a new boss, while perfectly natural, will get you nowhere. Don’t let pride in past accomplishments get in the way of your prospective success. Change is not per se a criticism of the past, but rather recognition of the future. Don’t give in to impatience. Yes, things will take more time, as the new leader gets familiar with the work of the organization. Recognize this up front and plan accordingly. Meetings will take longer. More questions will be asked. Decisions already made may require some extended discussion. Be cheerful, forthcoming and patient, and this phase will soon pass.

Do not get in a power struggle with the new boss. You cannot win. State your positions as articulately as possible, and then accept the final decisions. It may be necessary to accept the fact that being right can sometimes be wrong. Just be careful to avoid being defensive. Keep critical thoughts to yourself. Critical comments will almost always get back to the target of criticism.

Do you think the job should have been yours? Well, for some reason you didn’t get it. Sour grapes are not attractive on anyone. Deal with the disappointment gracefully and show your maturity. Analyze why the new boss got the job. Get help if you find it difficult to be objective. What do you need to work on to improve your chances next time? If the disappointment is too great to overcome, you may want to consider leaving before your behavior becomes too destructive.

The best advice I can offer is to learn everything you can from the experience. Someday you might be the new boss. Understanding the challenges of the situation will ease the transition for you and your new organization, and will ensure your success.

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