Dr. CUMMINGS: Am I micro-managing?

July 28, 2013 

Last week, the president of a very successful Atlanta company asked me this question: “Should I micromanage this executive, or should I let him make this decision that I know from my past experience could fail and cost us millions of dollars?”

If he had asked you that question, what would you have said? I think this is the most difficult part of leadership. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to manage your teenage son or a seasoned executive, or the American public. When do you let them go? If it’s their responsibility; how are they ever going to learn if you make all the big decisions for them? On the other hand, if they make a huge mistake, can you live with it?

Complicating this issue is the fact that some people want to be micromanaged. Really. Not just in business, but in life. Think of the millions of Americans who want to be micromanaged by our government.

Out of the 100 million who are enrolled in at least one welfare program, how many really need the food stamps and the other safety nets, and how many millions take them just because it’s easier than working? We’ve gone from 17 million on food stamps 13 years ago to 46.4 million today. Sure, most of them deserve it, but what if only 1 million don’t?

My Irish ancestors used to talk about “coming to America.” It was the “Land of Opportunity.” They didn’t want handouts; handouts are nothing but micro-management and they had plenty of that from their English landlords in Ireland. They wanted the chance to work, to make their own decisions, to determine their own future. Whatever happened to that America?

Maybe my Atlanta president finds himself in this “micro-management dilemma” because his executive is waiting breathlessly for him to step in and make this big decision. If it fails, it will be the president’s fault. Is this what’s happening to America? “Let the government decide our health-care plan, and if it doesn’t work, we can say: ‘told you so.’ It’s not our fault. That way, we don’t have to budget our own money to handle our own health-care needs.”

On the other hand, maybe my Atlanta president is a control freak and nobody can make decisions as successfully as he can. After all, he was the one who started this company and he is the only one who guided it through the recession. Maybe he should make all the big decisions himself. Is this what our government thinks? “Americans aren’t too good at managing themselves; we better do it for them.”

Here is my advice to business presidents, government officials and parents -- all of whom are entrusted with the power to lead: When you’re faced with the decision “To Delegate or Not To Delegate,” answer these four questions:

• Is this person well trained? Teenagers need to be trained over and over again; most executives get it right away; Americans have enjoyed freedom for 238 years. How about this person?

• Does this person want the responsibility? Extroverts usually want to grab more responsibility than they can ever possibly handle; introverts quite often examine it carefully before they take it. Does this person really want to step up?

• Am I a control freak? Remember, power corrupts. It corrupts our minds into thinking that we are the only capable people around. Is this person capable?

• Can I trust this person? Ah. This is the big question. If I know I am not a control freak, and I know this person has had all the training he needs, and he seems to want to accept the responsibility -- but if I can’t trust him, the game is over.

When my Atlanta president asked me his micro-management question last week, I asked him this: “Tell me, has this executive performed well in the past? Has he ever lied to you about his work? In other words, do you really trust him? There was a long pause. Finally, the president said: “You know, he’s a great guy and I like him, but I really can’t trust him.” “Then,” I said, “You really don’t need him.” Game over.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is digitallydrc.com.

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