It’s happened to most of us at some time or the other, I would think. One sunny day as you happily troop into office, an unsuspecting You is suddenly invited into the Boss’ cabin. He may be sombre or sheepish. And just as alarm bells start going off in your head, he spells it out for you. “Wanted to let you know, old chap, that I’m calling it quits here. I feel I should move on now. I was keen you hear it from me of course.” And then in a feeble attempt at jollity, “Maybe you are even looking forward to seeing me go….”
You may of course agree with that last sentiment and mentally say “Hurrah”. But if it is the opposite, and it is with trepidation that you walk back to your desk with Alfred Tennyson’s “The old order changeth, yielding place to new….” clanging in your brain, then read on...
Many a time subordinates, especially the strongly Boss-aligned ones, become collateral damage with such a change of guard. Misplaced past loyalties, nostalgic reminiscing and inflexible attitudes could all contribute to their fall. But there are many who succeed as well, thriving on the challenge. So what makes for success? How do you fall on your feet after such a “boss break-up”?
If you are the Cat’s Whiskers in your function, survival seems pretty much guaranteed in the New Regime. You will be wooed assiduously for your indispensable skills, not to forget the fear of losing talent to a departing boss or a competitor. So “Be Tops” is of course sound advice. Also, if you are seen to have a strong connect with your Skip Manager, or have a powerful sponsor in the system, any new boss will trifle with you at their own peril.
“Topping” and “Strong Skip Connects”, however, are not overnight phenomena and need to be nurtured carefully over time. So those sadly lacking such foresight must seek other remedies. Let’s hear it from some survivors.
The suggestions come thick and fast. Go with the flow. Don’t resist change. Forsake torturous trips down Memory Lane, fondly remembering the Good Old Days of enlightened “Bossdom”. Even if such flights of fancy should beset you and odious comparisons come to mind, stay clear of putting thoughts into words. Even the walls have ears, and you don’t want the current powers that be to hear you wax eloquent about past leaders.
In fact, go one step further and flaunt Boss Neutrality on your sleeve. It’s a great epaulette to wear. Don’t run down the Dear Departed. That is definitely a No-No in most books and smacks of crass sycophancy and non-professionalism. But Past Boss Neutrality is above board. “Live by the refrain ‘Love your job, not your Boss’,” said one survivor to me. “I try to do that every time I face a change.”
First impressions count. So quickly realign with the New Broom’s priorities. “Speed is of the essence here. Don’t do the Shakespearean schoolboy crawl. Embrace the new style of working. Proactively share with the new manager what’s where on your plate and seek his wise counsel. Reset your expectations. Avoid surprises. Flag potential crises. Become his friend.”
Another seasoned campaigner shared her strategy with me. “Within a week or two of the joining, my new boss’ inbox would have my weekly updates, service-level agreements (SLAs) and other deadlines. The key is to ensure my deliverables are Stand Out, especially in the first few weeks. That visibility always pays off, especially in positioning me even vis-à-vis any of the loyalists he may bring to the team.”
Don’t play games. I knew someone, who debriefed the new boss in great detail all right, but with never a hint of potential fatal roadblocks. It was a game he played, setting up the hapless boss for a few embarrassing stumbles. And many a time the unsuspecting fellows tripped over, causing no end of merriment to our Trapsetter. But that never did work for him in the long run, since he paid for it with the Boss’ trust.
Underlying this piece of “Don’t trip him up” advice is seeing how to make the Boss look good. “He is new to the organization. Shorten his settling down runway through droll insights. Identify off-the-organization-chart influencers for him. Signal that you are going to be a part of his team. Use this opportunity to become a trusted adviser. But as he finds his way, remember to stay in the background. Though tempting, don’t attempt to get bigger than the boss himself.”
Never ever let it get personal. To quote a lady who has since smartened up, “When my vibrant, funny and knowledgeable boss moved on to a new role and was replaced by a tough taskmaster lady boss, I was crushed. Being the only two ladies in the team of almost the same age (or maybe I was older than her), our arguments became personal. The result: The two of us were always at loggerheads. Life was difficult! In retrospect, I should have let it go. And maybe just let her have her way.” Not for nothing do the wise ones say “Stoop to Conquer”.
The acid test, of course, is when the new boss comes in to fill a role you yourself had coveted and been in contention for. The degree of toughness is directly proportional to the publicity and probability that had been accorded to this possibility. Feeling bad is natural, but fuelling your resentment will only lead to a spiral of negativity. Subterfuge and unionizing the troops may lead to a possible overthrow. But the chances are remote and the problems many. Clearing the air with your new boss is simultaneously cathartic and a great way to move forward. Be graceful in defeat, for now; live to fight another day.
And finally if none of this works and throwing in the towel is just not your style, lie low. The Serenity Prayer, survivors say, comes in very handy. “God, give me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.