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Yikes 101: What to Do When Your Guru Leaves You

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You learned at the feet of Michael Ovitz at Walt Disney, worked side by side with William Agee at Morrison Knudsen. You and Michael Spindler shared a good laugh or two when you were trying to get it together at Apple Computer.

Then you woke up one day to your worst nightmare: Your mentor/boss/guru has packed his bags, leaving you holding one. “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap has moved into the executive suite, and his mouth is watering at the number of jobs he can burn off before lunch alone.

He or she who yesterday was the rising star at the company has flamed out in a supernova. The comer is now a goner.

All that consultant-speak you’ve heard about the advantages of having a mentor is being drowned out by a louder voice in your head, asking the question, “What street is the unemployment office on again?”

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Can the worker who has hitched his or her wagon to someone once thought to be on the fast track avoid being blindsided? Maybe not, but there are some subtle signals that may help you establish an effective early-warning system:

1. Pay attention to telephone habits. Hushed phone conversations, especially behind closed doors, are the earliest sign something may be up. It’s not good form to eavesdrop, but a bit of quiet reconnaissance may help you figure out who the boss is in deep conversations with.

Hint guide:

Subtle--Spending an unusual amount of time on the phone with a spouse. It may be Brittany or Noah is having a crisis at school, but odds are something like that can wait for home.

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Stronger--Spending an unusual amount of time on the phone with a real estate agent.

Strongest--Spending an unusual amount of time on the phone with his lawyer.

2. A sudden interest in geography. It’s a red flag when the boss who didn’t know Kansas City is in Missouri has a sudden fascination with places afar and is asking if you know any newsstands where he can get a copy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Hint guide:

Subtle--"How cold does it really get in Minneapolis in the winter?”

Stronger--"Do you know if the schools are better in Lake Forest, Evanston or Arlington Heights?”

Strongest--"How hard is it to get season tickets for the Dallas Cowboys?”

3. Note any unusual behavior around the office by the boss. Any break in the routine of a creature of habit is also a sign something is brewing.

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Hint guide:

Subtle--The boss starts spending time away from the office, often taking a day or two off on extremely short notice.

Stronger--Your boss is now parking in the last row instead of the first, where someone else’s name has been abruptly painted over the space he had for 10 years. When you ask, he says he did it voluntarily because he needs the exercise.

Strongest--The boss leaves the master copy of his resume in the Xerox machine.

4. Monitor the behavior of others. Don’t underestimate the odds that you’ll be the last to know.

Hint guide:

Subtle--People inside the company you barely know show a sudden interest in your well-being, calling to ask how you are doing.

Stronger--Competitors, suppliers and others in your industry are calling to ask, “Are you OK?”

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Strongest--A human resources manager from a company you’ve never heard of calls, saying your boss listed you as a reference.

5. Keep your ear to the ground. Chances are you aren’t the only one who’s noticed something’s up, so paying attention to the rumor mill can be valuable.

Hint guide:

Subtle--Secondhand rumors circulate that your boss is changing jobs.

Stronger--When asked about the rumors, your boss denies that anything is up.

Strongest--Before the rumors have even started, your boss volunteers that nothing is up.

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So the rumors turned out to be true. The boss is leaving with a nice severance package, far more than you could ever hope for.

Now your biggest fear is being part of the clean sweep. Proteges of departed executives don’t usually last long.

If you think you have a prayer of staying, here’s a strategy guide. But remember, there are risks.

1. Play it cool. Act like you knew it was coming. You weren’t shocked. No surprise here at all. Your only surprise is that it didn’t happen earlier.

Everyone assumes there’s a firm plan in place when an executive leaves, and they are eager to know who is and who isn’t part of it. Acting like you’ve been in the loop all along convinces people you’re still on the inside track.

Downside risk: You aren’t part of the plan.

2. Distance yourself from your mentor. You were just an employee. Other than seeing the person at work, you know few personal details. Basically, you came to work, did your job and went home.

Downside risk: Someone remembers the time you volunteered to watch the Ovitz kids for the weekend.

3. Get religion fast. Tell Chainsaw Al that you can’t believe the company has kept that money-losing operation in Tennessee open as long as it has, or still has the vacation lodge in Aspen. And since when is a company obligated to subsidize cafeteria food? Tell him you are uncomfortable referring to him as “Boss” because the real bosses are the stockholders, who deserve every penny his team can squeeze out of the company.

Downside risk: Someone reviews your expense account and finds that $20,000 trip you took to New York.

4. Flatter the boss. Tell Gilbert Amelio that National Semiconductor hasn’t been the same since he left to run Apple Computer. Tell Michael Eisner that he doesn’t need a No. 2 at Disney. Tell Chainsaw Al you bought his book the first day it was published.

Downside risk: Nobody likes a brown-nose.

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And finally. . . .

You still can’t figure out definitively if you are going to survive but suspect you’re toast. Here are a few subtle hints that your previous efforts have been in vain:

Subtle--The new boss asks if you are free for a meeting about an undisclosed topic. Be especially worried if the meeting is in the late afternoon, or on a Friday.

Stronger--The new boss asks your name . . . for the third time that day.

Even stronger--The new boss asks, “What exactly do you do here?”

Strongest: A locksmith calls wanting to know the best time to stop by your office tonight.


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