In some workplaces, reorgs and personnel changes are constant, which means that you might be getting a new boss every few months. How do you develop an effective relationship with your manager when the person filling that role keeps shifting? How much of an investment should you make? How can you get what you need to succeed and grow in your role? And is maintaining continuity your responsibility?
What the Experts Say
Managing your relationship with your boss is challenging enough as it is. When that person changes every six months, the task becomes a lot more difficult—and time-consuming. “There’s a big part of work that is relational,” says Reb Rebele, an instructor in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “Collaborative Overload”. “You’re dealing with people on a regular basis, getting to know them, establishing norms, and establishing patterns. If your manager is constantly changing, you’re doing a lot of extra relational work and it’s a much bigger investment of your time and energy.” Priscilla Claman, the president of Career Strategies, a Boston-based consulting firm and a contributor to the HBR Guide to Getting the Right Job, agrees that having to cycle through new managers is “one of the world’s most frustrating things.” Your “impulse may be to duck and hide,” she says, but you must instead be proactive. It’s never easy to have several bosses in as many years, but there are ways to make this challenging situation more tolerable. Here are some tips.
Schedule an “interview”
Let’s not sugarcoat this. A new manager can be “very dangerous” to your career prospects, says Claman, because “the person who hired you will always love you more” than someone who inherits you. You must therefore “do the best you can to make it seem as though you’re being hired by the new boss.” Schedule an appointment to meet her one-on-one and bring a copy of your resume. Speak about your accomplishments as you would in a job interview. “Talk about who you are, how you work, your strengths, and your goals,” Rebele adds. It’s important to “spend this early time with your new boss having those kinds of conversations” particularly if it’s a volatile time at your organization. Think of it as a “co-onboarding process.”
Discover the new priorities
Next, do a little detective work. “You need to find out the reason why this boss was appointed and what it means” for your organization and your career path, says Claman. “It may have something to do with the failures of the previous manager, but it’s more likely that the new boss signals a change in the organization’s direction or a shift in its mission.” To find out, talk to your peers, your colleagues in other departments, or your boss’s boss. Get involved in your new manager’s orientation process. Then, either “align yourself with the new priorities” or, “if your company is heading in a very different direction, think about whether you still want to be associated with it.”
Modify and adjust
One of the most challenging things about dealing with these frequent changes is that “it’s hard to get into a rhythm,” says Rebele. “The benefit of working with someone over time is that you know what to expect and there’s a lot of predictability.” When the org chart is in flux, however, you need to regularly “update your mental models” and modify your behavior and work style. Claman says it helps that you “not think of these people as your bosses,” but instead as “very important clients,” each with “his own quirks and special needs.” You need to “adapt and change” and accommodate. Ask each new boss how he likes to communicate. Ask how often he wants status updates. And find out how much detail he wants in those updates. After a month or so of the new normal, “ask for feedback about how you’re doing.”
Invest in the relationship, even if it’s temporary
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you don’t need a strong relationship with a new boss who may soon be replaced, says Claman. “You need to make a big investment” no matter how short you expect the person’s tenure to be. This is as much for you as them, Rebelle notes. “Having good relationships with colleagues and your boss makes your workday more enjoyable” and efficient, he explains. “You don’t have to be best friends” with a new manager, but it’s a good idea to make an effort to get to know her. Ask about her hobbies, her weekend plans, and her family. Be open and curious. If those conversation topics go nowhere, default to work.
Focusing on learning
Even in the best professional situations, you shouldn’t “rely on your boss for all of your development needs,” says Claman. But a new manager will almost certainly have something useful to teach you. Perhaps he’s a sales whiz, a brilliant marketing strategist, or has great technical chops. Transient bosses may not be in the best position to mentor and coach, especially when it comes to navigating the organization, but Rebele points out that they do often bring “novel information—a new background, new experiences, and new perspectives.” They can allow you to “see your work with fresh eyes,” he says. So take advantage of the “opportunity to learn.”
Check your attitude
You may find that you don’t like or respect your new boss as much as your old one, but don’t dwell on the negative. Rebele suggests you “focus your attention and energy on areas you do have control over and things you can do to improve the situation” like being a “helping contributor.” Claman concurs. “If you start thinking, ‘I’m the only one here who knows what’s going on; these people are clowns,’ that will come through in your work,” she says. Similarly, don’t moan to colleagues about your new-boss whiplash. If you need to vent, talk to your spouse or your friends (provided they don’t work at your company). Seek out people who will give you honest feedback about the validity of your complaints.
