At Tektronix, a manufacturer of electronics-testing equipment based in Beaverton, Oregon, the executive suites ought to be outfitted with revolving doors. Materials Manager Mike Armstrong, who oversees 22 staffers in the company's $900 million production division, says new bosses arrive more regularly than birthdays. In his 20 years at Tektronix, Armstrong has found himself reporting to about 40 people. The changing face of The Boss results from the company's frequent reorganizations and Armstrong's professional growth.
Armstrong is by now so sensitive to the vagaries of human nature that he prefers sizing up new bosses on his own, uninfluenced by others' opinions. In fact, his real-world experience has made him something of an expert on dealing with a new boss. Here are his strategies for handling three commonly encountered "firsts."
Your First Conversation
Armstrong prefers that his first meeting with a new boss take place in the office, rather than somewhere off-site. "The office enforces structure," he says, "while reinforcing the corporate culture."
Before Armstrong meets with a new boss, he draws up a list of action items. "Though I'm prepared, I go into the initial meeting with a neutral demeanor," he explains. "I want the new guy to take the lead. If you bring up too many problems during that first meeting, you'll seem negative, and that doesn't do either of you any good."
But, Armstrong insists, the only way to establish a collaborative relationship is to speak openly and honestly. "My current boss, for example, is a hands-on guy. During our first meeting, I had to back him off and get him to stay on a macro level."
He did this by playing to the boss's need for control — but without caving in: "I promised to file status reports regularly on whatever he wanted. And he agreed to stop micro-managing." Given the chance to succeed or fail on his own terms, Armstrong rose to the occasion, filed the reports, and exceeded his boss's expectations. Today, he works with a large degree of autonomy.
Your First Disagreement
When Armstrong disagrees with the methods or conclusions of a new boss — someone he barely knows and has not yet established credibility with — he immediately reminds himself to keep cool. He documents his face-to-face conversations with emails and memos, cc'd to the appropriate people, as a way to cover his butt. He takes nothing personally and strives to use objective research to influence his boss. When things get tense, he frequently uses this expression: "I have a different perspective. Let me do some research on it and get back to you in a week."
Armstrong uses that seven-day lag to gather data and build a fact-based argument. "We had a new VP who told me that my planning process was all wrong because our 'inventory turns' — the ratio of inventory to sales — were merely average," recalls Armstrong. "He didn't realize that our marketing forecasts were routinely high, and I'd been told not to order below the forecasts out of fear that we'd run out of materials and not be able to fill orders."
Armstrong used the next week to show that a mathematical process called a "histogram" would enable him to offset inaccuracies in the marketing reports and come up with tighter forecast numbers. "In the end he allowed me to plan under the marketing forecasts, using them only as a baseline. Our whole work environment became much more conducive to risk-taking — based on calculated decisions."
Your First Realization That the New Boss is Clueless
When you've had as many different bosses as Armstrong, it's inevitable that you'll get at least one stinker. Armstrong has learned to deal with brain-dead bosses by concentrating on his work. Such was the case when a manager switched from a business division to run Armstrong's highly technical department. The new guy tried to use reckless assertiveness, says Armstrong, a technique that masked a serious lack of technical expertise.
The boss's alpha-wolf manner stifled open communication, and Armstrong's belief in his boss slowly got sapped. He dealt with the problem by reducing contact and refocusing on his work.
"I minimized my interaction with the new boss and waited for him to inevitably be replaced," says Armstrong. "Strangely enough, I was especially productive during this period. I focused on the job and stopped worrying about office politics."
Coordinates: Mike Armstrong, firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.