It was a busy week and busier weekend, so it’s re-run time again. This is one of my all-time favorites: The Desk o’ Death and why it’s a manager’s dream assignment. It first appeared, in InfoWorld, 12/11/2000.

– Bob

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As every programmer knows, God was able to make the world in only six days because he didn’t have an installed base. Programmers rarely have that luxury.

New managers have a different kind of installed base to worry about. While the difficulties they face are not as technically daunting as creating a backward-compatible operating system upgrade, the social engineering issues faced by a manager taking over an existing organization present their own set of significant challenges.

When you take over a department, whether it’s through a promotion or a job change, you don’t get the luxury of designing your operation from scratch. You’re inheriting an installed base — an existing team, well-worn processes and ways of doing things, and an entrenched culture. But where programmers usually have a test environment in which they can safely find and fix mistakes, managers have to do their testing in the production environment of an ongoing operation. Missteps are very public, and hard to unmake.

The social engineering starts before you take the job. If at all possible, find out whether you’re walking into a problem area or not. If it isn’t a problem area, try to get a mandate for change from the reporting manager to create a problem where none existed before. Failing that, let some other victim take this no-win job.

Coming into a smoothly running organization is much harder than taking over a disaster area. How are you to succeed? Your chances of further improving the situation and having the team look to you for leadership are low. If your charter is to maintain the status quo, your predecessor will get the credit if you succeed; you’ll get the blame for any deterioration.

Compare this to the desk o’ death. The department is in shambles. The team is demoralized, productivity is low, waste is high, service levels aren’t. Whenever possible, choose the desk of death, especially if you’re the third or fourth manager to get the job — expectations will be so low that your success is virtually guaranteed.

So long as you follow a few simple rules.

The first is to keep your yap shut. Beyond the usual pleasantries of how delighted you are to have the opportunity, say as little as you can. Listen to everyone, in group settings and one-on-one. Neither agree nor disagree with anything beyond broad philosophical concepts, and above all, don’t choose sides or make any commitments. Offer no ideas of your own. Listen and make note of who says what.

In a desk o’ death, everyone has a private agenda and is trying to recruit you. Assume everything you’re told is biased. You have to piece together an accurate assessment jigsaw puzzle fashion out of bits and pieces. The moment you accept any individual as a preferred or unquestioned source of information, you lose your ability to lead — your preferred source will have established his perspective as your own.

So the first rule is to take time to size up the situation. Then you can decide what needs to be changed — processes, technology, reporting relationships, team members (chances are, if it’s the desk o’ death not everyone is a great employee), attitudes, or what have you. And, you can choose your priorities.

That’s the first rule. The second will have to wait until next week.

Until then, trust nobody.

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Since this is a re-run it’s only fair to provide the link to the follow-up column. Here it is.

Show me the victim!

Insider trading is in the news, and is so often is the case, there are parallels to your day-to-day decisions and actions as a leader in the world of business, independent of the specific indictment. And so …

A common defense for insider traders is that it’s a victimless crime. That is, when the stock in question is from a publicly held company, it’s rarely possible to identify any individual who was directly harmed by the insider trading.

The usual counter is that the stock in question is priced wrong because the information in question is known only to insiders. Armed with that information, insider traders know when a stock is underpriced and they should buy, and when it’s overpriced and they should sell. Who do they buy from and sell to? To other investors who lack access to the key facts in question.

From KJR’s perspective this is interesting but not essential, included here for completeness. Here’s what is essential to you as a business leader.

Imagine that, instead of investing, we’re talking about the Minnesota State Lottery. Now imagine the headline story is that one player has been told the first 3 numbers of the winning entry.

If I’ve done my arithmetic right, this knowledge improves the odds of winning from 1 in  36,348,339,200 to 1 in 115,600. As payouts, based on the first number, are typically in the tens of millions and each ticket costs $2, an investment of $231,200 pretty much guarantees the player with insider knowledge a multi-million dollar profit.

Ignoring the debate over whether this is a crime with victims or not, we come to a more important matter: Everyone now knows it’s a rigged game.

This is an issue that matters to all business leaders, or at least it should: Many, without even thinking about it, rig the game of getting raises, bonuses, and promotions.

Take, for example, the very common situation of a mentor/protégé relationship. This is widely considered to be a positive thing — leaders should mentor promising employees as part of being a good corporate citizen.

And it is: the additional mentoring makes the protégé a better manager and leader; having a better manager and leader makes the company incrementally more effective; and as the protégé progresses through the management ranks, the mentor increases his or her influence in the corporation at large.

Also: Because the mentor/protégé relationship is warmer than that of boss to direct report, the mentor and protégé inevitably develop a personal friendship, the result of which is that the protégé has increasing influence with his/her mentor.

Which is also good, in that the mentor now gets a second pair of eyes on difficult decisions.

What’s not to like?

Everything is not to like if you aren’t the mentor or protégé, which, mathematically speaking, is everyone minus one. Because everyone (minus one if the protégé is oblivious) knows the game of raises, bonuses, and promotions is rigged in favor of the protégé.

Take, for example, one of the most basic leadership skills (and one of the eight tasks of leadership — see Leading IT: (Still) the Toughest Job in the World, 2nd Edition, by yours truly, IS Survivor Publishing, 2011. Leaders generally delegate to those they considered most qualified. As they mentor their protégé, the protégé is, in their eyes, more and more likely to be the most qualified, especially for high-visibility assignments.

Which gets the protégé the next high-visibility assignment.

It’s a virtuous cycle if you’re the protégé; a vicious one if you’re anyone else.

How, as a leader, do you solve this? It isn’t complicated: As a business leader you should think of yourself as mentor for all of your direct reports.

What’s easy is the concept. What’s hard is that you inevitably have better rapport with some of the men and women who report to you than you do with others.

My recommendation: Invest the time needed to develop rapport with the ones who are harder.

That’s the view as you consider your relationship with your direct reports. How about your relationship with your own manager, if your manager is less conscious of these dynamics?

The solution is as inescapable as it is unfortunate. It’s that the only thing worse than having to play a crooked game is losing one.

Be the protégé.