How To Thrive When a Great Working Relationship with Your Boss Changes

Elaine Holmquist is a Senior Executive Assistant for a global pharmaceutical company. Her three-year relationship with her executive ended when he left to pursue new opportunities. Holmquist, like many EAs in this situation, felt displaced. How does one navigate the emotions and professional uncertainty of a transition like this? What are the correct steps to take? Elaine is part of Corporate Affairs, the department that serves as her company’s brand storytellers. Her department supports everyone in the organization, including internal and external communications, policy and government affairs, corporate events, social responsibility, and medical and development communications. Elaine recalls, “What my executive truly taught me is that things can change in a heartbeat. In this role, confidentiality and trust are of the utmost importance.” They had a very close working relationship that garnered many successes over the three years of their business partnership. Elaine helps shed light on the success of her partnership and how to navigate the uncertain landscape when your executive leaves.

What were some tools you used to build a great partnership early on?

I advise open communication. At first, fluid communication will be a bumpy road. But communication, transparency, trust, and vulnerability are the key components to a great relationship. Through the Birkman assessment, my executive and I learned that as far as working styles go, we were polar opposites. Yet, we complemented each other well and helped build each other’s strengths. I recommend that every EA and executive take the Birkman assessment, or some sort of work style assessment. In fact, I am going to do that with my new executive. Finally, if something goes wrong, tell your executive immediately. If you are the only one who knows something went wrong, that responsibility is falling on one person. If you share the information with your boss, that responsibility is shared by two. You find solutions more quickly that way.

What did you admire most about your executive?

I have always admired his humanity, humility, and gratitude for the many blessings in his life. He always had many one-on-ones on his calendar with several people, including people from outside the organization who sought his advice regarding networking. Because several people had helped him early in his career, he wanted to give back to the community through mentoring. My executive never limited me and always encouraged me to go to conferences. He advised me to go not only to assistant conferences, but also to communication workshops. In addition, he went out of his way to endorse my work to his professional contacts, which meant a lot to me personally. When he left the company, my executive gave me a hand-written card expressing his appreciation for the work I had done for him and the team over the past several years. I plan to keep his card for many years to come.

What is something you wish you would have known going into this transition?

The most important thing to recognize is that this is a grieving process. It’s a loss and you have to treat it as such. Emotions will pop up when you least expect it. It can be uncomfortable and messy, but the expression of your emotions is a confirmation of your humanity. Identify where you are in the grieving cycle. Consider postponing important events until things stabilize. Leverage your resources and ask for help as needed. Lean on your support network! This might include your family and/or friends, your faith community, IT, Office Services, management, colleagues, peers and/or HR. Recognize that it can be stressful if your future is unknown, especially if there is a subsequent department reorganization. Recognize that it can be chaotic, and that’s okay. Advocate for yourself and be actively involved in the decision making process. Be sensitive to others within your group who might be impacted by this change. Recognize that this too shall pass and that things will revert to a new normal. It had meant a lot that I had received a consistent message of positive affirmation from my executive, his leadership team, the broader Corporate Communications team, and the company president.

Embrace the new opportunities that change can bring. Because of the subsequent department reorganization, I have been asked to support a new executive on the company president’s senior leadership team. Not only will I have the opportunity to help her onboard to her new role, but I will also have the opportunity to learn new skills by coordinating several important projects and initiatives within her team. Determine what type of relationship you can have with your former boss in the future.

Finally yet importantly, pay it forward by offering support to someone going through a similar transition.


Although this transition is uncomfortable and will result in some growing pains, it is also a great opportunity for you to step up as a leader. Show not just what you can do, but how you do it. Be the change you wish to see within your organization. Throughout the transition, there are transferable skills that are used from one executive to the next. Take this time to review and reevaluate your best qualities and ways to mold these qualities into your new position. Finally yet importantly, your worth should grow and prosper knowing you have faced adversity and made it to the other side. Not to mention, you are never alone.

For more tips on navigating challenges in the EA career, join the ELS Forum in a city near you, here. For instant resources, check out our blog, here.