Jeff Schmitt: From the Bottom Up

Meet Your New Boss: the Competition


The two men couldn’t be more different. Your old boss burrowed into spreadsheets and reports, keeping his own counsel and rarely venturing among the rank and file (let alone making eye contact). The job demands had left him furrowed, stooped, and dour. You nicknamed him "MaGoo" and derided his speeches as "nature’s answer to Lunesta." But you don’t know what to make of his replacement. This guy hops planes for "listening tours." He chats with staff on Facebook and on Twitter. He is young, hip, upbeat, and technically savvy. A month ago he was poaching your accounts. Now he’s your boss. The old guard already hates him. You love him for that.

The guy sure talks a great game. He claims you’re building a new kind of company. Instead of warning of tipping points, he espouses joy and candor. His communications always end the same way—with a reminder that "this is our moment" and how he believes in you. Nonetheless, you feel wary. You haven’t forgotten those slanders and sleazy deals that emanated from his former employer. That’s always on your minds: Was this man the brains behind them? Many of your fellow employees had immigrated to this company to get away from the cutthroat culture over there. Now he has followed them. Time to wonder: Will you become like them—or is he trying to escape all that, too?

The higher-ups hype his hiring as a coup, a game changer. Sometimes, you get swept up in it, too. Then you march back to your offices, to the same people, pressures, routines, red tape, and rivalries. And that rah-rah vibe—the belief that your future is limitless and contribution meaningful—fades away. The honeymoon is the easy part. What will happen when the brash talk and big plans smack against entrenched interests, history, budgets, and structural limits?

More important, what will happen to you? Once you parse his words, they’re little more than fluff—vague and wishful sentiments calculated to allay anxieties and buy time for a reorganization. In the end, you can only observe his actions to translate his true intentions. Want to know what to expect in a management change? Here’s what to expect:

1. You’ll see and hear much from your new leader. Visibility is key. Expect regular e-mails, town halls, personal visits, and videos. At a surface level, your new boss wants to share his story, establish his credentials, and outline how his expectations entwine with his vision. Beyond that, he needs to make a connection, build trust, and earn your buy-in. In the early days, he will overcommunicate to build excitement and momentum, to keep you from backsliding into comfortable (and potentially limiting) mind sets. He’ll ask you to open up and do what hasn’t been done before. Don’t fight it. He didn’t reach this level by accident. Who knows? You might just learn or achieve something you hadn’t expected.

2. He’ll ask for feedback. You can’t fix what you don’t know—certainly not from 30,000 feet. Expect him to take the deep dive with you as his guide. That’s right: He’ll want to know what keeps you from doing (and enjoying) your job. In particular, what are the pointless priorities, policies, and processes that drain your time, productivity, and morale? For a short time, everything will be on the table. Resurrect those ideas that had been dismissed or ignored. Focus on the bottom line, free from blame and rancor. You may just make a good impression with the new regime.

3. The culture will change. The new guy was hired for a reason. There will be uncomfortable conversations from top to bottom. The message will be unambiguous: The old ways didn’t take us where we should be, so change or move on. His priorities (sales growth, cost containment, service) and values (speed, accountability, consistency) will quickly become the base and sequence of the company’s DNA. When it comes to this emerging culture, the new boss will stomach you for your lip service, recognize your example, and ultimately measure your results.

4. He’ll bring in his own people. Remember the old joke, "Want to move up in this company? Go work for the competition." Fact is, this is your new boss’s big break. To achieve his mission, he’ll want to raise the talent level with experienced people he can trust. Most likely, he’ll turn to people with whom he worked in the past, probably individuals you compete against every day. You’ll find a company-within-a-company developing. Don’t get discouraged. The people promoted in the next wave are usually existing employees who have adapted and proved themselves.

5. He’ll identify rising stars. Employees good and bad grow leery in uncertain times. They examine their goals and value. Annoyances such as being overlooked and overworked take on added significance. Your new boss knows employees are vulnerable to yearnings to leave. He can review the organizational chart. But those boxes don’t necessarily reflect who has talent, commitment, and growth potential. Expect the new regime to shower attention on those young guns. They’ll get those résumé-building assignments, along with opportunities to network with other divisions and layers. It’s the rising stars—not entrenched management—who will ultimately make or break the new boss. He knows that better than anyone.

6. The structure will change. The past six months make sense now: the hiring freeze, key positions unfilled, and decisions put off. Now, you’re the audience to the cyclical corporate Kabuki—promising a new start by clearing out the stale fixtures. Everything is under the microscope and up for negotiation: how you’re organized, what and how you market, what will be priorities in the pipeline, who should lead or stay, and in what capacity. Your new boss was recruited to bring a fresh perspective. He will focus on what produces revenue—and whether the current "how" still makes sense. Your job may be eliminated or your role narrowed and status diminished. When the new management finishes, you’ll see winners and losers. Check the revised structure for who gets augmented head count, budget, and access. That will serve as a guide to what you should do next.

7. He’ll act quickly and decisively. Think he’ll take a few months to settle in and get organized? Guess again. He earned the job because he had a plan. Chances are, he already knows (or has been told) what should be cleaned up. He has already decided on the balance between continuity and change, speed and scaling, expanding and solidifying. With his position, he has a mandate. To keep it, he needs to notch some achievements fast.

Like any leader from Franklin D. Roosevelt to David Cameron, he’ll execute his most ambitious goals in the first 100 days. Coming from the outside—unbound to people or the past—he’ll start tackling endemic problems, the ones the last regime couldn’t or wouldn’t face. In the process, a tone will be set and wake-up calls delivered. Sacred cows will be liquidated, underperformers and resisters extricated. It’ll be swift, disorienting, painful, and necessary. He’ll target those departments closest to customers (sales, project management, and service) and revenue (finance). They will be the lucky ones. The other employees’ day of reckoning will wait—and those workers will spend months questioning their value, looking over their shoulders, and scavenging for gossip. That’s a far crueler fate.

8. It won’t be fair. At best, you hope they factor in your past accomplishments and sacrifices. At worst, you pray for a clean slate and the opportunity to prove yourself again. But the new regime doesn’t know you or owe you anything. They’ll warn you not to make assumptions, then base decisions on hearsay, without performing due diligence. They need to make decisions fast. They won’t explore the dynamics of each department to learn who truly understands the operations, builds relationships with peers and clients, and anticipates and steers away from major problems. They won’t be around to referee when this void produces meltdowns and score-settling, either. The transition will be messy and disappointing. The best people may find themselves unrewarded, even unretained. You can secretly hope the new guy’s haste boomerangs back on him—or you can step up to fill the void. The choice is yours.

9. It’ll all come full circle. Give it a few years and the jolt will fade away. Your new boss will become the establishment, bearing the same burdens as his predecessor. Over time, he’ll turn more cautious and cynical. His wrinkles will deepen as his eyes grow dull and sunken. His cliché-driven speeches will be satirized; his reports will claim he is out of touch. His superiors will wonder why they keep losing business to a young hotshot at the rival firm. All leaders eventually grow tired and extraneous. So history will repeat itself. You’ll suspend disbelief, renewed by this fresh energy, always hoping the next leader will be worth it.

Jeff_schmitt
Jeff Schmitt is an online columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek. He has spent 17 years in sales, marketing, project management, training, legal compliance, and recruiting. You can reach him via e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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