In the February 11, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader worries about navigating a reorganization.

Question

reorganization

My company will be undergoing changes after a reorganization and I will be settling in a new part of the company. I currently manage a team of five. The nature of my job should stay the same, but my boss, co-workers and direct reports will be all new people. I’ve been at this company for about a year and was just getting into a rhythm with my current boss and department. Now it feels like I have to start over and prove myself again in a new department — almost like a new job.

I’ve never been involved in a reorganization. I know from friends that sometimes a reorganization doesn’t turn out well, but I’m keeping a positive outlook. Do you have any advice or insight about these kinds of situations? Thanks!

Nick’s Reply

When a company undergoes reorganization, whether due to a merger or due to any internal or external impetus, it can indeed be like starting a new job in a new company. There’s loads of opportunity and, of course, risks.

Every “reorg” is different, and the process and outcome really depend on the quality of management and on the company culture. You must decide whether what I’m going to suggest is prudent or risky and whether it fits your style. Then do what you think is best.

Take the initiative

I find that the best approach to corporate reshuffling, or reorganization, is to take the initiative to make your arrival easy for your boss and your team. You’re just as new to them as they are to you. Don’t wait for them to come to you. By taking the initiative, you will demonstrate your commitment to making it all work.

I’m not suggesting that you “take control” or try to position yourself as “the solution to the department’s problems.” Rather, show your new team and boss that you’re ready to get to work by making it easy for them to bring you into the fold. It actually helps to consider your insight that this is “almost like a new job,” and that’s why you might find this article helpful: Afraid to ask for feedback in job interviews?

Talk shop

I’d ask your new boss for a meeting to further introduce yourself and to “talk shop.”

How to Say It
“I’d like to get an idea of the problems and challenges the department faces, and to discuss how I can best contribute to your success.”

The point is to get your boss (or your peers or new reports) to talk about themselves and their work first, so that you can then direct your own comments and questions appropriately.

It’s like being on a first date. Encourage your date to talk. Learning about the other person is the foundation of any new, successful relationship — and it’s how to determine what you say and do next. Psychological research also suggests that when we ask others about themselves, they perceive us as more likable!

Here are some additional examples of talking shop.

How to Say It

  • “Thanks for welcoming me to the team. Can you help me understand the team’s objectives, and what the day-to-day work is like?”
  • “May I ask what led you to this job, and what you see as the key challenges and objectives?”
  • “What do you think helps make this department more successful, and what might hold it back?
  • “I’m not sure how much of this is already fleshed out, but it would help me to know what you’d like me to accomplish, or work on, during my first month, three months, six and 12. I like to think in terms of deliverables — because my job is to do what you need. The more concrete, the better, though I also realize the work can be fluid. And I’d be happy to roughly outline how I’d go about it. Then we can discuss and fine tune a plan that you’re happy with.”

Remember: Don’t appear presumptuous. It often helps to “ask permission” before you offer your ideas. Until you understand your new boss’s style, be deferential. Make it clear that, while you are self-motivated, you want to fit in, do your share, and focus on the department’s objectives.

Learn where you fit in the reorganization

If your boss asks you to talk about yourself, offer three things you accomplished last year that made a material difference to the business. Then ask what the boss would like to see from you in the coming year. This helps establish your credibility, and also focuses the discussion on the benefits you will deliver to the organization — not on your aspirations, which it’s fine to discuss later on. Your new team’s needs should come first. That will earn you the right to talk about what you’d like out of this deal — later on.

This is just one way to break the ice and start forming a sound relationship. It’s good to talk shop and get specific. It shows that you are hands-on and ready to contribute.

You can take similar steps with your co-workers and reports: Ask for a casual meeting where you can learn about what each member is working on and how it all combines to achieve the department’s and the company’s objectives. The more you can get your boss, your peers and your new reports to talk about their work, the more you’ll see how to best fit in.

I can’t promise that doing any of this will ensure you survive this experience, but I hope my suggestions help you see what some of the fundamental issues are in trying to succeed in any job anywhere.

