Board Cafe: What is Micromanagement and What Isn't?

Board Cafe

What is Micromanagement and What Isn't?

By Jan Masaoka 

From an executive director: "The board is micromanaging! They're driving me crazy!"
And from a board member of the same organization: "Every time we make even a suggestion-the executive director flies off the handle and accuses us of micromanaging! Aren't we SUPPOSED to be guiding and leading?"

Wryly, we might say that "micromanagement" is whatever the board does that the executive director doesn't like. For example, let's imagine a board reviewing a budget that has $10,000 included for lighting fixtures. Some board members don't see the point for new fixtures at all, but the executive director believes the expense is important-for giving a positive sense of the organization to visitors, and for supporting staff desire for better light. AND the ED feels that office equipment purchases are staff decisions, and that interference by the board is micromanaging.

Who's right? If only there were a measuring stick that would make scientific decisions. There isn't one right answer and the line falls differently in different organizations-based mostly on the board's confidence in the executive. As an executive director myself, the line that I set for our development manager (who's terrific), fluctuates. If she gives me a first draft of a grant proposal that's excellent, I tell her to run with it. But if she gives me a bad first draft, then I'll give her comments and want to see the second draft. If the second draft is bad, I'll want to see the third draft, and so forth. "Do you want to see the third drafts of EVERYTHING?" she might ask. The answer is: if I have confidence in what you're doing, I back off. But if I LOSE confidence, then I step in closer.

The same is true of boards. Board members don't get much direct evidence on whether they should gain or lose confidence in the executive director. So if the board packet is sloppily put together, the budget wasn't controlled last year, or thank-you letters to donors were late, board members start to step in closer.

Frequently individual board members are all over the map in terms of what kind of oversight they think is appropriate. And sometimes there's a board member who, out of sync with the rest of the board, wants to take every decision up to the board level. Remembering that while the board chair is not the individual supervisor of the executive, he or she MUST organize the board so that the executive is not beset with conflicting orders. A simple way (often useful temporarily) is for the board chair to act as a gatekeeper between the executive and board members, deciding what should come to the board and what shouldn't. But because the board as a whole DOES oversee the executive and board-staff relations, the board as a group should review the gatekeeper decisions to bring the board into alignment on the level of confidence in the executive. In short, the board as a whole "draws the line," not any one board member.

In short, if, as an executive director, you think the board is micromanaging, ask yourself and the board chair what signals the board is getting to make them wonder about your ability to lead and manage the organization. Tackle the real issue-such as budget control or donor recognition-rather than argue over whether the purchase of light fixtures is a board or a staff decision. Pick your battles-picking the ones that are meaningful, not symptomatic. And don't forget to give the board direct feedback too, by saying, "I appreciate the confidence you have in me as demonstrated by your agreeing that this decision was a staff decision," or "Is this input to my eventual decision or are you saying this is a board decision?" or "Since you're questioning a decision I think is a staff decision, should we take a look at the board's overall assessment of my performance?"

Original publication date: 2/25/2004

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