ManagementSpeak: Since you’re our expert in this field, we would like you to mentor Joe in it.
Translation: We would like you to train Joe to be your replacement.
This week’s anonymous IS Survivalist, on the other hand, is irreplaceable.

Confrontation doesn’t come easily to most of us.

When making the transition from staff to management, learning how and when to confront others is one of the most important skills to master. Nowhere is it more important than when you take over an existing department. Why? Hold on a moment and we’ll get there.

You have three rules to follow when you take on management of an ongoing operation. Assuming your memory extends to last December, you’ll recall two previous columns on the subject. The first explained why taking over a desk o’ death is preferable to inheriting a well-run operation (success is easy in the former situation and impossible in the latter), and provided the first rule governing the situation: Keep your mouth shut while you size up the situation.

The second column described the rule that applies if you find yourself managing a group you’d previously treated as the competition. Some managers foster an us-versus-them mentality as a team-building technique. While this technique is easy and effective, it has two disadvantages. The first is bad aim: You’re supposed to be competing with other companies, not with other parts of your own company.

The other problem? Your new employees aren’t going to forget all those disparaging things you said about them. Now that you have to lead them, what do you do? My recommendation was to focus on the future. You can’t repair or explain away the past, so they already don’t like you. If they also decide you’re weak — and apologizing is too-easily interpreted as a sign of weakness — your ability to lead them is gone.

This week we cover the third and final rule for taking over a department: Deal with your rivals. That’s where adroit confrontation comes in.

Remember the listen-don’t-talk rule? One key datum you’re looking for is the name of your principle rival. Almost certainly, one of your new employees thinks he or she should be running the joint, and may have applied for the job. If your hiring manager didn’t give you this critical factoid, you’ll have to uncover it on your own. Once you do, it’s time for that confrontation.

Machiavelli would have told you to publicly hang this miscreant. Kill your most dangerous rival and other potential rivals will get the message. In a modern organization, you can’t hang inconvenient employees (you did know this, didn’t you?) so the Machiavellian thing to do is to fire them.

Machiavelli wasn’t wrong, at least not from the perspective of effective maintenance of power. Leaving a rival in place can be dangerous to your career. Since you’re operating in modern America, not Renaissance Florence, you have a more subtle approach you can try before you terminate or transfer: Co-option. As soon as you can, meet one-on-one. You have two goals: To establish that you’re the boss, and to determine your erstwhile rival’s future. It should go something like this:

“I understand you wanted this job. That puts us in an awkward situation. I have to be able to trust you, you have to accept my leadership, and these are both unnatural acts. If you do accept my leadership this situation can work well for both of us. If you can’t, we’re both going to be better off if you find something different to do.

“The only way for this to work is for you to be my most vocal supporter. If you can’t, I’ll take the necessary steps and I’ll take them quickly. I’d rather not have to do that, but I can’t lead this department with somebody like you undercutting me.

“If you can work with me under these circumstances, it can be to your benefit. I’m ambitious enough that in a couple of years I’ll be looking for my next promotion. If you’re as good as we both think you are, we can make sure you’re the lead candidate next time.

“If you don’t think you can work under my leadership, tell me. I won’t resent it, and I’ll help you find another position in the company.

“Think it over. Let’s meet again next week — I’d like your answer then.”

Sound harsh? Maybe. Personally, I think it’s more compassionate than leaving someone in a situation they’ll end up hating while putting yourself in harm’s way.

And if you’re wondering … yes, I learned this the hard way. Twice.