I was the heir apparent to the founder of our company. Or so I thought. Yesterday he announced that he had chosen a successor from outside, and I'm in a state of shock. I've been asked to stay on, and the new CEO seems like a good guy, but this won't be easy. What would you advise?
Tough day. I can only imagine how you feel: angry, hurt, disappointed, and likely more than just a little bit humiliated, too. While you might be tempted to jump on the next plane to Tahiti to hide your embarrassment, don't make any rash decisions. Making career choices under the sway of intense feelings is perilous at best.
However painful it may be, consider why this might have happened. His choice of an outsider could be a sign of good judgment (be brutally honest with yourself—it's possible!). Or, if you've had a close relationship with the founder, his decision could reveal his inability to deal with his own retirement. If you feel like a son or daughter to him, he might have rejected you because you bring him face-to-face with his own mortality.
I know that doesn't exactly help with the humiliation you're probably experiencing. The degree to which you tolerate that embarrassment, and whether it fades over time, will be important in deciding whether to stay or go. If you're thick-skinned and willing to keep your current role—or, ideally, some enhanced version of it—as well as comfortable reporting to your new boss, then it might work to stick around.
But if you're like most mortals, you might decide to look elsewhere, and not only because of the pain: Your ambition to run a company has been thwarted. If that matters a lot to you, then you might want to get started on your search. You don't want to stick around if your remaining years will be colored by resentment and lingering thoughts of what might have been.
What do you do when you join an organization and realize that you don't like or respect your new boss? During the interview, I thought she was intelligent and skilled. Since then, I've learned that she's unprofessional, disorganized, and self-promoting.
First, ask yourself if your new boss is really as bad as you make her sound, or if her style is just so different from what you're used to that you're having a hard time adjusting. You might be retrospectively idealizing the old and devaluing the new while you're getting settled in at the new place.
While you shouldn't trash your boss in public, choose a few trusted new colleagues with whom you can test out your appraisal. If they don't agree, ask yourself why she's rubbing you the wrong way. If they do share your pain, ask them how they've learned to accommodate her faults. Surely you took the job for the opportunities it offered, too, and your colleagues' advice may help you work toward any goals you set coming in.
That said, if she becomes intolerable, don't be afraid to admit this move could have been a blunder. If you're still convinced that it's the wrong place for you after some careful thought, start looking for a better job. There's no virtue in staying somewhere that makes you miserable. Someday you'll look back at this unhappy blip on your CV as a powerful learning experience.
Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises CEOs on people and culture issues. Send him questions about the psychology of business (www.fastcompany.com/keyword/shrink).
A version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.