CareerBuilder Menu Search Search

Your boss quits. Now what?

Debra Auerbach, CareerBuilder Writer

  • Email


For those of you who are fans of NBC's "The Office," you know that Michael Scott, aka the "World's Best Boss," departed at the end of last season and moved with his fiancée to Colorado to be near her parents. There was much speculation about who would replace him and if that person could ever truly fill the much-loved boss man's shoes.

This season, "The Office" followers found out that Andy Bernard -- the preppy, overeager salesman who often spontaneously breaks out into song -- had been appointed the new Big Cheese. As Andy steps up to the plate, he's faced with a variety of obstacles: How can he get his former peers to respect him and listen? How should he handle those in his company who are miffed they didn't get the promotion?

This situation is common in the real-world workplace. These days, you'll be hard-pressed to find someone who has worked at only one company in her lifetime. There are a variety of reasons why someone may depart. Like Michael Scott, it could be due to a big move; other reasons include being laid off, finding a better opportunity or just being unhappy. Whatever the reason, it usually has a big impact on the boss's team.

So what should you do if your boss says goodbye? Here are some tips to help you navigate through these often muddy workplace waters.

Be supportive and stay connected
Deciding to leave a job is never easy, even for the boss, so be supportive and encouraging. Try to avoid participating in water-cooler gossip or secretive speculation about why she's leaving. Lynne Sarikas, director of the College of Business Administration's career center at Northeastern University in Boston, suggests thanking your boss for her support and letting her know you've appreciated all she's taught you -- even if you didn't always get along. "Regardless of any issues you may have had, stay positive," Sarikas says. "Ask if you can stay connected. This is someone you may need as a reference one day."

Get to the root of the departure
If your boss announces he's leaving for another opportunity, it's worth asking yourself why. Was it a personal decision, or was it because he suspects, or knows, the company isn't doing well? Was he unhappy in the role or disgruntled with his boss? Was it by choice or was he forced out? Mary Hladio, founder and president of organizational performance consultancy Ember Carriers Leadership Group, recommends conducting such an investigation, especially if you are vying to take over the vacant spot. "If the sudden lack of leadership is also accompanied by staff cutbacks, tighter budgets and shrinking sales, these are definite danger signs that you should not ignore."

Look for leadership opportunities
When the boss leaves, it's often by surprise, and there isn't always a succession strategy in place. While the transition can be a burden on those left to pick up the slack, use it as an opportunity to step up and demonstrate leadership -- regardless of whether or not you hope to become the boss. Offer to take over some of the work, meet with your boss's boss to strategize about ways to restructure the team, and use this time to prove that you have what it takes to lead in times of uncertainty.

If you are hoping to be promoted into the boss's position, don't hesitate to express your interest in taking on the role. If you have a good relationship with the departing boss, consider asking him before he leaves to recommend you for the position.

"Things can move fast in an organization, so if your boss leaves and you know you're interested in that role, it's appropriate to share that interest with both the boss and his or her boss," says workplace coach Darcy Eikenberg, founder of RedCapeRevolution.com and author of the forthcoming book "Bring Your Superpowers to Work: Your Guide to More Clarity, Confidence and Control." "Try saying something like, 'I've appreciated the example you've set in this role, and it's one where I think I can make a contribution, too. We'll miss you, but I'm aware that we'll need to fill the post soon. What's the right next step to be considered as your replacement?'"

Eikenberg also suggests ensuring you truly know the responsibilities of and expectations for the position before pushing for it. There may be a side to the job that you didn't realize existed. If you're longing for the boss's job, Eikenberg encourages asking him questions like, "What's the one work activity that takes most of your time in this role?" or "What's the part of your job that keeps you up at night?" That way, you have a stronger sense of the role and can determine if you are up for the challenge.

Consider following the leader
What if your boss is the reason you're at your current job? Perhaps she brought you over from another company, or her mentorship is the reason you haven't hightailed it out of there yet. When you consider your boss a friend and someone you admire, it can be tough when she decides to jump ship, but try not to let your emotions get the best of you. Consider whether you're happy in your current role and if it may be worth following your boss to her new company.

"If you had a good relationship with your boss, continue to stay in touch. Your boss might have left for a much better opportunity, and if he or she has opportunities for you, let him or her know you might have an interest," says Renee Weisman, owner of Winning at Work Consulting, a company providing workplace leadership seminars and classes, and author of "Winning in a Man's World: Advice for Women Who Want to Succeed and the Men Who Work With Them."

So what if you pull an Andy Bernard and actually become the boss? Here are some tips on how to step out from the old boss's shadow.

Find a balance between friendship and leadership
When taking over as the boss, your relationship with your co-workers will likely need to change. While it would be nice to keep them as buddies, you may have to distance yourself if you want them to take you seriously. However, don't take your newfound authority so far that it borders on condescending, or you'll end up alienating your new team. Chances are there are others on your team who were hoping to take over as the boss, so be sensitive to the fact that they might be frustrated or upset at the outcome. Make them your allies by tapping them for their advice or asking them to mentor or guide younger workers; that will show them you value their opinion and see them as a key member of the team.

Understand expectations
"Take some time initially to understand what you are expected to accomplish...and by when," says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of "The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide." "Ask your new boss, 'How will you measure my success -- and know that I have been successful -- in six months or a year?' Having a benchmark will enable you to work toward accomplishing their goals and offer feedback should those goals be unrealistic or unfair. This knowledge will also allow you to modify those goals to reflect your own unique potential to contribute."

Give it some time
Remember that change is never easy, so there will likely be some growing pains as you transition into the new role. No one is expecting you to be a carbon copy of your former boss, so take this opportunity to carve out your own path. Be patient and stay levelheaded, and you'll be on your way to succeeding as a company leader.

Debra Auerbach is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com and its job blog, The Work Buzz. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.



Last Updated: 02/12/2011 - 1:08 PM


Article Reprints
Permission must be obtained from CareerBuilder.com to reprint any of its articles. Please send a request to reprints@careerbuilder.com.