Letting Go

Are you that dreaded office creature, the micromanager?

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.

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