For a more in-depth look at how reorganizations often work, check out this resource from the Wharton School.

Worst case

As you’ve noted, a reorg can be like a new job. It might not work out!

I’m a cautious optimist, so I always like to consider a worst-case scenario when there’s a reorg, acquisition, or merger, because some of these “transitions” don’t always succeed. That means it’s smart to hedge your bet until you can form a sound judgment about the next few years of your career. This may surprise you, but it’s what I recommend to anyone when they start a new job.

Start (or continue) a quiet, low-level job search, just in case. You can end it if things go well at work, or accelerate if necessary. Keep a positive attitude about your new job, but hedge your bet and always have something cooking — don’t wait til the last minute. It will make you a more powerful decision-maker in the meantime for having something in your back pocket. Hopefully, you won’t need it!

In the meantime, find your new place. Take the initiative to get to know your new boss, your peers and your new reports — by helping them talk shop with you. I wish you the best.

Have you been through a reorg? What challenges did you face? Did you survive? How? What advice would you offer this reader?

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35 Comments
  1. My current job went through a reorganization and many of us were assigned a manager who has a poor performance record. We are all mystified as to why we have this manager. Our location does superior work and yet it is obvious that our bosses, who are in a small town in the middle of nowhere want to close us down (we are in a beautiful coastal location). Morale is not good. Our manager keeps trying to assign work to a low cost foreign location (but they mess up every time). I’m looking for a new job, and I am also working with a mentor to found a new company.

    • I keep wondering, and hoping, that at some point the politicians and business leaders in this country will come to their senses and realize that we need to keep jobs in this country instead of farming out everything to other countries with low cost labor.

      • @Kurt: I’m waiting for them to come to their senses about the automated recruiting fraud perpetrated on job seekers and employers, and about HR farming everything out to “HR Tech” firms.

      • You would think after the Coronavirus started taking down all their factory workers in China and the global economic damage that has done that MAYBE they’ll get the message. (We can hope, anyway.)

        • Oops, meant to send this in reply to this post:

          I keep wondering, and hoping, that at some point the politicians and business leaders in this country will come to their senses and realize that we need to keep jobs in this country instead of farming out everything to other countries with low cost labor.

  2. Never been in a reorg? How in the heck did that happen? As someone who has survived now about ten layoffs and reorganizations, I think one of the most important things is the figure out WHY the company is all of a sudden starting to making these changes. Are the legitimate issues with profitability or are they prepping the company for sale? I would encourage you to speak with others to see if you can identify if this is a one off or if the company is going to keep cutting and cutting. In my experience admin assistants are some of the most knowledgeable employees in the entire organization and they will tell you more than the tight lipped senior executives.
    If this is a one off then absolutely show them what you can do, but if they are going to gut the company – start working on finding another job ASAP.
    At one company I survived five layoffs and it just sucked. I walked past rows of empty desks and kept getting more and more duties with no pay increases or even a change in job title. While I am happy they kept me, working for such a company is a thankless job.

  3. Actually I have been through many reorganization’s, and after having been through a number of layoffs, my reaction is when one says “reorg” I look for, and usually find, a new job. I don’t stay to let anyone lay me off.

  4. I went through a major reorganization, but it was one I expected before I was hired (and one of the reasons why I left my previous employer). We were an engineering firm, though my group had no civil engineers (the rest of the engineers in the company were). Our firm was purchased by a Fortune 50 company. But unlike other companies that end up decimated, or dissolved, the Fortune 50 company needed all of us because among the thousands of employees they had, none of them had our expertise.

    The “decimated” part would come later.

    In time, the Fortune 50 company would realize they had no clue what they were doing, and sure couldn’t understand the value they had bought. Most of the best civil engineers left for better jobs first, since the Fortune 50 company was run by leaders who would not lead, and managers who would not manage.

    As the (now former) CEOs embarrassed themselves and got fired, chased out, or indicted, the corporate bean counters decided it was time for some workforce reductions, since they now owned a professional entity that had few (civil engineering) professionals left. The last CEO was publically focused on replacing the entire workforce with much younger talent fresh out of college, with no practical experience. If that sounds illegal (age discrimination), that’s because it was and still is.

