Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Micro-Manager

One of the requirements of any leader is the ability to simply walk away and let someone else handle ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ is. Whether you are the Manager of a McDonald’s and you are letting the shift team leader handle some issue, the captain of a ship letting one of his division officers handle a problem, the senior VP of a Fortune 500 corporation or the President, there are situations every day that will require that you turn a ‘blind eye’ to the problem and let someone else handle it, in their own way. It will not turn out quite the way it would have if you had handled it yourself, but if you have already done your job properly – picked and directed the people beneath you, instructed them and motivated them to adopt your goals for the organization – it will work out properly.

Doing otherwise is overstepping your bounds, and is the first step towards micro-management.

One of the significant steps to turning yourself into the consummate micro-manager is the call for more data. Unfortunately, we are now equipped with the technology to provide mountains of data to any willing supervisor. Whether it is an automatic reporting system that forwards operational status of every vehicle in your company’s fleet (and their precise location), an endless stream of e-mails from every junior executive, foreman, supervisor, accountant and secretary, a hand-held texting device of some sort, etc., today’s executive can stay connected ‘24/7,’ to the dismay – and the continual underdevelopment - of his subordinates.

There are those that will respond that “I need to, this is necessary to make sure that…” My answer is that if it is necessary for you to do that, you need to fire your subordinates. But, you cannot possibly do their jobs for them, unless you know how to get more than 24 hours into each day. And, the fact that you continue to receive a steady stream of reporting will incite you to micro-manage when you otherwise might not. Ignorance may or may not be bliss, but it is quite possible to know too much.

Of course, there are exceptions. Or perhaps it is better to say there are apparent exceptions. Winston Churchill, one of the great leaders of the last 500 years, made certain that he was very well informed about every major facet of the economy even as he ran the war. And, when he deemed it necessary, he would delve down deeply into the workings of any branch of the government or private sector. But, Churchill not only rarely did this, he had made it abundantly clear that he trusted the decisions of his subordinates, and he had a wealth of leadership experience to draw on that made these ‘transits’ into various lower organizations of great benefit not only to himself, but to literally everyone involved.

Churchill also rightly recognized that the literal survival of his nation was at stake. Nevertheless, he left to his various ministers wide latitude to act and rarely if ever reached around them or gathered data that did not come through them. Churchill is, in fact, an excellent, though rare example of the great leader – he imparts the vision but remains above much of the day to day workings, focusing on the grand issues while remaining informed about what is happening around him.

Key to this was his ability to shut himself off from the outside. Churchill understood when he didn’t need more information.

That is why the news out of Washington for the past year worries me. For example, the President is receiving a daily brief on the economy, just as he receives a daily intelligence brief. One can hear all the caterwauling from the press (if they ever bothered to read this): the nation expects the President, perhaps even demands that he keep his fingers on this economic crisis. Well, if the American people expect that doing so requires daily detailed briefs on what is happening (and I doubt they do), then they are wrong.

One of the things that caused this crisis was the insane fascination that nearly everyone has with the daily market movements. It has caused all sorts of bad (terrible) financial and economic decisions, as managers and experts have become mired in trying to make their quarterly, monthly, maybe even weekly estimates come true. The last thing this nation needs is a President who isn’t thinking about the long term. Yet that seems to be just what is developing in Washington: a President who is going to focus on short-term economic issues and let the future take care of itself.

Our economy will recover irrespective of what Washington does in the short term, and the key element of making money available to the credit markets was already being addressed before New Years, though that will take some time to sort out. But having the President digging into daily economic activity and trying to make decisions based on them can only be disastrous. There are several very real structural reasons for this, as well as the obvious point that there is simply no way to condense the daily activity of a $14 Trillion dollar economy (that’s $14,000,000,000,000) into something that can lead to a single human being making meaningful decisions. Particularly when that individual has some other pressing issues, such as a war in Afghanistan, a war in Iraq, and the rest of the executive branch to run.

Structurally, the Constitution provides only a few tools with which to manage (or manipulate) the economy, and they are all large and very blunt instruments. Tax policy, monetary policy, government spending and bureaucratic regulation are the only tools the President has (unless he seizes an industry, which is at best questionable Constitutionally), and they are all ‘very large hammers, always looking for large nails.’ The idea that the President is receiving daily briefs on the economy leaves me wondering what is he going to do if he finds something he doesn’t like?

Good (never mind great) leaders focus on long-term visions, think strategically and manage the strategic vision and leave the daily churn to the ‘lieutenants,’ trusting them to inform him when they needed his help. Such leadership is rare and only comes with great experience.

Your job as the leader is to provide vision and guidance and motivation. Communicate, motivate, and then Delegate to your subordinates the authorities they need to execute their tasks, and help them do their jobs. The key to that is experience and reflecting on that experience.

For junior executives, the lesson you need to take away from this discussion is that you need to grab as much leadership experience as possible as you grow old. You need to watch the leaders around you and take notes, both the good ones and the poor ones. Watch how they delegate. Watch how they step aside and let junior managers take charge. Watch how the micro-managers work. Take notes on what worked and what didn’t and think about the ‘why’ in each case. Resolve to commit to the mission, whatever it is, and then grit your teeth and let one of your subordinates do it ‘his way,’ and help him succeed.


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