Companies & Industries

In Praise of Micro-Managers


Walt Disney acts out his characters' roles during a story conference
in 1944

Photograph by PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Walt Disney acts out his characters' roles during a story conference in 1944

Apple has been without Steve Jobs for one year now, and it has become clear that what the company misses most is not Jobs’s innovative thinking, but his micro-management.

Apple (AAPL) is still producing such great innovations as the iPhone 5, but the executions are no longer flawless. Many believe that mistakes like the poor Apple Maps app would never have happened on Jobs’s watch, because he was an incessant micro-manager who paid close attention to details.

Few corporate executives aspire to be micro-managers. Management gurus condemn them. The ideal executive today is supposed to be a great delegator and motivator, not someone who tries to tell others how to do their jobs. Yet the fact is, micro-managers often get better results.

Oracle’s (ORCL) Larry Ellison, Microsoft’s (MSFT) Bill Gates, and Amazon’s (AMZN) Jeff Bezos all micro-managed, and their companies all delivered phenomenal growth and innovation under their watch.

Most companies have great innovation ideas. But what separates the winners from the losers is not their ideas, but their ability to execute. Great innovations are often delayed and watered down by cross-functional teams that have disparate motivations. A CEO who is a micro-manager has the ability to cut through roadblocks and force uncooperative team members to take on audacious challenges that drive value. Jobs was famous for pushing his engineers past the bounds of what most considered reasonable—and getting great results from it.

A good micro-manager has the ability to ensure his or her team stays focused on the customer and delivers an experience that delights, without flaws.

Disney (DIS) founder Walt Disney was a well-known micro-manager who obsessed over every detail of every ride design at his theme parks. While he was roundly criticized for this, the end result was an amazing experience for park visitors, making Disney stand out vs. all other less inspired competitors.

It’s no coincidence that many great micro-managers are owners or founders. To be an effective micro-manager you need a clear vision for success and how to achieve it. You also need confidence and risk tolerance. It is much easier to be a delegator/motivator CEO. If an initiative fails, delegators can always blame others. Micro-managers, on the other hand, risk their own skin every day.

If you are serious about results, micro-management is a big advantage. The key to being a great micro-manager is to be selective. If you micro-manage too much or create unwieldy approval processes, you create unproductive bottlenecks. Successful micro-managers insert themselves into mission-critical, customer-facing aspects of the business.

Sam Walton (Wal-Mart Stores (WMT)), Bill Marriott (Marriott International (MAR)), and William Rosenberg (Dunkin’ Donuts (DNKN)) were all well-known micro-managers who spent a large part of their time visiting their own stores to ensure their product was top-quality.

Companies without micro-managers are more susceptible to product and operational crises, because their leaders are less able to identify potential problems on a proactive basis.

If only JP Morgan Chase’s (JPM) Jamie Dimon, BP’s (BP) Tony Hayward, or Barclays’s (BCS) Robert Diamond had been micro-managers, they might have avoided major crises.

If you’re not a good micro-manager, then you need to become good at apologies. Apple CEO Tim Cook was quick to apologize for the Maps app problems. But Apple’s shareholders and consumers would be better served if Cook instead vowed to become more of a micro-manager and take personal ownership of the next design to ensure that basic flaws like this don’t happen again.

Larry_popelka
Larry Popelka is founder and chief executive officer of GameChanger, an innovation consulting firm.

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Companies Mentioned

  • AAPL
    (Apple Inc)
    • $524.94 USD
    • 5.93
    • 1.13%
  • ORCL
    (Oracle Corp)
    • $40.08 USD
    • -0.05
    • -0.12%
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