As Theresa May begins her premiership today, her leadership will be tested like never before. With the nature of the UK’s relationship with the EU unknown, she will have her work cut out. Conservative colleagues have described her tendency to micromanage the Home Office, something which would be impossible to do in her new role.
There is a chronic tendency among people in senior roles to default to micromanagement, not leadership, during times of uncertainty. Brexit, a possible recession, and a terror threat mean she will have to adapt her style of leadership, or risk becoming overstretched.
In times of uncertainty, leaders must focus on mobilising their organisations and the talent within them to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Here’s why micromanagement is so damaging, and how leaders can avoid it.
The curse of modern times
Micromanagement at the top of organisations leads to huge internal inefficiency, and dysfunction in top teams as a behaviour of self-preservation becomes commonplace.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, I saw clients dive into the detail of everything crossing their desk. In one example, the managing partner of a major accountancy firm slashed discretionary spending authorities. Any cost above £500 had to be approved by him personally.
In an effort to take control, he tried to ensure everything was done in the right way – a management task – rather than doing the right thing, which is a leadership responsibility.
Left unchecked, this behaviour can snowball. Eventually micromanagers end up taking over day-to-day problem solving from their team, to the point of doing their job.
Resist command and control
Leaders need to resist the default behaviour of a command-and-control style, and create space and time to focus outwards on the shifting landscape, the market and the competition.
As a senior leader, you’ll already be working long hours, so committing to working even longer is unlikely to lead to much improvement.
Instead, you should ask yourself how you can increase your personal capacity by 50 per cent.
This will involve delegating to other people in your team, and creating an environment in which those individuals can work more effectively by strengthening their individual capabilities.
This kind of investment is too often de-prioritised in periods of economic stress. But getting out of the way is crucial to good leadership.
Seeing the bigger picture
Brexit was unforeseen for the majority of leaders, in politics and in business. And as uncertainty becomes the new reality over the coming months, being able to adjust a business strategy in-flight is a skill which leaders will need to develop.
Indeed, micromanagers who buy into one single course of action, and spend their time obsessing over its implementation, will miss changes to the shifting landscape around them.
Indeed, achieving a competitive advantage today is no longer about being able to do one thing very well. As Boston Consulting Group’s Martin Reeves and Mike Deimler told the Harvard Business Review, “second-order” organisational capabilities that foster rapid adaptation – or being able to learn new things quickly – are now more important.