Behavioral dynamics around a new boss

One of the most interesting studies of human behavior can be conducted when an organization has a leadership change at the top.

A new leader wants to make a mark, wants to proof him- or herself. The pressure of books on strategy and 100-day plans for new leaders, of hiring executive boards who gave the new leader targets to shape up the results, and (not least) of apprehensive, excited or stubborn employees who stop doing what they used to do because things will probably change anyway. All these expectations cause most new leaders to behave differently than they would do once they’re settled into their job.

However, the behavior of the new leader is actually not the most fascinating. The behavior of (some of) the employees is.

If you think people behave fairly consistently, watch what happens when a new top manager starts. At first, both the leader as well as the employees around the new person, behave at their best. They want to make a good first impression. The process resembles courting, but with a power twist. The employees expect the boss to have a double agenda (to change the world as they know it), so they will work hard to protect their own position. It’s not uncommon to see how people not only defend viewpoints they vehemently disagreed with before, but even seem genuinely convinced of them. Just to stay in line with the ideas of the new boss, to avoid jeopardizing their position.

It demonstrates how a change in power usually initiates a kaleidoscopic shift in the opinions, actions and attitudes of people close to the new boss. Most people desperately want to secure a premium place in the new reality, so they adjust their behavior to appease the new leader. Although the underlying psychological need is understandable, the extend of this effect baffles me every time.

A new leader benefits most from people who helps him/her understand the organization, the history, and point out risks or sensitivities without being stubborn. Who basically treat the new leader as they would a new colleague, without the politics of pleasing the new boss and vehemently protecting their carved out space.

On the other hand, this can only happen when the new leader openly communicates about what s/he wants to achieve, and welcomes all viewpoints instead of favoring specific viewpoints from day one.

So next time, when there’s a leadership change, ask the new boss to be open about what they want to achieve. And return that with your open and honest opinions, while continuing your job the best way you can. You do yourself, your boss and the organization a favor.

The high-performing, high-risk, high-potential

Almost all organizations hope to spot their talents early, to develop their future leaders. Much is written about how to make high-potential development successful, as the return on investment of such programs is questionable.

But what about the risk of successfully developing high-potentials?

I’ve seen more failures than successes with high-potential development programs. Everyone is happy when they find that rare jewel: highly intelligent, extremely driven, excellent social skills, strong focus, highly adaptive to changes, charges into difficult situations head-on. The one that sees opportunities where others don’t, is not afraid to go out of her comfort zone where others safely stay within, excitedly takes on new challenges and acquires new skills along the way.

The one person that made me realize high-potentials can be high risk, was exactly like that. The organization happily provided him with challenging assignments and new opportunities, rotating him through jobs every one or two years. Very quick, but necessary when you’re grooming a CEO for a big multinational. You want them to move up ranks quickly enough to reach CEO level somewhere before they’re sixty.

This suited the high-potential as well. His desire to be challenged was met through assignments in different types of jobs, quick career moves through several management layers, working out of several locations.

After time, a tricky pattern emerged. Even if such a high-potential didn’t start out as adrenaline junkie, ten or fifteen years of quick career moves and constant new challenges effectively made him one. He needed challenges, bigger ones every time, with little time in between. He didn’t merely survive well under pressure, but needed stressful circumstances to be at his best. He actively was seeking exciting experiences.

For a long time, the organization could provide that through new career moves. But once the high-potential-turned-top-manager reached the highest ranks, the promotion speed inevitably slowed down. With only two or three steps to go to the top job, positions weren’t always available when he was ready for it. Besides, (boards of) organizations prefer people to stay for a few years in the more senior jobs to build substance.

By now, this person was wired to get a quick succession of adrenaline rushes through new challenges. After two years in a new role, he got bored and created challenges himself. For example by shaking up the organization by designing a reorganization for which there was no clear need. By seeking changes in his private life. By exploring several risky behaviors, in his quest for new challenges.

At this point, the revered high-potential became a liability. Top management is now faced with a dilemma: he can undoubtedly do the top job, but will he bring himself, and the company, down? Or will he be able to curb his adrenaline seeking behavior and bring the company to new heights?

It will be interesting to see what happens. I sincerely hope he makes it to the top job, as he’s probably the best, most intelligent and likeable leader I’ve witnessed up close. But I also fiercely hope he has at least one or two people around him who are aware of the risk, and will actively work with him to ensure he doesn’t venture onto unnecessary risky paths.

The budget games

Ever noticed how much budget discussions between corporate and local managers resemble a sports game? Let’s analyze an average budget meeting.

Game kick-off

Local management kicks of the game with a predictable first move: they propose a slightly improved budget compared to the current year forecast. A safe and predictable move, not drawing admiration of the other party or the onlookers, but not putting them at risk of an extreme counter move by top management either.

Now it’s the other party’s turn. No suspense yet, as the move by top management is just as predictable. They lay down their expectation of less cost and more turnover, increasing profit by 5-10%.

The middle part

Now that both teams have had time to warm up and get used to the arena and each other, the real game begins.

Arguments go back and forth, pulling the budget a bit down here, a bit up there. Now and then both parties score a point by having the stronger arguments that seem to convince the other team, at least temporarily. Often the game gets stuck a bit as we enter the phase that both parties aren’t inclined to budge to the other party.

In this phase the onlookers can spice it up for themselves by:

Playing budget bingo

Before the meeting, make a list with phrases such as ‘low-hanging fruit’, ‘efficiency’, ‘built-in fat’, ‘entrepreneurship’, etc. Please add the current buzz words for your organization, and leave room for some interesting new phrases or words to note down during the game. For these, the onlookers afterwards can place bets on which phrases will become new buzz words in the aftermath of the budget meeting. Add columns for how long it took before the phrase was mentioned the first time, and score the number of times it was used.


After a while one or both parties will start to feel worn out. Now you know the game is coming to an end. The discussion will go back and forth a bit more, but soon parties grudgingly agree on a compromise. Almost always the new budget is the average of what top management set and local management proposed. A result that could have been simply calculated within 15 minutes of the start of the meeting.

Now note the number of people around the table on your budget bingo sheet (13 the last time I did this), estimate their average salary (in my case 150k annually, conservative estimate) and calculate the cost spent on reaching this budget. One day budget discussions easily costs 5k. Not counting the rework finance and the budget holders have to do.

Then sit back and let the irony of talking about low-hanging fruit fully hit you.