What is Micromanagement and What Isn't?

By Jan Masaoka, Editor-in-Chief of Blue Avocado

Micromanagement: whatever the board is doing that the executive director doesn't like.  :)

From an executive director: "The board is micromanaging! They're driving me crazy!"
And from a board member of the same organization: "Every time we make even a suggestion the executive director flies off the handle and accuses us of micromanaging! Aren't we supposed to be guiding and leading?"

Wryly, we might say that "micromanagement" is whatever the board does that the executive director doesn't like. For example, let's imagine a board reviewing a budget that has $10,000 included for lighting fixtures. Some board members don't see the point for new fixtures at all, but the executive director believes the expense is important -- for giving a positive sense of the organization to visitors, and for supporting staff desire for better light. And the ED also feels that office equipment purchases are staff decisions, and that interference by the board is micromanaging.

Who's right? If only there were a measuring stick that would make scientific decisions. The unexpected, hidden reason for micromanagement is a lack of confidence in the executive.

Imagine you are supervising two grantwriters. One gives you a great first draft, and you tell him: "Make these couple of changes and send it off." The other gives you a terrible first draft, so you say to her: "Make these changes and let me see the next draft." She protests: "Why do you have to see two drafts me but only one from the other grantwriter? You're micromanaging me!"

The answer (of course) is that when we have confidence in someone we step back and let them do their job. (Sometimes boards have so much confidence in their executive directors that they step back all the way off the map.) When we lack confidence, we step in closer. And closer.

Board members typically don't get much direct evidence on whether they should gain or lose confidence in the executive director. So if the board packet is sloppily put together, the budget wasn't controlled last year, or thank-you letters to donors were late, board members start to step in closer.

Frequently individual board members are all over the map in terms of what kind of oversight they think is appropriate. And sometimes there's a board member who, out of sync with the rest of the board, wants to take every decision up to the board level. Remembering that while the board chair is not the individual supervisor of the executive, he or she MUST organize the board so that the executive is not beset with conflicting orders. A simple way (often useful temporarily) is for the board chair to act as a gatekeeper between the executive and board members, deciding what should come to the board and what shouldn't. But because the board as a whole DOES oversee the executive and board-staff relations, the board as a group should review the gatekeeper decisions to bring the board into alignment on the level of confidence in the executive. In short, the board as a whole "draws the line," not any one board member.

In short, if, as an executive director, you think the board is micromanaging, ask yourself and the board chair what signals the board is getting to make them wonder about your ability to lead and manage the organization. Tackle the real issue -- such as budget control or donor recognition -- rather than argue over whether the purchase of light fixtures is a board or a staff decision. Pick your battles -- picking the ones that are meaningful, not symptomatic. And don't forget to give the board direct feedback too, by saying, "I appreciate the confidence you have in me as demonstrated by your agreeing that this decision was a staff decision," or "Is this input to my eventual decision or are you saying this is a board decision?" or "Since you're questioning a decision I think is a staff decision, should we take a look at the board's overall assessment of my performance?"

Reprinted with permission