Boss swap: what to expect when your executive changes

What happens when an executive moves on and an EA has to adapt to a whole new personality? We’ve gathered responses from EAs in several different industries and put them together so you can be fully prepared for the next time a ‘boss swap’ looms on your professional horizon.

Building a successful working relationship with an executive requires EAs to establish trust, earn respect and develop a sophisticated understanding of their boss’s personality and working style. This process—while essential for the partnership’s success—takes time and energy, with many EAs not ‘finding the groove’ with their executive until three or even six months down the line.

Many of you reading this will have cultivated relationships with your executive over many years, forming a strong professional and personal bond. But, sometimes a boss moves on. To me, the idea of a boss leaving and another taking their place seems like an incredibly tumultuous time for EAs.

To understand exactly what happens and what EAs can do to prepare for this challenge, I sent out a call to our audience. I wanted to know how they dealt with a ‘boss swap’, how much notice they got, what they did to prepare and what challenges they faced.

Research by the Australian Institute of Company Directors shows that CEOs in Australia generally hold the top job for six-and-a-half years. After a quick bit of math, an EA with a 20-year career supporting CEOs will on average work with at least three.

That’s three new relationships to develop, three new working styles to adapt to and three new ‘boss swaps’ to ride out. With this in mind, I’ve also pulled in leadership and people management expert Karen Gately to help me figure out what strategies EAs should have when their boss is about to change.

Adapting to a new work style

A boss change is different from walking into a new role. Instead of assimilating into the tried-and-tested methods and culture of an organisation, a new boss means EAs have to apply a whole new set of expectations and way of working to something they have already been doing.

For Swee McGowan, EA to the Managing Director of Mazda Motors New Zealand, this adaptation was the hardest part of her boss swap.

“After 10 years working with the same boss, my biggest challenge during the changeover was learning a new management style and work ethic,” Swee said.

According to Karen, EAs need to be upfront with their desire to get to know the new boss better. It’s about exploring the ways they prefer to work and the expectations they have of their EA.

“Many leaders will have completed various personality profiles over the years.  Don’t be shy about asking them to share these tools and to step you through the key points they believe matter most,” Karen said.

Now ‘in a groove’ with her new manager, Jo Hillas—who is EA to the CEO of her organisation—said it’s all about asking the right questions. “Have a list of questions ready to ask when you first meet about their work style and expectations,” Jo said.

Be flexible or stand firm?

While the majority of EAs responding to the questionnaire said they needed to be flexible to their new boss’s needs and requirements, some had to stand firm on a few points. Which begged the question, should EAs be assertive and try to set the working standards, or should they be flexible to their new boss’s style of working? Is there a middle ground that can be struck here?

Narrelle Aickin is an EA at ANZ and during her ‘boss swap’ she was left without an executive for four months and had to take an assertive position to keep the ship on course.

“You have to take emotion out of the equation and just concentrate on the job at hand. In my case, without a boss, I saw it as my job to ensure we continued to have the usual direct report meetings, as deliverables were still required to get the job done,” Narrelle said.

According to Karen, if the EA is thriving then the boss is thriving. If EAs have the courage to speak up about how they can support their boss the best, then the partnership will be positioned for success. But, there is also room for flexibility.

“Be assertive by being clear and firm on the boundaries you expect to be maintained, while also demonstrating a flexible mindset and approach. In many instances, your boss will unquestionably benefit from a disciplined and focused approach to working together. So, don’t hesitate to let them know when they are undermining your collective success and what you would like them to do differently,” Karen said.

But, in Narrelle’s case, it’s important not to overstep your boundaries and undermine the interim management.

“Be careful not to overstep boundaries by treating the interim manager as though they will be moving on soon. Overlooking their authority or disregarding the delegated authority they have to make decisions is only likely to undermine trust and respect.”

Breaking the ice

Starting out, I was also very curious as to how EAs managed to break the ice with their new boss. What were some of the key strategies for building a positive relationship from day one? Is there something EAs can do to immediately build trust and demonstrate competence to a new executive?

Lisa Chanda, EA at Insurance Australia Group said breaking the ice is all about building a personal bond.

“Initial interactions you should keep informal first, get to know each other on a personal level, understand what both of your goals are and what motivates them to come into work every day,” Lisa said.

Serena Coleman, EA to the CEO of a large charity organisation also adds that it’s important to demonstrate your competence straight off the bat by asking as many operational questions as possible.

“I feel as though my ability to do my job is the most important part of my relationship with my CEO. There are no wrong questions when you are establishing a professional working relationship with someone you are going to work so closely with,” Serena said.

This thought is mirrored by Karen, who thinks that ownership and integrity are key to starting out on the right foot. “Demonstrate your commitment to your role and your boss’s success through the actions you take to proactively drive outcomes,” Karen said.

Know when to walk away

Sometimes—despite best efforts—an EA and a new boss simply don’t gel. A good working relationship can be built manually, but occasionally personalities clash and the partnership doesn’t always work out. Some of the responding EAs found it best to know when to take a step back and assess their situation.

Theresa, EA to the CEO, CFO, and Executives of Operations and Legal at a large retailer had a tough experience when her executives changed several times during the first six months of her tenure at the company. After several ‘boss swaps’, Theresa wound up supporting an executive that she struggled to develop a positive relationship with. Eventually, she took action and requested an internal transfer.

“As an EA it is incredibly important to have a trusting relationship with the person you work for, and when you get a new manager that is someone you clash with it really comes down to working out if you can handle that person or if you request to move,” Theresa said.

This step isn’t always an easy one to make, but sometimes you have to look after yourself, says Karen Gately.

“Like any new relationship, it can take time to get to know one another and build trust. But if at the end of the day you struggle to build a respectful, trusting relationship with your boss, you are better off moving on,” Karen said.

“While it’s important not to be idealistic in your expectations of a boss, if you are unable to build a successful relationship there is little point in working with them. If the approaches your boss takes are causing unnecessary stress and anxiety, choose to find a better boss before your mental health is adversely impacted.”

Developing a relationship with a new executive is something nearly every EA will experience at least once—if not multiple times—in their career. In pulling together these responses, there are a few key ideas that shone through. Firstly, flexibility is important. It’s critical to strike a balance between standing your ground on how you know things should work and adapting to the work style of a new executive. Secondly, by asking plenty of questions EAs can develop a ‘profile’ of their new boss and use that to tailor their service and role. And finally, if the relationship simply isn’t working, sometimes it’s better to move on. With these strategies and ideas in mind, hopefully, the next time a ‘boss swap’ comes around you’ll be ready to take the turbulence in your stride and hit the ground running.