Do you have micro-managing tendencies? As a leader, do you only feel confident when you feel like you have your finger on the pulse of your organization? Do you love getting to the root of an issue, no matter how far into the weeds it takes you? Is your favorite part of the meeting the moment when you finally cease with the theoretical nonsense and start talking about something real? I know it feels good to be adding value on the real heart of the business.
Here’s the problem. Paying too much attention to the details has two big risks: first, you stop paying attention to the longer-term issues, leaving the ship with no hand on the rudder. Second, you disengage all the people whose jobs you’re encroaching on. There’s an alternative to knowing everything. You need to know that someone knows.
If you’re like many of the detail-oriented leaders I work with, it will be a big ask to get you to back off from the nitty gritty. You’ve enjoyed tremendous success by knowing and managing the small details and you’ve seen that small details add up to big differences. It’s not as simple as encouraging you to add value at a higher level. There are supports you need to have in place to increase your confidence in the layers below before you can shift your focus elsewhere.
Once you’re ready to get serious about raising your leadership value, give these approaches a try. I’ll use the example of a Retail Operations Leader and four Regional Managers to play out how these tactics would work.
- Be explicit about roles
The first step is to clearly define your unique value and also the value you expect from the people who report to you. Delineate between the decisions that you own and those that you can legitimately delegate. As the Operations Leader, you might want to make the calls about what percentage of your stores is taken up by different categories or departments and be willing to allow the regions to make local calls about how each department is laid out.
- Define what success looks like
The next step is to come to a shared understanding of what good looks like. Be as specific as possible about what you’re looking for. Be careful to include balanced measures so that it’s difficult to get short-term results with harmful long-term consequences. In the retail example, you would want to include the typical sales and margin measures, but also include customer and employee satisfaction as a counter-balance. It’s also very important to include leading indicators so that you get an early warning of any trouble. In the retail example, you might want to include foot traffic and in-stock percentages as an early warning system.
- Set thresholds
One of the most important steps is one that most people skip: putting thresholds around the goals. If, in step 2, you set targets such as $3 million per month in sales, you’re going to get wildly varying behavior from different Regional Managers. Some will be in your office the minute a daily sales number is 5% below the required run rate. Others will surprise you with a giant gap on the last day of the month. Save yourself a lot of grief by being clear about the thresholds for escalation on key measures. You could say that you don’t need to hear about a single bad day but if a three-day period falls more than 20% short of the run rate that you’d like to be informed. The same holds true on the upside. You might want to hear about any results that are more than 10% above expectations.
- Use templates
Another simple technique you can use to put your mind at ease is to create a template that asks the first line of questions you would normally ask. That way, you know that your direct reports are paying attention to the things you care about. The template should work in conjunction with the measures of success and the thresholds that you created in steps 2 and 3. For example, you could include questions such as, “for any sales results below threshold, comment on the traffic numbers and any other potential drivers?” By having the right questions in the template, you can take comfort that the first level of analysis is happening without you needing to be involved.
- Ask often
No matter how many measures or templates you put in place, you’re not supposed to just walk away and hope for the best. At first, you’ll need to ask lots of questions to ensure that your directs know and understand the details to the level you think is required. Don’t ask gotcha questions, which will send the wrong message. Instead, ask good open-ended questions and then probe for depth of understanding. For example, “What are you worried about for this week? What are the three things you’re watching closely?”
- Reward appropriate escalation
It’s really important to know that your team will come to you with the kinds of issues that are important for you to know. When one of your direct reports comes to you with a material risk to the company’s financials, operations, or reputation, be quick to reward their disclosure. If they escalate an issue you would expect them to handle independently, clarify that. “Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I know you’re diligent about keeping me informed. In future, that’s the kind of decision I trust you to make without my involvement. Just shoot me an email to let me know what you decided.”
- Discourage inappropriate heroics
The nightmare for a detail-oriented leader is to learn (after the fact) that a direct report has been keeping bad news a secret. If you find out that a team member has been withholding information in hopes of fixing the issue before sharing it, you need to give unambiguous feedback that such behavior is unacceptable and that the result will be less autonomy in the future.
If you’ve been rewarded your whole career for keeping your ear to the ground, it’s going to be really uncomfortable to lift your attention up to a higher level. Going cold turkey will not only be excruciating, it won’t set your team (or your business) up for success. Instead, put the energy into clarifying expectations and providing the tools that will help your direct reports pay attention to the right stuff and engage you only when it’s appropriate. You’ll be liberated to focus on higher value activities with the confidence that someone is on top of all the important details.