In Praise of Micromanagers

Micromanagement is the bane of many a performance review. But done right, it works.

What do Steve Jobs, Mickey Drexler, and Jeff Bezos all have in common? They are all builders of giant brands, from Apple to J. Crew to Amazon. There’s something else you might not realize they have in common, and it is directly related to their success. Each is (or was) an unmitigated, unapologetic, micromanager. I can’t tell you how many leadership experts have listed micromanagement as Public Enemy No. 1. But micromanaging can be a powerful tool not to get things done and to develop talent. Why would you micromanage? Here’s a bad answer: because you don’t trust anyone else to do his or her job as well as you could. A better answer: because you are so passionate about your work that you are always striving to make it better. The best answer: because you have a vision for what your business should look like, and you are prepared to back it up with action. There is a natural limit to when micromanagement stops working. Once a job, or a company, becomes too complex or too big, it becomes that much harder to gain the visibility and time you need to stay expert, and micromanagers need to be experts. This is a real danger zone for would-be micromanagers. You just don’t have enough time in the day, or energy in the belly, to keep up at the pace that is necessary. Either you embrace the principle of selective micromanagement, or you go down trying to do what cannot be done. The modern executive is taught that to manage people effectively is to delegate and then get out of the way. I teach our masters of business administration students at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business much the same thing, except for one caveat: Delegating is only step one. It’s not delegate and forget; it must be delegate and then be intimately involved with what happens next. You don’t want to, and can’t, do everyone else’s job for them. But why would you walk away, as so many managers do? When you have deep passion for your business, you also have a responsibility to be involved with how that vision is executed. You will likely step on some toes, and you may go too far on occasion, but which is worse: occasionally butting in on a subordinate’s work to make a point, or not providing real-time feedback to help that subordinate grow and excel? The dichotomy between delegation and micromanagement is false and misleading. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. And now the fine print. Micromanagers must be selective. You can’t delve into the details of everything, and superstar micromanagers don’t. Mickey Drexler might interview every single corporate hire at the $2.2 billion J. Crew, but he lets other leaders manage the IT function. Steve Jobs was intimately involved with each product the company designed, and was famously involved in designing the glass stairs at the Apple stores. But financial and operational issues were delegated to Tim Cook, then Jobs’ second-in-command and now Apple’s CEO. Even Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, is a selective micromanager. For him, intimately knowing the top 500 executives in the company, what their performance and potential looks like, and what they need to develop further, is always at the top of his agenda. That’s not a bad role model for any manager, at any level. Another key: micromanagers must be experts. What could be worse than a manager immersed in the details who really doesn’t know his or her stuff? Sam Walton spent most of his time flying in his little airplane to visit stores, deepening his knowledge as he went. When he had something to say, there was deep credibility behind it. Finally, it takes a strong, trusted team to be a micromanager. Could Steve Jobs have spent weeks with the iPhone design team if there was no one else to mind the store? If not for Tim Cook, perhaps the legend of Steve Jobs would not have turned out quite so well. The good news is that the best micromanagers are often the best developers of talent. Their attention to detail, their intimate knowledge of the business, and their deep involvement in what’s going on actually enables more, not less, delegation. Their position in the center of the work creates an opportunity for micromanagers to challenge subordinates with big assignments precisely because they are informed. Delegating big does not carry the same degree of risk that it might for the typical manager. The final paradox of the micromanager is this: micromanagers actually help other people get better at what they do.

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