    Obviously, there’s no “surviving” this kind of purge unless if you don’t expect to be celebrating your 30th birthday yet for a long time to come. Otherwise, you must get your job search in high gear, since you know what’s about to happen. Oh, and that Fortune 50 company has a long standing policy of never re-hiring any former employees again for any reason in any of their divisions, or ever as a sub-contractor. Once you’re out there, you’re gone for good. No exceptions.

    But if you are instead working in an almost normal(?) corporate environment, you need to quickly get a handle on the new corporate vision and strategy, and exactly what they just did, or are about to do.

    It is critical to figure out exactly what value you have to the company, and how you can still create value after the reorganization. You must do this quickly, and understand it well, so you can have an intelligent conversation with your boss, or new boss, to reinforce how valuable you have been and will (continue to) be in the new company’s business environment.

    NB: If no one in your company will give you that new corporate vision and strategy, that’s a huge red flag and a serious clue you’re in trouble.

    • @Steve: I’m not a good source of metrics for this, but in my experience, few reorgs work well if they involve a merger or acquisition. That’s why I included the “worst case” section in the column.

      In these cases, take a hard look at the C-level reorg — who is taking over the key C roles? Research them. What’s their history and record? Do they improve companies or do they set them up for sale?

      • Nick,

        Agreed. Most mergers and acquisitions don’t work out well for the employees. But our assimilation (pun intended) was a little different. We had no intellectual property attractive to the Fortune 50 company to liquidate. We had previously performed professional services for them and apparently we impressed them sufficiently that they felt they just had to have us!

        The C-level people were a mix of dinosaurs and posers, and they only added one more, one of our company founders. The histories and record was hidden within the company, and not spectacular outside the company. They went through three CEOs in four years, and each was worse than the next. Their profiles and history wouldn’t give you enough to do some speculation, since each one was on the wrong side of the law. Media coverage was typically useless.

        Very shortly after on-boarding we got a big clue what was to come. First advice was to “always meet your numbers.” Second revelation was that we were expected to do the same professional services work for them (but now internally), but while being 100% billable. Internal work was not billable. You can probably guess where everything went from there. It’s a little difficult cranking out the same (or double) work after most of the professionals have been pushed out on the street.

        But to answer your question about improving companies or making them worse, definitely the latter rather than the former. The dinosaurs don’t care, and the millennial “new talent” won’t do the work. This was extremely frustrating since the former practice was deliberately destroyed with no exit or replacement plan.

        Eventually, a few of the former principals bought back the corporate and professional entities and attempted to reboot the original company. But now, the reestablished firm lacks credibility after shamelessly faking consulting engagements so they could pitch the Fortune 50 company’s products. They also no longer have the best professional talent, since the best ones are not leaving stable (for now) jobs at competing firms.

        That’s certainly not a winning situation, and sure won’t get better. Sometimes you just need to go with your gut feeling and don’t look back.

        • @Steve: There’s nothing like an “internal customer”! :-)

    • The problem with age discrimination is having to prove it and getting a lawyer to agree to go to bat for you pro bono if you can’t afford the attorney fees.

  5. What’s the difference of starting over at a current position that’s changed ownership and culture, or starting fresh somewhere else? Six of one, half a dozen of the other. As one who’s been through this scenario more than once, these things usually don’t end well. I think this guy would be wise to find a new job, because, regardless of how good he is at his current job, he’ll have a target on his back, as he’s from the old regime. The new guys want their guys in place. I can guarantee they’ll pump this guy for info, and use him like a ten dollar crack whore, then kick him to the curb! That’s how these types roll. He needs to look out for himself, and exit with his best interests at hand, not there’s!

    • I guess it could depend on the reason for a reorg. An acquisition might not be cause for alarm, but a reorg in general usually means problems with the company. So in that sense, there is a difference.

      • There are indeed cases where companies reorganize on their own. I’ve seen that work.

