Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 22;   May 31, 2023: When Your Boss Leaves Before You Do

When Your Boss Leaves Before You Do


At some point in your career, your supervisor will leave his or her position and you'll end up reporting to someone else. It can be a harrowing experience, even if you prepare. Nevertheless, preparation usually produces a better outcome than winging it.
A new day dawning

A new day dawning. This is an apt metaphor for what is to come when your boss leaves. Much might change, but much of what exists will come across from the days before. The goal is to find a way to bring along as much of the recent past as can be helpful in the near future.

Over time, you've worked hard to develop a positive, constructive relationship with your boss. You've accumulated credit, and you've been hoping it would pay off. And your boss has always been fair — favor and trust have been mutual. But now, suddenly, your boss is departing, and you don't know what the future holds. You felt you were in line for promotion and stellar reviews, but that's all in question now. What to do?

I've described this situation in terms of a line manager's position, but it holds for people at any level of the organization. Everyone must answer to someone or to several someones. Everyone must confront the problem of unanticipated departure of the people they must answer to, when those people suddenly move on or are replaced. The feeling is analogous to what happens when someone comes up to you from behind and dumps you from your chair.

In what follows I'll use the name Betty (she/her) to refer to the Boss who's moving on, voluntarily or not. And I'll use the name Sean (he/him) to refer to Betty's Successor.

Three categories of interest

We can Everyone wants to believe that in the
end they'll be OK and that your boss's
successor will be someone they can trust
divide these cases into three categories, according to the context of Betty's departure. The first class, Class I, consists of cases in which the set of Betty's candidate successors includes one or more individuals whom Betty supervised up to the time of her departure. The second class, Class II, includes those cases in which Betty's departure precipitates (or is the result of) a more general reorganization. The third class, Class III, includes cases in which the organization recruits a replacement who is either new to the organization, or hails from somewhere else in the organization outside Betty's department.

Although Class III is perhaps the most common, all three classes can overlap. That is, the organization might recruit a replacement for Betty from outside, and yet still reorganize. Such a case would have some characteristics of both Class II and Class III.

The first two classes are generally more complex, so I'll focus on Class III in this post. And to keep it as simple as possible, I consider only cases that are purely Class III — cases in which the organization recruits a replacement for Betty who is either new to the organization, or who hails from somewhere within the organization but outside Betty's department.

Guiding principles

Even for this restricted class of cases — Class III — it's difficult to prescribe actions that are optimal for all situations. But a small set of guiding principles can be helpful, whether or not a successor has yet been named.

Be a steadying influence
Everyone involved wants to believe that in the end they'll be OK and that Betty's successor will be someone they can trust. But some will succumb to doomsday speculations. Resist the temptation. Be a positive, steadying influence. That's the stance most people want to support.
Prepare to let go of some of your expectations
You might have had some expectations about advantages Betty would have provided for you. They might still arrive, but they're much less certain now, because Betty's influence is much less certain now. Privately, be prepared to let go of those expectations. If they're somehow satisfied, that would be great, but the situation has now changed and you must accept that.
Be the most helpful person in the scene
Step forward and offer your services wherever they might be needed in the transition period from Betty to Sean, her successor. Do what you can to project an impression of cooperation and helpfulness. But don't go overboard — if this impression of you is in stark contrast to your public impression before Betty announced her departure, a sudden change of attitude could harm you more than it might help you.
Be open to the possibility that you might need (or want) to depart
Not all transitions to new leaders work out well for everyone. It's possible that you might want to depart or need to depart. Best to begin your job search immediately if you think there is a significant chance of needing to make a change. Be aware, though, that Betty probably can't take you along with her immediately. Some time might need to pass, even if there is eventually a fit for you in her new organization.

After a successor has been named, there are some actions you can take.

Seek a meeting with Sean
Seek a meeting with Betty's replacement, if possible. It's probably a bit early to expect much from such a meeting, but the seeking is the point. Project the impression that you want to meet Sean and you want to offer background and assistance.
Some people advise that you offer to take on some of Betty's former responsibilities. Be very careful about that. Make yourself generally available but avoid the appearance of being an overly ambitious individual who's only trying to exploit the chaos of the transition.
Keep lists of your successes and strengths at top of mind
Sean will likely be most interested in what you have to offer. If he asks what your strengths are and what your successes have been, it's best to deliver a crisp reply fluently. Prepare.

Last words

If your relationship with Betty has been a warm one, consider the possibility of organizing a farewell gesture of some kind. At the more elaborate end of the range of options is a group trip to a favorite restaurant or watering hole, or a cake-and-coffee in house. At the simpler end of the range of options is a greeting card wishing her farewell, signed by one and all. If your relationship with Betty is more distant, leave space for someone else to organize the farewell gesture, and limit your participation to support. Go to top Top  Next issue: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics  Next Issue

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