Big changes at the top of your company can be scary and unpleasant, but they don’t have to be disastrous for you personally. With a little luck, a shakeup can even benefit you in the long run — if you play your cards right.

The first thing to understand is that living through a big management change is pretty much inevitable over the course of a career, says Ford R. Myers, president of the job coaching firm Career Potential and author of “Get the Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring.”

“I want people to understand, when they’re going through a shakeup like this, it is not unusual,” Ford says. “Of course they are going to go through shakeups, of course there are going to be mergers and acquisitions. They should expect them. They should anticipate them. It’s a normal part of having a career.”

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Circumstances of shakeup make a big difference

How much a management change filters down to the rank-and-file level can vary depending on the events that precipitated the change, says David Berliner, a consulting partner at BDO, a business consulting firm.

For example, if the company is bought by an investment-oriented company such as a private equity firm, the new owners may make a lot fewer staff changes than if a company is bought by a competitor.

The overall condition of the business is also a factor, Berliner says. If a company is in bankruptcy or teetering on the edge and gets acquired by an outside buyer, it’s probably smart to assume there are going to be a substantial number of layoffs to cut costs, Berliner says.

On the other hand, a company that’s fundamentally sound but has had issues with its management strategy may not experience much change — at least at first. In those situations, the new regime doesn’t want to break what isn’t already broken by scaring away customers and top employees, so they tread carefully and try to learn as much as they can about how the business runs before acting. Change tends to start at the top with “C-level” executives, and then filter down as they replace managers and eventually rank-and-file workers who they don’t think fit into the new management’s strategy for the company, Berliner says.

That usually leaves workers a “honeymoon period” to show they’re effective at their jobs and buying in to the new strategy, Berliner says.

Whether or not you get that honeymoon, here’s a 5-point strategy to protect your career.

1. Don’t bury your head in the sand.

One of the worst things a worker can do during a management change is engage in denial and avoidance, Myers says.

Doing so can mean losing whatever chance you may have to shape your own future at the company, or, worse, being blindsided by a job loss should you be found to be nonessential by your new bosses, Myers says.

“I don’t want people to be surprised or stunned” if they lose their job during a reorganization, Myers says. “Better to be informed than to be chopped off at the knees, shocked and surprised.”

Beyond the emotional toll of being unexpectedly fired, there’s a practical reason why being prepared is helpful: Finding a new job once you’re unemployed is generally more difficult than if you still have a job, Myers says.

So if you can see a job loss coming and jump ship first, you’ll probably be better off than if you huddle at your desk and hope for the best.

2. Stay informed.

Staying informed about what’s going on at your company is always important, but never more so when there’s a shakeup going on. If you don’t have a general idea of how your company is doing financially, it’s time to get one fast.

Doing some research online, checking out company financial disclosures and talking to knowledgeable people inside and outside the firm can turn up a surprising amount of information about your company, Myers says.

If you’ve managed to build a network of colleagues who are in the know, now is the time to access that knowledge. If you don’t have such a network, start building one.

“Read or gather whatever information you possibly can about the merger, acquisition, shakeup, whatever it is,” Myers says. “Get into the information loop.”

3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

It’s natural to want to step lightly when the ax is falling at work. But don’t let that fear keep you from getting answers to these key questions:

  • What should I expect with my position?
  • Will I be retained?
  • Will my responsibilities stay the same, or will they change?
  • If there’s going to be a layoff, what is the time frame?

Of course, there’s such a thing as being too aggressive. Constantly hounding your superiors for information may do more harm than good, Myers says.

“You don’t want to sound desperate and anxious,” he says.

4. Meet the new boss as soon as possible.

If the shakeup happens to claim your boss, you’ll want to get a face-to-face meeting with the new boss as soon as possible, Ford says.

“Immediately schedule an appointment or appointments with him or her to discuss their thinking, their priorities, their style, their needs, their preferences, and also to ask about your own status and future in your role,” Myers says.

That information can give you a leg up on meeting the new boss’ expectations right from the start, so if there is a honeymoon period, you can make the most of it.

5. Always be on the lookout for other work options.

Like networking among coworkers, having other employment options on your radar is a good idea all the time, not just in times of uncertainty, Ford says.

“You should always have options. You should always be on the lookout for other opportunities, and keeping your eyes and ears open. You should always talk to recruiters when they call you. You should always be networking and going to career and networking events,” Myers says.

Having an exit plan not only gives you more leverage, it can help keep you emotionally grounded during tough times at work, he says.

“When there’s a shakeup, instead of being panicked, freaked out, and feeling like you don’t have any other options, if you do the things I’m saying you’ll feel like, ‘Oh well, it’s not a good thing, but it’s all right.'”

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