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Reporting to a New CEO? How to Make it Work

Stern new CEO reviews documents during a presentation

Chief executive turnover is at an all-time high. According to a study by Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business, "turnover among CEOs at the world’s 2,500 largest companies soared to a record high of 17.5 percent in 2018—3 percentage points higher than the 14.5 percent rate in 2017 and above what has been the norm for the last decade." With a new CEO comes a new set of eyes, a new set of ideas, new objectives, and possibly a new executive team. In fact, an executive stands a 30 to 40 percent chance of losing his or her job after the arrival of an outside CEO, according to a source cited by The Wall Street Journal.

How should you prepare for a change in leadership? How do you adapt to a new boss? Here are five key tips to surviving a leadership change:

1.) Be adaptable

A new CEO will have a different leadership style, agenda and goals. “Immediately align your priorities and agenda to conform to your new CEO’s agenda and priorities,” suggests the General Counsel of a global medical device company who has worked for 10 CEOs in 10 years. He explains that he informed each new CEO how he managed the legal function, but followed the explanation with “help me understand how you would like to do things.” He believes that it is important to “focus on [the new CEO’s] expectations,” and noted that it is a “delicate balancing act” when questioning a CEO on philosophical differences. Chances are a new CEO’s objective is not to maintain status quo and so, as Paul Winum, a management psychologist advises, “recognize that you have a new job: to help your new boss succeed.”

2.) Observe

Make it a priority to learn as much as you can about your new CEO. Are they in the office early? What is their preferred method of communication: email, in-person, phone? Develop an understanding of his or her style: short and to the point, formal or informal? At what time are they available to communicate with you? Adjust your work style immediately. A Chief Information Officer with one of the world’s largest law firms remarked that his firm recently elected a new Chairman to make sweeping organizational and leadership changes. The Chairman, who frequently travels internationally, would regularly email the firm’s management team late at night. So that he could respond immediately to the Chairman’s middle-of-the-night messages, the CIO assigned a unique alert on his phone that would wake him. He was the only member of the firm’s management team retained by the Chairman, and he credits keeping his job to quickly learning and conforming to the new leader’s communication style.

3.) Quickly establish rapport

Take the time to build rapport, and make it a priority. Schedule time to meet with your new CEO and be prepared for the meeting. Ask what are his or her greatest challenges over the next six months, and how you can contribute. Ask what his or her expectations are for your position and function, and let him or her know that you would like to be part of his or her team. “Get to know them as quickly as possible, be empathetic and connect with them,” advises the General Counsel with the medical device company. Leave the meeting with a solid understanding of what is important to him or her.

4.) Be a valuable, intuitive resource

Offer insight and perspective about your company’s culture and organization that will help your CEO succeed with his or her agenda. Anticipate his or her needs and leverage your experience and company knowledge to help your boss succeed. A Division President of a global manufacturing company threw his name in the hat for the company’s newly created COO position. The CEO ultimately selected a COO from the outside. While he was disappointed, upon learning from the new COO of the company’s plan to consolidate operations, he pinpointed areas in his business unit that overlapped with another business unit and how combining both would be profitable to the company. The CEO and COO appointed him President of the newly combined divisions.

5.) Do not look to the past as a road map forward

Do not cling to the past or advocate that “this is how we have always done it.” A couple of years ago, we recruited a CEO to turn around a manufacturing company. He became frustrated as he tried to launch his vision by a couple of his direct reports who repeatedly told him, “we don’t do it that way here” and took it personally when the CEO modified or eliminated some of their programs and policies. While the CEO successfully turned the company around and significantly increased morale, a few of his direct reports and other executives were replaced. As he said “these are business decisions, you cannot take it personally." If you are emotionally attached to the past, and your CEO has to worry about hurting your feelings, you quickly become a liability.

While the risk of losing your job can be high following the appointment of a new executive, those who are successful consider the change a new beginning and eagerly jump on board. The arrival of an outside executive is not necessarily your exit if you prepare for and embrace the change.

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John mann

John M. Mann

Managing Director, Alex & Red