  6. Reorgs! God I can’t count them. At one company we referred to them as the executive recycling program. I’ve worked for a # of companies without moving from my desk.

    Nick gave a good reply & left nothing out.

    As a manager you have the additional task of buffering your team from as much BS, politics and fears as
    you can. So until someone tells you otherwise keep doing what you were doing. Don’t get caught or let your team be caught in the headlights with those who stand immobile devoting their time to conjecture, rumor, gossip etc.

    Keep in mind all unknowns aren’t negative. Chaos offers opportunity as well. It’s not all a career killer.

    The person’s only been there a year. Imagine what these things do to people with longevity. The good news is they may know or be known by the key players in the new org. The bad news is they may know or
    be known by the key players in the new org. Being there only a year can be a clean slate to work with.

    As Nick noted. The new Managers are flying blind in a major shuffle. They have the same concerns as you do. Don’t assume they were given any insights on their new duties. As a manager I’d much rather
    build my own team, rather than inherit one. So a wise one will spend time doing nothing…looking around, getting to know the new team. And learning enough to put their own touch on their organizations mission. By all means show interest as someone who doesn’t look at a “job” but rather part of a new organization.

    As Nick noted, Mergers/Acquisitions are the worse. BS flows amid all the declarations of how well the
    cultures fit, how well it’s going..while the cultural abrasions practically bring things to a halt. And despite a nice coating of “merger” actions give much more credence to the old saw..”to the victors belong the spoils”. M/A’s abound in redundancies triggering downsizing.

    Swimming through reorgs is an acquired skill so the person may be having a lesser appreciated
    experience. No one likes change, but reorgs are one form you’ll face. If’s it’s because of growth,
    especially rapid growth, there’s tons of opportunities…If’s because of a decline…especially rapid decline opportunity is elusive but still there, you may have to create it. And more likely it’s in some other company. Reorgs highlight why internal networking is always a good idea. A good network
    likely can help you reorg you when needed.

    • “cultural abrasions” I worked for a small IT consulting company years ago that was eventually acquired by a very large defense contractor. Quite a number of the employees of the IT consulting firm were gone within a year.

    • Don, going through that now. I work in marketing for a small division of a big healthcare company that was acquired by an even bigger one. We’ve been swimming in cultural BS about how well our cultures fit for nearly a year. Within 5 working days of the closing, 5% of the marketing team in the acquired company was told their jobs were terminated including me. Replicated all through the company.

      No one in the acquiring company has any expertise in my marketing area (highly operational, compliance and provider focused) but I now have to brief my (maybe) replacement who I already suss hasn’t a clue. The terminations also have a pattern–older, white, and remote workers from previously acquired companies. (The acquiring company hates remote workers–an attitude out of the Stone Age which corresponds to the CEO.) Fortunately I kept my network up (had started only two years ago and the minute it was announced I was on guard) and have a few months of runway to The End–though the term letter has all sorts of hedges built in that could shorten it.

      This is my 7th or 8th reorg or shutdown. Darn, I didn’t make it to retirement with this one, and I’m beginning to feel like the Ancient Mariner. In short, if your company is acquired–assume that you’re out. And if you’re reorg’d, assume the same.

      • Dee,

        Although most of us on the receiving end of the merger and acquisition process (correctly) assume that it usually ends bad, not every merger ends that way. As an example, my professor’s Doctoral Professor handled the Dime Bancorp merger (Dime Savings Bank and Anchor Savings Bank). This combination of corporate cultures was like mixing oil and water, if any NYC based people here remember those horrible “Anchor Banker” TV commercials. He had to have had the patience of a saint, since the merger was finally successful and they came out of it mostly intact. That is until a hostile takeover attempt later.

        The key is a transformational leader in charge. If you don’t have one for your next merger, you might be in trouble. Yes, most of us will be in trouble. ;)

        • Transformational leader? ROTFL! Impression I got from the months of corporate BS is that the acquired company’s CEO, who fancied himself that (and with some reason as he pulled his company back from the brink), thinks he’s next in line when the CEO decides to retire. He may be waiting a long time, as the acquiring company’s CEO strikes me as the type who has Sumner Redstone or Kirk Kerkorian as a role model.

