How Not to Survive Your New Boss

Hillary Clinton's actions in the days following Barack Obama's historic win would doom her in the corporate world. But then this is politics

A year ago, we wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review called "How to Survive Your New CEO." In it, we spelled out seven pieces of advice from CEOs to other executives on how to keep their jobs when a new CEO takes over.

However, it's worth noting that in recent years, executives have taken to seeking management lessons in all kinds of unusual sources: kindergarten kids, a book called Jesus as CEO, even rock stars (, 5/15/08). In keeping with that trend, sharp executives can look to the recent actions of Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) for lessons in what not to do if they want to impress a new boss.

While one can never be sure of what a politician really wants, let's take Clinton at her word and assume that she really is open to the Vice-Presidential slot on a ticket led by the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee (and de facto CEO), Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.). So why is she doing things that, at least in the corporate world, spell certain doom?

Here's a look at the things you shouldn't do:

1. Upstage the new CEO on his first day on the job.

If there ever were a single day that should have belonged to Obama, it was June 3—the day he clinched the nomination. On that day, he could have reasonably expected the media coverage to be ubiquitous and unerringly favorable. He could reasonably have expected everyone to step aside and let the focus remain exclusively on him. It didn't happen. By refusing to concede defeat, Clinton made herself the story. Anyone who has been in government knows you do not upstage your superior in the media—ever. Particularly not the night he makes history. Likewise, a new CEO deserves the chance to bask in the spotlight.

2. Continue to make it clear that you should have gotten the job, even when it's a done deal.

On June 4, the media were reporting that Clinton's own advisers were calling senators, representatives, and other supporters in the hope that someone could convince her to concede. She apparently continued to argue in the group calls that she would be the better candidate. No one likes a disgruntled also-ran—and most CEOs get rid of them as fast as possible.

3. Deliberately and explicitly hide unpleasant details about your past areas of responsibility.

Numerous press reports last week indicated that Clinton refused to let Obama's Vice-Presidential search team vet details of President Bill Clinton's personal business dealings since he left office, as well as the donor list for the Clinton Presidential Library. Apart from the impact of having snubbed a legitimate request, Senator Clinton's demurrals surely must leave Obama wondering just what secrets await Republican discovery during the campaign. No one wants to be embarrassed by an underling, especially when the embarrassment could have been avoided.

4. Bring lots of baggage.

The Clinton campaign finished the primaries with more than $20 million in debt—some of it from loans that Bill and Hillary Clinton personally made. If Senator Clinton becomes the Vice-Presidential candidate, the Obama campaign can absorb that debt. Its pitch to its next 20,000 donors (at the $1,000 level) would be: "Your donation won't buy any advertising or organizational expansion, but it will help reduce Hillary's debt." Or bear in mind that for 11,000 of these donors, the pitch would be: "The money will go to repay the Clintons personally." New CEOs should be able to focus on their own agendas and not have to worry about someone else's.

5. Delay in showing your support.

Bad as it was for Clinton to stall until the end of the week to concede, instead of showing her support sooner, her campaign blundered in putting out the word that she would concede on Friday, June 6, and then waiting until June 7 to do so. If Clinton wasn't behind those decisions, what kind of manager is she? And if she was behind them, what kind of message was she sending?

Did Clinton's actions kill any chance she might have had to become Obama's running mate? If this were the corporate world, she'd be out of a job sooner rather than later. But politics is a strange business, and she may yet demonstrate one more lesson for executives: If she can prove that her followers require her presence on the ticket to switch their allegiance (and votes) to Obama, she may yet hold the penultimate trump card. If you control something that is absolutely invaluable to a new CEO, you can often flout rules and still survive.

Clinton would do well to remember the advice: "Be careful what you wish for." She holds only the penultimate trump card. Presidents and CEOs have more ways to punish underlings than simply firing them. An aide to a former Vice-President told us anonymously that, after his boss alienated the President, the Vice-President started referring to his own office in the White House privately as "Baltimore." He had been exiled to the equivalent of Siberia.

Now Obama must convince voters—think of them as shareholders, if you will—that he is worthy of being President. Many a former CEO will agree that getting to the top and staying there are two different things, and that having a strong, loyal, trustworthy No. 2 is an asset.