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

Share story

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

Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina: ousted. McDonald’s Chief Executive James Cantalupo: died. Federal Communications Commission 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 the want ads. Other times, career counselors and proteges say, a bit of deft maneuvering can keep you employed as your mentor moves on.

One of Fiorina’s 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.

Chances are, however, there won’t be the kind of mega-purge that took place when Stanley O’Neal took over as chief executive of Merrill Lynch from David Komansky in 2002.

In an effort to transform what he viewed as a bloated giant, O’Neal fired scores of senior executives and reshaped the entire leadership of the firm. It was among the biggest clean-outs in corporate history and bitter feelings remain.

Of course, not every change in corporate control produces such 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 “Rick” Richard tapped Abbott to head the company’s pipeline subsidiaries.

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.

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.

Abbott began having extended talks with NiSource Chief Executive 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 fight, Columbia agreed to merge with NiSource in 2000.

Abbott became head of pipeline operations at the new company, and several other Richard proteges moved into top positions at the new company. Abbott, however, did not survive a round of management cutbacks two years after the merger.