What to Do When You Get a New Boss

There are few work experiences as unsettling as the arrival of a new boss. I'm not talking about moving into a new department or job and getting a new supervisor in the process. That can be fun, because you're excited about the new assignment or promotion.

I'm talking about when your boss gets replaced. In that case, there's rarely a sense of adventure. Most people find a change above them to be unsettling, prompting them to ask themselves things like, "Will I get fired when the new boss brings in his favorite people from his past position?" "Will my contributions be valued as much as before?" "Why didn't I get the job? Am I not respected here?"

These issues are freighted with emotion, and that can make it difficult to get off on the right foot with the new supervisor. To give yourself the best chance of establishing a productive relationship, you'll need to do a little homework. Take the focus off yourself and do your best to understand the new boss's situation. Recognize that your emotions are not your new boss's primary concern. She has the facts of the transition to deal with, along with her own emotions.

Here are some steps to take in preparation for that first big meeting.

Start by figuring out what your new boss's mandate might be. You can probably make a pretty good guess by considering the state of your group and taking stock of the circumstances under which your old boss left. Was his departure voluntary or involuntary? Was he fired, promoted or subjected to a life change, or did he choose to move to another organization? Was he loved or despised by subordinates, peers and supervisors? The challenges faced by the new boss will be quite different depending on whether she is succeeding a beloved patriarch who left everything running smoothly or a despised despot who left a pile of bodies behind. You should be able to put all of this together well enough to make a list of the top few things that you think your new boss has been tasked to accomplish.

You're going to use those suppositions to create a second list, but first I recommend a little exercise aimed at getting your emotions in hand. This involves writing two other lists. These lists aren't for anyone's eyes but yours, so don't hold anything back. The title of the first should be "Things the new boss could do that would exacerbate all of our current problems." The second should be "Things the new boss could do that would undermine what's working really well now." After you've vented, go over these two lists and think about the genuine issues that have given rise to the items you have put down.

Once you have studied these two lists enough to separate emotion from reason, write down the things that you feel the new boss needs to understand about the current work of the organization, how it does or doesn't support her presumed mandate, your role in that work, the culture of the organization and the individuals involved. Run through the list and make sure you really know what's important about each point.

In your first meeting with the new boss, you need to restrict yourself to sharing only the category titles and general themes you have come up with. You don't want to overwhelm her with details at this point.

The goal of your first meeting with your new boss is to establish a working relationship that will earn you the right to share the details later and have your input be respected.

Paul Glen is a consultant who helps technical organizations improve productivity through leadership, and the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks (Jossey-Bass, 2003). You can contact him at info@paulglen.com.

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