Look around corporate America or official Washington these days, and you see bosses disappearing everywhere. Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly...

Share story

WASHINGTON — Look around corporate America or official Washington these days, and you see bosses disappearing everywhere.

Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina: Ousted. McDonald’s CEO James Cantalupo: Died. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell: On the way out.

And that’s just a small sample.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

According to one study, 92 chief executives left their jobs in January, the most departures in a month since February 2001. President Bush has picked 10 new Cabinet secretaries since his re-election, an extraordinarily fast administration makeover by historical standards.

Such top-level exits always raise big questions for the companies and government agencies left behind. Will there be a fresh corporate strategy? A radical policy shift?

But they also raise a tough personal question for the people left behind, especially those closely aligned with the departing boss. Namely, what do you do when your mentor, whether it be the top boss or just a more experienced colleague who showed you the ropes, gets fired, dies, transfers to another job or otherwise ceases to be in a position to boost your career?

The answer, of course, depends on unique facts and circumstances. Sometimes there is nothing to do but update the résumé and scan want ads. Other times, career counselors and protégés say, a bit of deft maneuvering can keep you employed as your mentor moves on.

If you are like Kenneth Ferree, head of the Media Bureau at the FCC, you simply pack up the office and prepare to find a new gig.

Ferree is the kind of Washington professional who signs up for a government job exclusively to work for the boss-of-the-moment, in this case the FCC’s Powell.

The two got to know each other at Georgetown University’s law school, then followed similar career paths, clerking for the same federal judge and regularly running into each other at “law clerky kinds of functions,” as Ferree put it.

Powell went on to be an FCC commissioner; Ferree went into a career in telecommunications law that often landed him with business before the commission. When Powell ascended to the chairmanship in 2001, he dialed up Ferree.

“He asked if I was interested in public service. I said I was,” Ferree said.

Ferree became head of the newly created Media Bureau and worked closely with Powell on a number of high-profile issues, including attempts to rewrite media-ownership rules.

“It was a blast, very liberating,” Ferree said of his time at the agency. “From Day One, [Powell] told me, ‘Don’t worry about the politics. You tell me what the right answer is and I’ll fight the political battles.’ ”

But when Powell told Ferree he would be stepping down in March, Ferree knew he was done as well. “I told him when I took the job that I was only going to stay as long as he did,” Ferree said. ” … I don’t have the aspiration to be a career FCC bureau chief.”

Ferree, 44, said he is just starting to ponder what he might do next.

Not too close

While Ferree went into his job knowing he would leave whenever his boss did, many workers in government and the private sector lack the flexibility or the desire to leave when a mentor disappears. Career counselors say that for those people, it is critical not to get too close to a single boss.

“If people perceive that in addition to having a close personal relationship with your mentor you are also ideologically aligned with them, then your vulnerability is much greater,” said Harvard Business School professor David Thomas, a career-development expert. “That’s especially true if the [outgoing mentor] represents one side of a very sharp divide around some big issue.”

That is exactly the case at Hewlett-Packard, where the board of directors recently ousted Fiorina, architect and chief proponent of HP’s troubled acquisition of Compaq Computer.

One of her allies on the board has already quit, and the new chairwoman, Patricia Dunn, reportedly pushed hard for Fiorina’s firing. There could be rough days ahead for HP executives viewed as Fiorina loyalists.

Surviving a boss

Of course, not every change in corporate control produces extreme results. Career counselors say that workers can survive when a new boss comes in, even during a hostile takeover. Catherine Abbott is proof.

Abbott, a former Energy Department official, spent a decade working for Enron (before the bad times began), then became an energy consultant. In 1996, Columbia Gas Systems Chairman Oliver Richard tapped Abbott to head the company’s pipeline subsidiaries. Richard had gotten to know Abbott while he was at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and she worked at the Department of Energy.

The Columbia position was a dream job for Abbott, who had all but given up on her ambition to head an operating division at a major company.

“Rick was extraordinarily important to me at Columbia,” Abbott said. “He did something for me that no one else had been willing to do. He put me in charge of profit and loss, something I always thought I could be good at, but not everyone else had looked at me and seen that potential.”

Abbott helped turn around the pipeline business. But then a hostile takeover bid by NiSource, a Midwestern energy company, rocked Columbia. Abbott knew Richard strongly opposed the bid and probably would not be around if NiSource succeeded.

So she began plotting strategy with her management team, trying to figure out what role they might play after an acquisition. “They had a small pipeline operation but nothing of the magnitude that we had,” Abbott said. “So we already knew we were somewhat well-positioned.”

Abbott began having extended talks with NiSource CEO Gary Neale. She told Neale she wanted her management team to take as big a role as possible in a new company.

After a long and sometimes brutal fight, Columbia agreed to merge with NiSource in 2000. Abbott became head of pipeline operations at the new company, and several other Richard protégés moved into top positions at the new company.

Several of those former Columbia executives, including current NiSource President Robert Skaggs, remain.

Abbott, however, did not survive a round of management cutbacks two years after the merger. But by that point she was ready to move on anyway, having felt a call to Christian ministry. Abbott is now studying at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington and is set to be ordained in May.

“From a personal standpoint, the timing turned out to be fortuitous, because I felt myself during the whole process being pulled toward a very different place,” she said.

Abbott’s approach to the NiSource acquisition illustrates what career counselor Cindy Morgan-Jaffe said is a critical skill for protégés: the ability to reach beyond their principal mentors to make alliances.

But Thomas, the Harvard professor, said even the best such efforts won’t work if the protégé has not established good relations with other power brokers in an organization. “If you don’t fit those criteria, and your guy is leaving, you better start packing,” he said.