One bright spot of the frequent management switches: the number of senior managers who can vouch for your work increases. That’s why it’s smart to treat even short-term bosses as part of your growing professional network. “Our networks can be helpful to us down the road in ways we can’t always foresee,” Rebele notes. Even if you decide it’s too much work to stay in touch with all of them, “never badmouth your current boss to your old boss,” Claman adds. “Not only could it mess up your relationship with your new boss, it might also taint the feelings your previous boss had for you.”
Principles to Remember
- A little digging to find out the reason why this boss was appointed and what it means for your organization and your career path
- Be willing to adapt and change your style and behavior to accommodate your new manager
- Make an effort to get to know your new boss on a personal and professional level just as you would any new colleague
- Dwell on your annoyance. It’s better to focus your energy on things you can do to improve the situation
- Assume that your new boss has nothing to teach you. Instead, think about what he knows that you don’t
- Badmouth your current boss to your old boss. It could harm your relationship with your new boss and spoil your previous boss’s regard for you
Case Study #1: Accommodate your new boss and stay in touch with your old one
Mark Scott, the chief marketing officer at Apixio, the digitized medical records company, has experienced his fair share of organizational changes over the course of his career. In one job alone, he endured six consecutive corporate reorgs and had five different bosses in two and half years.
It was frustrating for Mark, especially since he had joined the company in the first place to work for Claudia, his original hiring manager. “She impressed the heck out of me,” he recalls. “She was a super smart, strategic thinker, and I thought I could learn a lot from her. [But] eight months into my job, she got promoted [and moved on].”
Mark reported to no one for a “painful few months.” The quality of his work life declined even more after the company’s leadership appointed a “corporate person who had no foundational experience whatsoever in marketing,” as his manager. His new boss was based at the company’s Ohio headquarters, while Mark ran a team of 38 people in San Diego.
Mark had “very little support from” his new manager and for a while, he kept his head down. But when his third boss—we’ll call her Regina—started making decisions about his department and team without consulting him, Mark realized he needed to do more to cultivate a relationship. He flew to Ohio to meet with her in person.
“I wanted Regina to see me as a resource and [as a source of] positive energy,” he says. “I told her how I like to work, how I like to receive information, and how I process it. I explained to her how past decisions were made. And I asked her: ‘How do you like to work? And how can I help you?’”
Regina told Mark that she wanted to be more involved in his team’s decision-making process. Mark—who says he is someone “who likes to move quickly”—modified and adjusted his style to accommodate Regina. He sent status updates and project reviews each week; before any new product launch or initiative, Mark made sure Regina had all the relevant information in her inbox 48 hours in advance.
It was tedious and “time-consuming” but the new process “improved the dynamic” between them. “It gave Regina an understanding of everything that was going on and also gave her the opportunity to provide input.”
Mark also made a concerted effort to build a more personal relationship with Regina. He chatted with her before meetings and whenever she was in town from Ohio.
Today Mark is not in touch with Regina, but he remains in contact with Claudia. “We speak on the phone from time to time and ask each other for advice,” he says. “We have a good relationship.”
Case Study #2: Determine why the new boss was appointed and what it means
Alex Roman (not his real name) had been in his job as a product manager for a retail marketing company for less than a year when his boss got promoted to a new position in the company; his second boss lasted about six months in the post, and by the time his third boss was appointed, Alex was annoyed—and worried.
“I felt like my team and my product were being passed around,” he says. “With the management changes, it seemed as though the company wasn’t invested in what we were working on.”
Once his new boss—we’ll call her Pam—was installed, he went on a mission to determine the reason behind the constant reorganizations. He talked to his colleagues in other units, and he inquired about the company’s strategy with his manager’s manager. “As it turned out,” he said, “the company was shifting away from mobile products—where my expertise was—and instead putting more money into what had been our core business.”
Alex realized he didn’t have much of a future career with the company—nor did he want one. He started to discretely look for new work. “After I grasped that my company was heading in a new direction, I saw that my role was no longer critical to the organization, nor was it valued,” he says. “I had to move on.”
But in the meantime, Alex needed to make the best out of his situation. He scheduled a one-on-one meeting with Pam where the two made a plan about how they would work together. He tried to stay positive and focused on ways he could help Pam get acclimated in her new job. Alex also got to know Pam on a personal level—they both had daughters the same age so they bonded over toddler tantrums. While he wasn’t going to stay long at his company, he also realized that he could learn from Pam. “She had almost encyclopedic knowledge about how retail promotions work,” he says. “I still think back on how much I learned from her.”
n the end, Alex’s hunch was correct. He and his team were let go only six months after Pam took over. “I am just glad I already had a job search up and running,” he says.
Alex was lucky to find a new job in mobile products that suited his interests and expertise. Happily, he has reported to the same person ever since he was hired.
Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist in Boston and a lecturer at Wesleyan University. Her work has been published in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Financial Times.
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