          Did you know it is the 33rd anniversary of one of the worst mergers ever–the Continental-PeopleExpress-New York Air-Frontier mashup? Which led to another bankruptcy, and nearly a decade of operational disruptions including at least one major fatal aircraft incident due to poor pilot management.

  7. I have to tell this story. Reorgs are so traumatic they reach into your family. One of my former bosses
    who had to relocate due to a reorg…. After dinner one night he told his wife a “reorg” was in the works.
    his 10 year old son reclining on the sofa watching TV…jumped up and said “Reorg! Reorg! are we moving
    again!”

  8. Great advice Nick. However, I’m thinking the questioner’s boss should be following your advice as well.

  9. My previous employer was a small oil company which ran with red numbers for years in row, and the reason was an obviously failed strategy and incompetent management.

    Every half year, management gathered the whole company (around 40 people) for team building, horns and trombones and hallelujah for a new business strategy and reorganization, which would fix it, we promise! But, because management remained the same, the strategy also remained the same in practice.

    Experienced people left (after talking to deaf ears), those who remained were the young people who were inexperienced, or veterans who stuck around just waiting for retirement.

    I had also started looking for a new job, when, TL;DR, the company was raided by a local “Wall Street” guy, who basically butched it.

    Two of four offices (in four different towns) were closed; mine was one of them. Some of us were offered to relocate; I had to decline because of family, but I was offered to stay another six months to help the transition. I considered it because, well, money, but managed to land my current job instead. When I handed in my resignation, the acting CEO said he was disappointed, and that he actually expected my office to continue.

    I did not take the bait; eventually all the four offices were closed, and today the company remains only a small investment vehicle for the raider.

    Take home message: If the reorganization is on the surface but does not fundamentally address the issues – or it looks like “dressing the bride” for sale, downsizing or raiding – get out of there before you are kicked.

    On the other side, the company I work for now is an example of a successful reorganization; the previous COO turned the strategy around and made it profitable by correcting fundamental issues. He succeeded because the changes were clearly communicated and they made sense to the “foot soldiers”, who would actually do the work.

  10. Hi, Nick. Great advice as always. I would only note that the worst case scenario should have come first, especially after reading these comments. That was my experience, too. If the re-org is driven by outside forces, it could end up being a deforesation.

  11. These reorganizations remind me that in the grand scheme of things, I am “just an engineer, a grunt, a peon.” On the other hand as I work with my daughter who is going to college next year (who is still undecided on a major), I am reminded how amazing it is that anyone gets through a science or engineering curriculum! You really do have to work hard. Companies seem to forget how tough it is. Even at my current company, I am capable of so much more than I do. If only a company would tell us lowly engineers, “Go for it! Build me a bridge (or radio or test device” without management interference, we could really do amazing things! (Another reason why I’m starting my own company)

    • @Kevin: Having dealt with many tech companies that employ loads of engineers, I can count on one hand those where the C-team, lacking engineering credentials, really believed it understood engineering better than the engineers did.

      • My late father was a journeyman machinist, and one of these old school WWII era men. He used to say “do you have 20 years of experience, or one year 20 times over”? After years of slugging it out in jobs I’d not give a second thought to, or managers and business owners who were narcissistic sociopaths, and that evidently made a profit by sheer luck, I finally see clearly what he was saying.

  12. I worked for a smaller company that “reorganized” by laying off seasoned employees so they could hire outside people and pay them less to do the same work or even more work than the seasoned people.

    Having never worked for a place involved in a merger, I do know some who have been down this road and it usually has not turned out well. I know someone whose company was bought by another and they started laying off people, although not all at one time. It was more like a slow drip with groups of people being let go over a period of time.

    I also know someone working at another company where they were bought by a larger company. She told me her boss said to not worry about losing her job because they will keep them after the merger. I told her to not believe that and get ready to start looking for work. Her boss told her that so they don’t have a lot of people jumping ship at once.

