Adapting to a new CEO

31 January, 2022

How to survive - and thrive - through a major leadership change.

I was recently speaking to an ex-colleague who was grappling with how to build a rapport with a new CEO who had recently joined from outside. Should he engage the CEO proactively or wait? The new CEO was being a bit aloof. And so, this person was wondering if he should take the initiative to reach out?

A turnover at the top typically leads to a period of organisational upheaval. Senior executives worry about keeping their influence, their initiatives, even their jobs – and with good reason.

A study of leadership transitions in the US between 2002 and 2004 found a sharp spike in involuntary departures among proxy-level senior management. When an internal executive was promoted to CEO, it jumped by 65 percent. When the top spot went to an external hire, it increased by a whopping 250 percent.

Low-performing companies scored worst of all: if an external CEO took the reins during a bad year, proxy-level senior executives faced a 2 in 5 chance of losing their jobs.

Involuntary exits were also seen to impede the future prospects of senior executives. A majority of those who left ended up taking a lower position at a new company, or working at a smaller firm. Some retired altogether.

It’s not all bad news though. By shaking things up, a change in leadership also reveals new opportunities. As alliances change and strategy shifts, acting quickly yet thoughtfully can set you up for even greater success in the future. A positive equation with the new CEO could open up avenues that were previously closed to you, and in the longer term, allow you to address long-standing issues.

So, this week, my message focuses on how senior executives can adapt to a major leadership change. What steps can you take to secure your job and maximise your chances of success during the new CEO’s tenure?

In her Muse piece on the topic, Eliza Berman notes the following:

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.

New leaders rarely take advice from their predecessors, so your track record probably won’t count as much as you hope. In a sense, you are starting over. This holds true even if the CEO is an existing employee, because your relationship with them is set to change dramatically. Essentially, this means senior executives need to demonstrate their value anew.

Surviving (and thriving) in the face of a CEO change

Here are 12 recommendations to help you optimise your position and build a strong relationship with the new CEO.

1. Prepare for the transition.

Learn as much as you can about your new boss in the period leading up to their arrival. Berman offers the following advice: 

Get a feel for what he has done at previous organizations, whether he tends to toe 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.

2. Create the right first impression.

“Wait and watch” is not the right approach to take here. New CEOs tend to make major people-focused decisions within the first 60 days of their tenure. That means the initial few days, weeks and months are critical, so don’t procrastinate. Get off on the right foot and act quickly to create a positive impression.

3. Put baggage to bed.

Divided loyalties can lead to less-than-ideal behaviour towards the incoming CEO. This is especially true if the transition wasn’t amicable; for example, if the last CEO left under pressure or was forced out. As a senior executive, it’s important for you to deal with these negative feelings. Leave old grouses at the door and prepare yourself for the new chapter ahead. Anything else is self-sabotage.

4. Demonstrate goodwill.

Don’t assume that the new CEO knows you want to cooperate. Maintaining a guarded silence leaves your intentions open to a wide range of interpretations. Hence, it is vital to be proactive about showing your support. In their Harvard Business Review article, Edward and Kevin Coyne offer an insight into the leader’s thought process: 

Most of the CEOs we interviewed indicated that too many executives doomed themselves from the start simply by failing to manifest a willingness to be part of the new team. As the chief executive of a $20 billion industrial company put it, “Managers do not realise how much the CEO is looking for teammates on day one. I am amazed at how few people come through the door and say, ‘I want to help. I may not be perfect, but I buy into your vision’.”

Welcoming the new leader is even more important if you were publicly backing a different candidate for the top spot. Convey your congratulations in person or on the phone (not via email) to start things off on a high note. Be sure to let them know in no uncertain terms that you are all in.

5. Support the new vision.

Familiarise yourself with the incoming CEO’s vision, priorities and game plan, preferably with direct input from them. Ask how you can best contribute and offer constructive suggestions on achieving key goals in the first year – the most critical period for new leaders. Follow up with actions that help to garner early wins.

As executive coach John Mattone explains, a new CEO wants three Cs from their senior executives:

  • Capability – a “can do” attitude
  • Commitment – a “will do” attitude
  • Connection – a “must do” attitude that aligns you with their vision of the organisation

6. Introduce yourself.

Schedule some face-to-face time with the new CEO to share who you are and what you do. Talk them through your key initiatives, while acknowledging that some course-correction may be needed based on the new strategic direction. As Berman observes: 

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. 

7. Cultivate empathy.

Incoming CEOs face an incredible amount of pressure to succeed. A McKinsey report showed that the company’s stock performance during Year 1 was closely linked with the new leader’s fortunes. Not to mention that being at the top can be quite isolating. Seeing things from your boss’s perspective will enable you to connect better with them and build a more genuine rapport. 

8. Align with their working style.

Every CEO brings their own management style to the table, and senior executives need to adapt accordingly. Do they value brevity or in-depth detail? Do they prefer to communicate over email, phone or in person? Do they like to keep things casual, or take a more formal approach? Observe closely to understand their preferences – or better yet, ask them directly. The HBR article mentioned above offers a great example: 

One CEO recalled a meeting with a plainspoken executive who company gossips predicted would be an early casualty of the new regime. “He told me he had a reputation for being blunt and then asked how I wanted him to disagree with me,” the CEO told us…. By asking intelligent questions about his new boss’s working style, the executive prospered throughout the CEO’s 12-year tenure.

9. Build trust through honesty.

When outlining the situation of your division and your plans for the future, beware of presenting a rose-tinted view. Sugar-coating matters from the get-go will create a trust deficit and may lead the new CEO to conclude that you are covering things up. Be forthright, stick to the facts, and present a positive yet realistic plan of action for the days ahead.

10. Become a valuable resource.

If the new CEO has joined from the outside, you can provide vital assistance in helping them find their feet in the organisation. In his Tag Search article, John Mann elaborates: 

Offer insight and perspective about your company’s culture and organization…. Anticipate his or her needs and leverage your experience and company knowledge to help your boss succeed.


11. Bench your personal agenda.

Don’t begin the new relationship on a note of complaint. You may have legitimate issues around compensation, job scope or conflict with a colleague – but the transition period is not the right time to raise them. Hold on to your horses until the CEO has had a chance to settle in and get their agenda rolling. These problems can be addressed later in a more constructive way.

12. Be open to change.

A leadership change at the top tends to catalyse a slew of changes – from macro-level aspects like vision and management style, to micro-level factors like meeting formats and dress codes. As the status quo shifts, resist the urge to cling to the past and say things like “but this is how we’ve always done it”.

We are all creatures of habit, so adapting to change can be a challenge. But it is certainly worth giving it your best shot. Being open to new possibilities can prove to be very rewarding – both from the perspective of career growth and professional satisfaction.

The insecurity created by a change in senior leadership is certainly warranted. However, CEO turnovers also present fresh opportunities. Senior executives who have the foresight to adapt quickly will not only retain their jobs but also create a firm foundation to flourish in the future.


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