Letting Go

Are you that dreaded office creature, the micromanager?
Kate O'SullivanMay 1, 2005

Do you feel like you never have enough time to do your work? Are you constantly checking and rechecking the work of your direct reports? Is your in-box always full? If this sounds familiar, you may be that dreaded office creature: the micromanager.

While few executives would admit to the designation, some readily concede that the pressure of Sarbanes-Oxley—and the knowledge that they have to sign off on their company’s financial statements—have led them to keep an extra-keen eye on the work of subordinates. Others, particularly in lean finance organizations, may not trust staffers to handle certain complex tasks—for example, pricing and expensing stock options. Thus, they overload their to-do lists.

Call it what you will, but overly close supervision combined with reluctance to delegate equals micromanagement. It’s a potentially destructive behavior. A CFO who tries to handle everything can fall into a vicious cycle, creating even more work for himself. “If people don’t feel empowered, they get dependent on the leader who is doing their work for them,” says Sharon Ting, an executive coach with the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina. “They shut down. So the leader ends up having to put more and more time in, running the risk of burnout.”

In turn, the direct reports at the end of the short leash fail to develop the skills they need to advance. Some may end up leaving, creating costly turnover. Ultimately, the company suffers. “Micromanagement is a waste of the shareholders’ money, because people are working below the level of what they are paid to do,” comments Seth Levenson, an executive coach with Marshall Goldsmith Partners LLC who has worked with CFOs. “The important strategic work often doesn’t get done if you’re too busy just making the doughnuts.”

Most CFOs, to be sure, will acknowledge the dangers of micromanaging. Some see the practice as a red flag. Chris Bellairs, who has responsibility for brands like Expedia Inc., Hotwire, and TripAdvisor Inc. as CFO of InterActiveCorp’s travel group, says that if he’s micromanaging, it means there’s something wrong. “If I have to get involved and micromanage, it’s usually a bad sign for the team that’s called me in,” he says.

Bellairs, who joined InterActive (2004 revenues: $6.2 billion) less than a year ago, says he is working with his finance staff to set clear boundaries, so that they understand which problems call for his involvement and which they should resolve on their own. “To micromanage the finance and accounting of a multinational organization would be an impossible job,” he says.

Breaking The Habit

If you’re a micromanager, how can you break the habit? The first step is to swallow your pride and enlist the help of your direct reports. Since micromanaging is clearly visible to them, they can alert you to the behavior. “You have to give people the permission to call you on it,” says Ting, who says most executives tend to have one or two trusted deputies whom they can ask to monitor them.

Levenson agrees that executives can’t curb their tendency to micromanage on their own. “The people in the organization should know that [you are] focusing on improving,” he says. “When they see that you’re open to change, they’re on your side and can be supportive.” In addition, says Levenson, since “micromanagement is in the eye of the beholder,” regular conversations with employees about the issue can help you gauge your progress.

Next, you need to figure out how to redirect the energy that used to go into redoing your subordinates’ work. “Sometimes people just like to be where the action is,” says Ting. She recalls working with a client who said he felt like he wasn’t contributing anything if he wasn’t checking in regularly on his staff. After encouraging them to come to him with questions and establishing specific check-in times, “he learned that he could help the group progress but not interfere with them,” says Ting. The executive also embarked on a new, companywide initiative. “Everybody benefited from that because he took on an important issue and was able to give space to his direct reports,” says Ting.

Finally, you should reevaluate your finance team: Do you have the right people in the right jobs? “I’m hiring reasonably senior people and I expect them to feel empowered,” says Bellairs, who says he communicates that desire through the annual objective-setting and review process and through regular meetings. “If I hire somebody, I don’t want to be looking over their shoulder,” agrees Lisa Pavelka McAlister, the finance chief at Nexaweb Technologies Inc., a privately held software company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I make sure the people who work for me are competent in their particular areas. Then I can be confident when I receive their work and sign off on it.”

Pavelka McAlister, who tries to recruit trusted staffers she has worked with in prior jobs, says she tends to check in more often if employees are working on a project in an area that is unfamiliar to them, such as an assignment related to human resources. “I want to make sure there is an appropriate review and signoff process, but I want to be fairly hands-off on a day-to-day basis,” she says.

Letting go can be difficult, but it is a critical part of managing a large organization. And in the process, a CFO may gain something he’s never had before—a little free time.—Kate O’Sullivan

Is This You?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you might be a micromanager. Ask a trusted direct report for some honest feedback.

Do you have strategic initiatives on your to-do list that you haven’t had time to address?

Do you often find yourself conducting quality-control checks on your employees’ work?

Do you check in on your direct reports multiple times during the day?

Do you rarely take vacations?

Do you have significant turnover in your finance group?