tug of war rope
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How to gain control by giving it up

Sep 04, 2014

Business advice books don't agree on much, but they're practically unanimous on this bit of advice to senior managers: focus on the big things, and leave the details to your team.

I've spent my career doing the opposite. And I believe it is largely responsible for the success I’ve had so far.

These days, when I work with young chief executives, I urge them to try my “sweat the small stuff” management method. It may seem counterintuitive, as though I am urging CEOs to act like that most dreaded creature, the micromanager. But this approach can deliver the opposite effect. In fact, I have found it builds employee trust, brings the best out of the best employees, and, most importantly, builds high-performance teams.

Chief executives, especially founders, often find themselves torn between two contradictory impulses. On one hand, they aspire to hire “A+” employees who will take the company to new heights with their awesomeness. On the other hand, many CEOs have a clear vision for every aspect of how their companies should be run and a wicked perfectionist streak. This means they often succumb to the temptation to get involved in every detail of the company's operations, instead of empowering the extraordinary people they've just spent a great deal of energy hiring.

In other words, CEOs micromanage. This inevitably leads to a frustrated, demoralized, and even paralyzed organization. Here’s where a “sweat the small stuff” approach can work well.

As my first startup began to grow quickly, I found myself wanting to follow my perfectionist impulses without undermining my teams’ ability to get things done using their own—usually more informed—judgment. My ideas had merit, and they avoided the pitfalls of “design by committee,” which often leads to uninspiring and watered-down solutions. But they were often interpreted by my team as religious edicts and caused people to either blindly follow instead of lead or just get annoyed. So, I set up a verbal contract with all of my leaders, which spelled out the decisions I deferred to them (most of them) and a list of details that I specifically cared about (just a few).

In the case of a major website redesign, for example, I gave the design and marketing teams the authority to determine the site’s organization, layout, and page flow. After all, I hired them because they were experts at this stuff; I wanted them to feel they had the autonomy they needed to do their jobs well.

But I reserved veto power over the color scheme, graphical style, and fonts—yes, I have a small design obsession. They included me on those decisions up front. This also gave me a periodic glimpse into the status of the project overall without nagging my team. If things were off track, I would know.

Over time, I developed an important addition to this “contractual relationship” with my managers. For any detail which I requested involvement, I promised to respond with my feedback promptly (usually 48 hours, even including weekends). If I didn’t respond in time, I forfeited my right to override their decision later.

My managers loved this addition. It showed that I respected their time and authority, and also led them to put serious thought into the details I had veto power over. What if I didn’t respond in time? Then they were on the hook for those decisions as well. And I could hold them to aggressive timelines without being a bottleneck. I’m astonished by how often employees at other companies are forced to sit idly, almost as hostages, because they are waiting for the boss to make the decisions. Everyone suffers from those situations.

I can think of several examples in my career where this "sweat the small stuff" approach worked well. I remember the case of a launch party for a big product release during the dot-com era—the sort of event that would normally be planned by HR or the social committee. Someone came up with the notion that we should throw a blowout party in a luxury suite at the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark. But the idea felt wrong to me. We were a scrappy startup, not in need of the frivolous pampering that more financially successful (and boring) firms would choose. Plus, a box could only hold a few dozen people, meaning it would be an exclusive event instead of the big “friends and family” event I wanted.

I decided to be closely involved with the planning. We ended up buying over 100 bleacher tickets, and renting an In-N-Out Burger truck for an impromptu party in the parking lot. Great burgers, cold beer, terrific energy, and way cheaper: the party was a success that set the tenor for all of our future company events. From that point, I decided to make the details of our company parties and retreats something I cared about.

Giving my employees lots of rope on the big stuff, but getting involved in the details of a few smaller items, lets me safely indulge my obsession for doing the little things right while still allowing the star performers to do great work. I admit it's somewhat paradoxical to gain control by giving it up, but give it a try. You might find it works for you as well as it has for me. Speaking of which, let’s hope this article is no exception… hey, this is not the font that I wanted!

Justin Kitch is the CEO and founder of Curious.com, a marketplace for lifelong learning. He is the former CEO and founder of Homestead Technologies.

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