Dealing with Regime Change at the Office

"I just got in, after a business trip to Texas, and five people were gone. Gone. The COO and four others. Just like that."

It's always a shock when colleagues are fired. But what makes this particular case so startling is that the person to be taken by surprise was the CEO. Even she didn't know her colleagues were being terminated.

How could that happen? She'd recently sold her technology business. Agreeing to stay on for a two-year earn out meant she was available to advise and she was still visible as a figure head. But she wasn't in charge any more. She knew that — and now her employees knew it too.

Regime change is hard on everyone. Whether it's a new CEO or a new owner, changes of control almost always begin with platitudinous statements about how everything will stay the same. Don't believe it. There really is no such thing as a seamless transition. The CEO who stays on to try to effect that, with the best will in the world, often makes things worse: now there are two bosses. Where do your loyalties lie? Sooner or later, everyone has to look to the future. It can feel disloyal — that's why it's so painful. But you have to think about your future too.

You'll almost always sense regime change before it's official. The grapevine's working overtime; there seem to be a lot of unspecified meetings. This is unavoidable; the CEO wants everyone to stay focused on the day-to-day business, and many negotiations break down. Don't take the secrecy personally and try not to get too absorbed in water-cooler speculation. Your best protection is outstanding performance.

In any change of control, the first question that everyone inevitably asks is: Will there be layoffs? Many new managements will insist that there won't be — even before they know for sure. Saying there will be no layoffs is a little like saying there will be "no new taxes." Everyone means it at the time, but times change.This is the point at which more seasoned employees normally start to look for new jobs. They'd rather jump than be pushed. That isn't necessarily the wrong thing to do — but before you follow suit, make sure you aren't prejudging the future before it's happened. Leave if you are going to something wildly better — don't leave just because you're sulking. There's a great deal of opportunity inside regime change if you can position yourself correctly. And severance payments have probably funded more entrepreneurship and career changes than any Act of Congress.

It takes time for the new regime to know what it wants and for you to figure out what it has to offer you. Everyone is, in a sense, starting from scratch. Your new bosses have to find out who you are, what your strengths are, and how best to work with you. You have to do likewise. This can be galling, especially if you have years of excellent work to your name. Why should you have to prove yourself all over again? Just because you do. But think of it as a new job — and a chance to redefine some of your role and responsibilities to your advantage. Some of the best executives I've seen have seized this moment to win through some of the functional or political changes they'd struggled for years to bring about. When everything is up for grabs, what are the changes that would make your work richer?

It's not always that easy, of course. I recall Kate, a TV executive, who returned from maternity leave to a new boss. She was, she found, tainted by association. When her projects (initiated under her old boss) turned out to be wildly successful, it made matters worse and she found herself ostracized. Anything that made the old strategy look good made her new boss look bad. Caught in the crossfire of regime change, the better she did, the worse she was treated. Ultimately she had no choice but to leave.

Rougher still is cultural change. In the tech company that lost five executives overnight, the real issue was not, of course, performance. The new owners wanted to make it very clear that their arrival ushered in a different mindset. Inheriting a company whose culture was diverse, democratic, and supportive, they wanted people to feel afraid. They thought the workforce had become lazy and complacent and they wanted everyone more productive and efficient. They felt they needed a symbolic act that would signal the new style. Firing five executives certainly achieved that. Now everyone is left wondering where they stand. They're all very committed to the company. They love their jobs and they'd hoped to grow alongside the expansion promised by the new owners. But they're having to confront the hard truth of regime change, which is that it is always wholesale.

New leadership always means new culture. How could it be otherwise? The most important job of business leaders is to create a culture. And so the biggest question that employees face is not "what will happen to my job" but "what will happen to our values?" If you are in a company that gets new management, the most relevant question may not be about your job but about what those new leaders stand for, what they believe in. If you share their values, you can figure out the rest. And if you don't, then you may not want your job anyway.

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  • Margaret Heffernan

    I think regime change can often feel rather random and narcissistic and, undoubtedly, sometimes it is just that. But I have to say that most business leaders I've known are trying to do their best. Their best may not be good enough and their values may not be yours. But however wrong-headed their strategies may appear, they're usually devised in the hope that they will make the company successful. One of the problems CEOs face is the growing expectation that they will have all the answers and one of the biggest mistakes a CEO can make is to THINK he or she does have all the answers.

  • mahendrakumardash

    But ignoring CEo means loosing the job,and one is constrained to.The majority lies here and time has come to look for ,and give them the job satisfaction and reward for the work done.He may face a situation in his own office that people will tell was he not getting salary for the work done and what is special about him and there they make non performer and performer equal.

  • mahendrakumardash

    I remember Longfellow.Men may come and men may go...but.....The professional is more seeked after with change of a professional CEO.And why bother who CEO is ,one should work out and execute the plans as honestly as possible.Certain things may not be under control and one may not be awarded,but self satisfaction remains.The company surives on.

  • Gary Robinson

    Regime change can be viewed as simply as the self-indulgence of the leader while playing in his/her executive sandbox. It is his/her's to build and destroy for their enjoyment, particularly if it was build by a predecessor A sand castle here, and you tire or it or don't like it, then tear it down and build another. Doesn't matter if it was a prize winning castle, because you can always build another, no matter the human cost. Ultimately their indulgence catches up with them but generally the damage has been done and it is left to others to put the pieces back together again, if they can be put back together. We afford our leaders much more power and credit for responsible thinking than they deserve.