Following Your Boss to a New Job Requires Careful Balancing Act

By Joann S. Lublin

As a child, you probably played follow the leader. But now that you're grown, is that game a wise career choice?

Not necessarily.

Joining a former boss at a new employer turned out badly for Tom Gmitter. He became chief information officer at a Las Vegas construction company in fall 2003 so that he could again work for George Langis, the company's recently hired finance chief. However, Mr. Langis left the next spring, and his successor stripped Mr. Gmitter of key duties. As a result, Mr. Gmitter soon quit, too.

Despite considerable risks, people often ride the coattails of a departed leader. The chief executives of Schering-Plough, Gap and Mirant have each tapped loyal lieutenants from prior employers for their current leadership teams.

To be a successful follower, though, you should scout for possible land mines in advance -- and quickly establish your credibility on the job. Don't presume the manager you followed will look out for your interests, advises Lauren Mackler, a personal and executive coach in Newton, Mass. "You have to take responsibility for your own career path," she says.

First, go beyond standard due diligence about a potential workplace. "Check out the culture" through extensive interviews with the top brass, Mr. Gmitter suggests.

He admits he did little homework about the Las Vegas firm and what he later found to be its "mean-spirited" culture. "I knew George," he explains. "I knew our values and culture were compatible." Now a YMCA personal fitness trainer in Nashville, Tenn., Mr. Gmitter initially worked for Mr. Langis from 1989 to 1993. He says he figured his former boss "would be a buffer between me and the rest of senior management."

Another important step is to find out why your old boss chose his latest gig, how long he intends to stay and whether his leadership style fits well there. You don't want to hitch your wagon to a falling star.

In addition, check out the career paths of the protégés he recruited to follow him in the past. "Have they gone on to loftier roles?" asks Brian D. Walker, president of Wise Group, an executive-search boutique in Fairfield, Conn. "There has to be some benefit to making the move, whether that be money, status or professional growth."

Once you decide to move, gather critical insights from your ex-supervisor about the new employer's key players so you will be able to hit the ground running. That's how "I earned my stripes early," remembers Dan Flack, a technical writer in Greensboro, N.C. In 1999, his former manager at a cellular-phone company encouraged Mr. Flack to join him at a software-development business, where they became peers.

"He told me who's who, who's blowing hot air, which guy will run with [an assignment] and which guy will slack off," Mr. Flack says. The upshot: Mr. Flack unsnarled a big backlog of customer complaints faster than expected.

You also need to anticipate resentment for being your sponsor's crony. Invariably, there is " 'tissue rejection,' which describes how the old guard treats someone perceived as too close to power," says Jeremy Garlington, an executive coach in Atlanta.

One solution is to forge bonds with the old guard so they see you as more than "Joe's Guy." In early 1998, Frank Sibley went to work for Terry McDermott, a former boss then leading the National Association of Realtors. The new senior vice president gained support from frustrated colleagues by helping them sell a stalled project. "You go from being a problem for the rest of the staff to being an asset," Mr. Sibley says. He also promoted his own ideas on their merits, he says, rather than declaring, "If you don't like it, I'll go to Terry and he'll approve it in a minute."

When Mr. McDermott retired earlier this fall, the trade group's board begged Mr. Sibley to stay. "I've made a lot of political alliances and, hopefully, proved my value to the organization," he says.

A follower must "work twice as hard to build lateral alliances" because "you are working against that [internal] jealousy," advises Maggie Craddock, a New York executive coach. A few years ago, a small Wall Street firm hired a head of fixed income who had previously reported to its chief executive elsewhere. But the new hire failed to create close ties with associates she was coaching. They groused "that the guy really didn't know the business," Ms. Craddock says, and "he never made a full transplant." Eight months after the CEO left, those veteran insiders forced out the fixed-income head.

It's a good idea to take extra measures to enhance your credibility and separate identity. Respectfully disagree with your former manager at times. Volunteer for special task forces far from his or her realm. And make sure everyone at work recognizes your unique contributions.

But think twice before following the same ex-boss twice. You risk looking like a lapdog rather than a leader. "If you're tagged as a serial protégé," warns Hal Reiter, CEO of recruiters Herbert Mines Associates in New York, "you may slow down your career."

Email your comments to joann.lublin@wsj.com .

Article from CareerJournal.com Today – December 2005

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