It’s a scary scenario, fraught with uncertainty. You have been working on a project for awhile, and the person you report to – the project manager, boss, or client – announces he is leaving. What is the new person going to be like? Will the new boss keep your project going, and give it the respect, attention, and funding it deserves? Or when the new broom arrives, will it sweep you clean… or under the rug?
Unfortunately, during a changing of the guard, there is always a chance your project will be cut or your role minimized. But don’t hide out waiting for the result. You need to communicate with your new contact to create an alliance, sell yourself and your contributions, and ultimately find out where you stand.
When the primary project contact leaves, you cannot predict what happens next, says Barry B. Herbert, Jr., president of program and project management at Harvin Consulting. "The best you can do is to show the importance of your project with documented data and analysis, and solicit support from other project stakeholders," Herbert explained.
It may help to treat the initial meetings as if you are interviewing for a new job. Show the new boss what you’ve accomplished, both personally and as a team. Explain what you’ve accomplished so far and where the project is headed (mentioning just a few issues that are up in the air). Ideally this demonstrates why this project matters and why you’re the right person to be working on it. Anything you can provide to show the project’s importance and your role in its success helps you allay your fears – and helps the new person come up to speed, too.
Consider asking the new boss questions about her management style and what she expects from the people who report to her. Don’t be afraid to ask straight out where the project stands. If the new boss is hell bent on shutting you down at least you’ll know, and if it’s somewhere in between you’ll know that too. And remember it’s a two-street. You’re trying to see where the project stands of course, but you’re also asking yourself is this someone I can work with and is this a person I want to work with.
After that, the situation is out of your hands. "Ultimately, it will be up to the new leader if an existing project continues. If your project doesn’t fit the direction that the new leader is going in and you can’t make it fit, the project goes away. The same could be said about continued funding," Herbert told me.
There is no getting around the fact that these types of transitions can be extremely difficult, says Dave Wakeman, principal at Wakeman Consulting Group and a certified project management professional (PMP). But, he says, you can do a few things to soften the change.
Waste no time before talking to your new contact. "Communicate early and often with the new key sponsor," Wakeman says. Communication is absolutely crucial during any change like this.
Your purpose – other than understanding what makes the new boss tick – is to figure out what the new person needs and try to supply it. "The new project sponsor is likely to have a different view on the success or failure of this project," Wakeman explained. You need to find out what those goals are and how you and your team can be proactive participants in helping the new contact achieve them.
If you have other people working with you, be sure to keep them in the loop. After all, they are feeling the same uncertainty you are. As quickly as possible, “Let your team members know that the project may be going through a series of changes, but that you are working with the new sponsor to make sure that the project is successful," Wakeman said.
Derek Allard, a web developer from Northampton, Massachusetts, went through such a transition. You have to roll with the punches and take the changes in stride, he said. Allard was working on an Ivy League school's department website when the project manager stepped aside.
It was a complex project, which left Allard wondering what impact the project manager's departure would have. "There were a lot of moving parts to wrangle with the project, everything from a virtual tour that was technically complicated, to migrating years of content to a new content management system, design changes for the redesigned site, photo shoots, usability testing – and a lot of programming time to make all the magic happen," Allard said.
In Allard's case the project continued to completion, but he admitted there was a lot of ramp-up time for the new project manager. There were also some bumps in the road as each individual brought his own unique style to the project. “There was a lot of smoothing work that needed to be done during the transition,” he said.
Allard said it's human nature to resist change, but you have to be flexible in these situations, learn the new person’s style, and adapt to that.
Sometimes the transition doesn't go smoothly, or the stakeholder decides to axe the project. Ultimately, it is up to the new leader if an existing project continues.
Losing the lynchpin of a project is never a simple proposition, but do the best you can to communicate and understand the new contact. But understand that no matter how hard you try to make it work, there are times where the new person is not going to do what you want, even if that means killing your project. It's not ideal for those involved, but it's the nature of business.
To that end, keep your options open. Be prepared for the possibility this might not work out and you need to find a new project. Put out feelers to former colleagues. Check with old contacts, including the project manager who just left. You never know. Your old boss might be putting together a team and you could take the opportunity to jump with a person you know and trust. This is among the basics of networking, after all.
Never assume your job is safe because ultimately it never is, especially in a transition of this sort. Your network can help you land softly in a new position if that is required.
And of course, it’s possible that the new boss will want to keep things going, be a delight to work with, and provide guidance and support even better than your departed boss. But whatever the outcome, the watchword is to be prepared and have contingencies so you can make the best of the situation, no matter what happens.