Fast Company

When It's Time to Adapt to a New Leader

This whole “brand new President of the United States” thing is no big deal. The workforce is already well trained in making the necessary adjustments to having a new person at the top of the food chain. We’ve all worked for organizations that distributed that memo.

Anyone who has ever had a job (which I assume includes most everybody reading this, unless my cousin Rudy—who has been spending the past eight years thinking that reciting his poetry in coffeehouses to an audience of nine people, six of whom still wear berets on a regular basis, is going to somehow manifest into a career—has taken to perusing business publications) knows this whole “brand new President of the United States” thing is no big deal.  The workforce is already well trained in making the necessary adjustments to having a new person at the top of the food chain.  We’ve all worked for organizations that distributed that memo.  You know, the one urging us to join them in welcoming the latest head honcho, around whom, it is none too subtly suggested, we would be advised to grit our teeth and hold our tongues.  An implied request made all the more galling by the fact that said memo usually includes an exhaustive and in-your-face list of the accomplishments the incoming big shot amassed prior to when he or she came to lord themselves over we the unwashed.  Or, maybe the old CEO was simply led away in handcuffs three days ago, and the replacement, any replacement, will have to do for now.

In any case, the White House isn’t the only place where a shift in power impacts our lives.  In fact, in the workplace, turnover usually comes a lot more fast and furious than once every four to eight years.  The difference being that while our elected officials are presumably hired to work for us (if by “us” you mean powerful lobbyists, anyway), it is us who have to work for the hired officials to whom we report.  Therefore, it is in our best interest to discover exactly who this person above us really is, and how best to deal with what they are going to mean to our job.  The sooner one develops strategies for testing the mettle of one’s new boss, the sooner one can hone one’s competitive edge.

Ideally, your informal compiling of assessments will be seamlessly integrated into the workweek, and your statistical findings known only to you.  For example, start by gauging your new CEO’s levels of tolerance and compassion by showing up late for work in tiny, negligible increments (two minutes late on Monday, six minutes late on Friday and so on) over the course of a couple of weeks, then sit back and wait for which degree of tardiness finally brings them to a tipping point.  Granted, this may upset a certain level of punctuality and professionalism on which you have always prided yourself, but these transgressions will be in aid of your discovering valuable information, and after the fact-finding subterfuge is over, you can easily return to your previous level of conscientious practice.   Of course, if after being a mere 30 seconds late on the first day you are immediately threatened with either a) dismissal, b) a new job in the company’s Malaysian hoodie-manufacturing sweatshop or c) serious bodily injury, discontinue this strategy.

Another tactic for feeling out how things are going to be under a new regime is to be the contrarian.  Let the others suck up, fawning over every suggestion and fresh perspective the so-called new blood wants to inject into the dynamic.  Your task is to object, in the strongest possible terms, to all the ideas that hit the table.  Just make sure your reasoning is sound.  After all, if the topic under consideration is whether or not to limit the number of inter-office e-mails, and you say it’s a bad idea because you’ll miss being able to forward those links to YouTube videos of skateboarding cockatiels, you might be looked at askance.  Better to take the positive, if utterly insincere, viewpoint that limiting office e-mails will only cut down on the possibility of some really great idea that could potentially skyrocket the company to heretofore unknown profit margins, thus securing the CEO’s name in history alongside Bill Gates, Oprah and Genghis Khan.  It’s simply a matter of how you make the case.  We’ve all seen those movies where the powerful, hard-nosed executive ends up taking a shine to the one person in their organization who refuses to be a yes man.  And if it works in the movies, it is bound to work in real life, right?

Now, this is not to say you shouldn’t strive to impress the person to whom you’ll be reporting for the foreseeable future.  I recommend picking some innocuous aspect of the workplace, building it up into something on which the fiscal health and smooth operations of the organization absolutely depends, and then organizing a task force to streamline and/or eliminate it.  (Regulating the use of office supplies, keeping a tight rein on copier usage and limiting the amount of Dilbert cartoons that can be push-pinned to a cubicle wall are all excellent non-issues.)  Play this one right, and the new person, too harried by trying to come up to speed on their myriad duties, will be so impressed with your initiative that you may well be in line for the corner office when they are led away in handcuffs a few months down the road.  

Perhaps the most crucial touchstone is being able to pinpoint whether or not your new boss has a highly developed sense of integrity combined with an all-important sense of humor.  I have devised a fun little test to determine the level of both these traits at once.
Find a reason to drop into your superior’s office (I recommend the urge to express a contrary opinion about something that come up in the Monday meeting), and gradually steer the conversation to your personal life.  Take out your wallet (ladies, this may necessitate going into the office with your purse or handbag, which could be clunky—I cannot help you there) and show off a photo of something (your dog, your child, your spouse, or all three if you got the deal I did at the Sears portrait studio).   Surreptitiously leave the wallet on the person’s desk and depart a few beats later on an urgent matter, closing the door as you leave, seemingly too busy to have noticed you left the wallet behind. If, in a moment or two, the new hire emerges from behind the closed door to return your wallet, then you know they have integrity.  If, however, they cannot resist the urge to go through your personal items, the first thing they will find is a note you have left on the inside to greet them as soon as they flip it open.  A note reading: “You’re the CEO.  What the hell are you doing going through my wallet?”  This, then, will be a highly effective test of both their sense of humor and, it should be added, of your longevity with the company.  But, as they say, great rewards only come with great risks.  

Lastly, remember that whoever it is that gets the upper management position will, much like our new president, be responsible, one way or another, for your financial and emotional stability over the course of their term.  And, much like our new president, they will likely find their own ways to test your support of them and gauge your level of involvement in the give-and-take of the system.  In this regard, I like to cite Frank Yablans, the former head of Paramount Studios, who, upon his promotion to top of the heap, reportedly called each of his now-new employees into his office and asked them, “so, why shouldn’t I fire you?”  We might all do well to start compiling a list of answers to that question as a workplace survival strategy.  As to the new head honcho in the political arena, after the next four years we are all welcome to ask the same question of
him, too.

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