How to Survive a Major Management Change

The city is like a car.”

The happy hour conversation had turned to the upcoming mayoral election. I was chatting with a colleague who had worked in New York City government for 27 years. He’d worked for four different mayors in three decades, so he had a certain level of authority to speak on the topic of administration change. “When the new mayor comes in, the car gets a shiny new hood,” he told me. “But lift up that hood and everything underneath—the gears that make the whole thing tick—remains the same.”

When a major management change is underfoot—whether it be a new elected official or a new CEO—tensions often mount among the organization’s upper ranks. Will their jobs be safe, or will they be replaced by their new boss’ trusted advisor? Will that project they’ve been toiling away at for two years be deprioritized? And what will become of the workplace culture, from happy hours to weekend Blackberry policies to unspoken wardrobe requirements?

There is some truth to my colleague’s mechanical metaphor: When there’s change at the top of a massive organization, the engine will continue to spin. Paychecks will be sent, and lights will stay on. But the closer you are to the top of that management structure, the more likely you are to feel the reverberations—and the more important it is to develop a plan not only for surviving the change, but for thriving in the face of it.

Preparing for the Change

In the government world, officials are elected according to a regular cycle, their expiration dates firmly in place from the start. The fixed nature of this cycle affords employees the benefits of planning and foresight. On the flip side, the reality of political appointments is that new leaders often clean house upon arrival, and some jobs may be swept out to make room for the new order.

Wielding the power of foresight, an employee facing this major management change must consider the question most eloquently presented by The Clash in 1982: “Should I stay or should I go now?” The first consideration is whether your job is safe. Is my position so closely tied to my manager’s that if she gets pushed out, I’ll be pushed out with her? Is my job function likely to pass the test of a skeptic’s scrutiny? Facing the likelihood that the time is nigh is a chance to survey the landscape and find an out before you’re pushed out. There’s a game of musical chairs that often transpires during the shuffle. This could be an opportunity to shake things up for yourself, and you can start by networking early so you land in a chair of your choice.

If job security is not a concern, the next stay-or-go question is a more nuanced one: Do I want to work for this new leader? Many of my colleagues working for the City of New York began their careers with a political attachment to the mayor, some of their tenures dating back to his campaign. Their enthusiasm for carrying out their leader’s vision waned when they envisioned swapping out that leader for someone new. Other colleagues, though, had entered the world of city government because of a commitment to public service or excitement about a specific program. For them, the captain of the ship was less important than the opportunity to work on its crew.

For those who emerge from this line of self-questioning with a plan to ride out the rocky waves of transition, preparation is key. Research the new mayor or CEO, whether he or she will be your boss, your boss’ boss, or your boss’ boss’ boss. Get a feel for what he has done at previous organizations, whether he tends to tow the party line or lives to shake things up. Armed with a better understanding of what you’re in for, you’ll be ready to adapt and make the most of the change that’s in store.

Surviving the Change

It’s the first day under new leadership. Everything certain is uncertain again. You make your way to your cubicle, brew your morning brew, and the first thing you do: absolutely nothing.

It may seem like a good time to make an impression and bring that list of 50 ideas to your new boss’s desk, but the very best thing you can do is listen, observe, and feel out the new game before you make a play. Even if you’ve studied eight pages of Google search results for your new manager, you can’t predict what she will truly be like until you see her in action. Within a few weeks, you should have a feel for whether she’s about top-down change and employees who follow orders, or whether she’s looking for mavericks to help her turn the status quo on its head. At this point, you can decide with greater confidence whether that list of ideas will be received with enthusiasm or a furrowed brow.

Remember, though, that adapting doesn’t mean transforming into an entirely different employee. Bob Taylor, former dean of the business school at the University of Louisville, highlights the importance of authenticity: “Do not attempt to change your role and be someone you think the new person wants,” he says. “Any new leader is looking for top people who are transparent and authentic. If you are a top performer, continue. If you are contributing less than your potential, think about how you want the new leader to see you (and your potential).”

A management change also offers an opportunity to reevaluate your work. A new leader may be skeptical of every initiative that came before him; it’s his job, after all, to shepherd in new ways of doing things. Before someone else asks you, ask yourself if you can explain the importance of the work you do and your critical role in carrying it out. Be careful to strike a balance, though: Justify your work too vehemently, and you may come off as having too stubborn an allegiance to the old ways of doing things.

Paul Schwada, a business consultant whose firm Locomotive Solutions has helped many a business through executive churn, echoes this warning about the pitfalls of getting defensive. “The worst thing a holdover can do,” he says, “is to show herself to be an unshakeable part of the old guard. Usually that means defending plans and assumptions that need to be reconsidered under the new management. If they’re good plans and assumptions, it won’t hurt to reconsider them. And you’ll show the new leadership that you’re wide open to whatever is best for the organization.”

Thriving After the Change

As I have followed the mayoral transition in New York City this year, one thing has become painfully clear: These things take time. Sometimes much more than most people are willing to accept. The whispers from the inside speak of pushing forward blindly, without direction from above. When will our agency get a new commissioner? Why is my program, which was so highly valued in the old regime, getting so little attention from the new one? It takes time for a new leader to get a handle on a complex organization in motion, and a deep reserve of patience will help you through the transition.

Along with patience, bring along a high degree of openness. Many people welcome new leaders because they’re ready for a new approach to the same old problems. This fresh take can benefit not only those on the outside—the public that relies on its government or the customers that patronize a business—but also the employees on the inside. Take the opportunity to challenge the framework through which you view your job, your role in the organization, and the organization’s approach to doing business.

Challenging the status quo can span from the macro-level (management styles) to the micro-level (specific aspects of a process). It may mean staying open when the word “reorganization” is uttered; perhaps the layout of the current organizational chart can be improved upon. It may be as simple as adjusting to a new meeting schedule or status report format—sometimes the minutiae of office life are ripe for revamping and hold greater potential for change than you would think. We are creatures of habit, and this kind of openness is easier said than done. But failing to challenge our assumptions is a sure recipe for hamstrung progress.

Upheaval among the upper ranks of any organization can send you into a frenzy of stapler-clutching anxiety. But it is also rife with opportunity, if you know where to look for it. Relish the shiny new hood, and recognize that your place among its mechanical underpinnings can improve if you play your cards just right.

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