A few weeks ago I gave a speech in front of a group of leaders and managers of medium sized companies. “Escaping mediocrity” was the topic. It was about change and innovation. I talked about the pre-requisites for an innovative company structure, so naturally the topic of “leadership” played a big role. I argued that it is necessary, in the context of innovation procedures, that leaders provide the vision in addition to preparing the team for dealing with the coming innovation and guiding them through the process.
None of the leaders looked very excited when I started talking about their responsibility in driving innovative processes. “I get what you’re saying, but do you have any idea what we already do?” That was the typical objection. I listened patiently to their comments, allowed them to “let off some steam” and was about to enter into a dialog so as to steer them towards a solution when one of the participants came up to me and said: “When I think about all the things you said it sounds like it would be too much. I wouldn’t be able to manage it. On the other hand, I can see that bringing the team onboard is important too. My takeaway is that I need to get out of the habit of micromanaging so that I have time to lead through innovation.” She got it.
All the audience members could connect what I was saying with their daily business practices. Perhaps the same is true for you? No-one likes being a micromanager. So how can we break out of this mode?
The following four core elements should be investigated:
- Build trust: Micromanagement is often a sign of distrust – either towards the staff or some of the leaders. Distrust does not only poison the office environment, it also has an added drawback: the more leaders micromanage, the less responsibility the staff feel for results. Micromanagement is therefore the perfect foundation for laziness, which reinforces the leaders’ belief that she needs to keep an eye on everything because otherwise “nothing would work”. So the key question is: What are the roots of distrust and how can we eliminate it?
- Delegating: Micromanagement requires a lot of operative tasks that are not carried out by leaders themselves but by staff members who have specialized skills. If you want to wean yourself from micromanagement you need to figure out who can be trusted with particular tasks so that they can actually do them. This is where the 70% rule kicks in. If you believe that someone will be able to carry out at least 70% of a task then you should give them the responsibility for carrying it out.
- Developing a tolerance for errors: Every delegated task has the potential to breed mistakes. That is inevitable because two people almost never perform a task in exactly the same way. But it’s not so bad if a certain level of tolerance for errors has been cultivated. A leader focused on the long run can avoid big problems by being aware of pitfalls in the actual act of delegating. When mistakes do happen, which is unavoidable, it’s always helpful to view them as a good opportunity for learning. Leaders and staff profit from this experience in the same measure.
- To delegate or not to delegate? When it comes to this question you need to think about the commercial value of a task. Some operative tasks are so essential that they cannot be carried out by anyone else. For example, a CEO should never outsource the task vision casting. Staff evaluations should also not be carried out by anyone else. The following questions can help you figure out whether a task can be delegated:
- Is the success of the task essential to the company’s survival?
- Is the task of strategic importance to the company?
- Is it important that the task is done without any errors?
- Is it important that the CEO is visible to the external world?
- Is the task vitally important for the company/department?
You will probably notice very quickly that there are many tasks that you erroneously assumed had to be carried out by you. Let it go. As the CEO of three companies I often ask myself these questions because I tend towards micromanagement myself. But if the task can be delegated that’s exactly what I do.
Anything else would be harmful and negligent because my team expects me to have an overview of everything that’s happening. They need to rely on my ability to make strategic decisions so that I can steer the company away from possible crises. The more I get stuck in the morass of micromanagement the less I am able to lead from the front.
Because I can hand over many high-stakes tasks I am able to achieve a positive knock-on effect: our team takes on more responsibility – every team member in their own area of expertise. Laziness is avoided. And creativity and innovation can flourish throughout the company
Melanie Vogel (German only) lectures at the University of Cologne and gives keynote addresses, webinars and seminars in varous contexts, including: businesses and HR departments where she speaks on Futability®, innovation and leadership. Futability®, the concept that she developed herself, is her answer to VUCA. Her book “Futability® – Veränderungen und Transformationen bewältigen und selbstbestimmt gestalten“(German only) came out in Feburary 2016 and can be ordered online at www.futability.com (German only).