Under New Management
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – As the great social philosophers Peter Townsend and Roger Daltrey observed in a prescient moment, "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss." Except they didn't know what they were talking about.

With chief executives everywhere peeling off like racecars into a pit from which there is no exit, a host of new middle management makes its way like grains of sand into the oyster of the corporation. This means one thing to many of us: new bosses, who most definitely are not the same as the old ones.

The old ones, ah! We knew their foibles, their likes and dislikes, when they were willing to share a cup of coffee with a smart, fast rabbit and when they wanted to hunker down behind closed doors and ponder the fate of the universe. We knew, when the numbers came out, whether they would be satisfied or not. We knew whether they drank to excess at times, and when to use that to our advantage. We knew them. And in that knowledge lay a fair portion of our ability to manage our unmanageable jobs.

And now, uh-oh. Here comes the new boss, who is as different as Gouda from Velveeta. He (or she) has more hair, or less. He is quiet when you want him to talk, and he talks when you want him to be quiet. He seems grouchy at times, but maybe it isn't ill temper at all; maybe he's bilious, or shy, or thoughtful, or vain, or ambitious. Or maybe he has a host of old playfellows waiting to take you out.

Like any other business problem, this--the most serious you will ever face--is to be addressed with a combination of strategic management and cojones. Strategy is relatively simple. The other part is not, since that essential equipment is usually issued at birth to both men and women, and is difficult to acquire later--although even a small gift in that arena can be developed over time, just as skinny kids turn themselves into bodybuilders and then, sometimes, into governors.

Let's look at the major situations you will confront in this time of hope and anxiety.

• Greeting: You get only about six chances to make a first impression with a new boss, because that's how long it takes him to differentiate you from the rest of the supplicants before the throne. Be consistent. Don't invoke the days when you sat at the right hand of God. There's a new deity in town, and I'm sorry, but you need to start over.

• First staff meeting: Buddha trod the middle path, and you should too. This means speaking, for sure, but not too much. Public displays of sucking up make people nervous, because in you they see their own insecurity and banality. If something funny comes to mind, you may assay a public comment, but self-immolation at the beginning of a new world order is inadvisable.

• First assignment: This is a difficult concept, but here it is. Don't try too hard. If you're used to painting small watercolors, don't start throwing paint around on huge canvases like a dead abstract expressionist. The everyday stuff you do is probably pretty good, and expressive of the corporate culture. Anything more will reek too much of you, not of the selfless professional whom every new boss wants to see across the desk.

• Building a peer consensus: The group that has been established around the old leader will fragment, fly apart, swirl about for a while. The center has been removed from the merry-go-round. The sooner you can reassemble a working social mechanism, the better. The boss will see a cordial organization into which he can plop himself without too much effort. And giving him something he can do without a lot of sweat may, in fact, be the theme song of this entire drill.

• Pushing back:After a while, you won't feel like you're skating on water anymore. You won't be on trial with every burp and chuckle you emit, and you'll be much more free to take risks. Here is the most important one: All bosses make errors, and the mark of a survivor is the ability to protect his baby bossling from his or her own callowness, impetuosity, or random boneheadedness. Don't do it in front of others. But when you believe the guy is about to step in it, stop him in midstride. That, more than any other capability, separates the fungible from the nonfungible. And only the nonfungible survive.

• Reach for the heart: Oh, me. This is so far away right now, but as a golden dream, yes, it lives, and never forget it. Don't be too needy. Don't gush and squelch. But the great relationships, the ones that last, are based on the same things that keep families together: loyalty, shared self-interest, pride in mutual accomplishment, food.

Some may not call it love, but what do they know? They never cried when the end came and it was time to train a new boss yet again.

STANLEY BING's latest book, Sun Tzu Was a Sissy: Conquer Your Enemies, Promote Your Friends, and Wage the REAL Art of War (HarperBusiness), is available at finer bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at stanleybing@aol.com.