  13. I work currently at a company that had a switch over in executive management about 2 years ago and I can see where a lot of old timers at the place aren’t happy. I was hired on a few months after the switch and almost immediately I saw the conflict and drama that seemed to permeate the whole company (retail chain) and how new management went about cost cutting and throwing out long term employees basically to look good on the balance sheet. Some of my previous employers did the same thing and it almost always takes the same route. New management takes over – sets up ridiculous metrics and ‘rules’ that are obviously designed to push out higher wage employees with seniority even at the expense of the company’s operations and ability to function. Newer employees see through the ruse after about a few months and leave or become ‘old timers’ who then get pushed out at the next switch in top management. I’ve seen this happen not just in the retail/service jobs I worked at but in more ‘professional’ industries where I had relatives and/or people I knew worked in. Funny thing is, the more ‘professional’ industries weren’t professional in how they handled reorgs, if you could even call these employers professionals to begin with.

    Anyways, a couple of things helped me survive changes in management and the messes that followed afterwards: first, try to be invisible to upper management if you can. This is easier in a larger company but depending on your employer/position/workload you might be able to pull something similar off even in a smaller employer. Try not to be a superstar or draw a lot of attention to yourself if you think that management might be trying to throw out a ton of people.

    Second, don’t demand a raise every time you might be eligible for one. The more raises and/or bonuses that you get in a year, the more likely that top management might scrutinize your compensation and perhaps your position at the company. In my year and a half at my current employer I never asked for a raise since I saw a lot of people who made good money and had gotten raises in the year or so before new management took over get thrown out. (I did get raises and very small bonuses myself but they were ones that every employee in the company received due to corporate policy and wouldn’t attract the attention of senior management).

    Unfortunately, if management lets go of people, they get away with it. What seems to surprise a lot of people is when professional employees get let go or thrown out during a switch in management. It doesn’t surprise me: most ‘professional’ organizations aren’t always professional in their behavior, and a professional employee is still just that, an employee. Funny thing is, unless you are represented by a union or have an enforceable labor contract with an employer, even someone with a Doctorate degree in STEM/medicine, years of experience in their field, and has published several scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals really has no more job security than someone like me who stacks boxes in the tool department at your local store, LOL.

    • @xstate: Now you see why I want to start my own company. I’m doing that while working full time. I have a mentor through score.org

  14. I’m a little late to the party but this one hits close to home. I worked for a company for the better part of a decade that had more layoffs and reorgs than I can count. Thousands and thousands of people laid off without much of a second thought. One manager told me once that in order to survive long term you had to “know when to jump to a new ship before the one you’re standing on sinks”. Meaning, you had to pay real close attention to your groups performance and make lots of connections with people in other groups so they could bail you out if your group was going down. Funny thing, this guy eventually ran out of boats while I somehow managed to survive. And I only attribute that my survival is partly due to being skilled and accepting more stable positions, and partly due to pure dumb luck.

    The bad thing about being in this environment, especially for several years is that it really wears on you. On one hand there is opportunity – for instance when skilled and experienced people are (stupidly) let go the managers love to pile that work on people who barely have any training. But if you can survive that kind of chaos, you can stay employed and gain valuable new job skills very quickly. But this type of workplace will also foster backstabbing and other nefarious mindsets so you have to be careful. I can remember days coming into the office and seeing an old colleague while we exclaimed in unison how glad we were to see each other after a few more hundred more people were shown the door that day. At times it felt like looking for survivors in a battlefield.

    The other downside to this is a huge loss of talent. Too many times I’ve seen good people let go in a rush to make the books look good that quarter, only to have someone in management ask me to recommend someone with experience in a certain area after they realized they cut too many people and now needed more headcount. And I’d have to explain to them that well…all of the people I knew with those skill sets got fired…so how about we go out for some beers?

    In my case our company eventually got bought out by a competitor which is when the real fun began. And while they only took a skeleton crew from our former company…they somehow retained most of the nitwit top brass who were responsible for letting our company tank in the first place. Needless to say, that wasn’t a very smart decision, but as long as the money keeps coming it, I suppose they didn’t need to care.

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