Warning: Micromanagement Doesn’t Build Successful Firms

In our work, we frequently see owner-advisors employing strategies or behaviors that unintentionally reduce profits, dampen firm growth, and/or diminish the quality of their client services. I was reminded of this recently while working with a new client. Probably the most counterproductive thing that firm owners do is to micromanage their employees. It’s a surefire way to minimize all that leverage that employees were hired to provide in the first place. 

In case you skipped business school and have never picked up a management book, in, say, the past 20 years, “micromanaging” isn’t a specialty for computer chip manufacturers: It’s when a “boss” or manager monitors his or her employees a little too closely or provides a wee bit too much “direction” about how certain tasks should be done. That’s not to say employees don’t need to be shown how to do their jobs: We strongly believe in employee “preparation” and training (Preparation is the first of the “Ps” in our P4 Program). But, we’ve found that to get the best results from employees, as much as 90% of preparation needs to be done on the front end—not when employees are doing the jobs they are being paid to do. 

As you might imagine, micromanaging varies from industry to industry, but in advisory firms, it usually takes the form of specifying exactly how employees are to perform their jobs, down to the smallest detail; frequently monitoring their progress while they are trying to get the job done; offering unhelpful and all-too-often conflicting instructions throughout the job; failing to listen to employees’ questions or concerns about a task; expecting employees to approach each task the way the manager would; or closely monitoring when employees come in to the office and when they go home.  

If you’re like most owner-advisors, you’re probably asking: what’s wrong with those things? Without going into great detail, the short answer is that each of those mistakes (and many more) clearly communicates to employees that you don’t have any faith in their ability to do their jobs, and that you don’t trust them to do a good job. This, of course, is exactly wrong message. If you sat down and made out a list of the things it would be bad to communicate to your employees, these two would be right at the top. 

Instead, we like to start by reminding ourselves why advisors have employees at all. The answer is that if you can take all the things off of an advisor’s workload that you don’t have to be a professional financial advisor to do, then advisors can work with more clients and service them better (and spend a lot less than 100 hours a week in the office, if that’s important to you). So the more tasks that firm employees can do on their own, the less time and energy that advisors will need to spend on those tasks. Are you with me so far?

We’ve found that the most successful way to minimize the time and energy that advisors spend on nonprofessional tasks is to first, train employees to succeed at their jobs (as I said); and second, give each employee a sense of ownership for their job. To create a sense of ownership, employees need to feel that their jobs are important, and that what they do is important. They need to feel that their contribution is essential to the success of their firm—and the well-being of the firm’s clients—instead of simply following a laundry list of instructions that anyone could do. 

It’s also important to let employees do their jobs their way. For one thing, their skills and abilities undoubtedly are different than the owner-advisors: to maximize their contribution, they’ll need to figure out how to apply their skills to their job. Let them. And let them make mistakes along the way: it’s the only way to learn their job. Finally, it’s critical to focus on each employee’s results, rather than how or when they got the job done. Reviewing the finished product tells them their work is important, and constructive guidance about how to do it better tells them that you believe they can. 

If you give people the autonomy to do their jobs, and the coaching to succeed, you’ll find they are more motivated, more productive and more innovative. They’ll find ways to do their jobs and contribute to the success of their firm that the owner-advisor would never have thought of.  If owner-advisors don’t do these things, and continue to micromanage, they’ll end up doing most of their employees’ jobs for them—and not maximizing their own contribution to the success of their firm, thus never fully growing.

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