There was a period in the 1990s when militaries involved in operations in the Balkans and other war zones decided that the “strategic corporal” was a critical piece of the peacekeeping puzzle. It was born of the realization that even a corporal’s decisions could have a major – even strategic – impact on the mission.

Some people joked that the high-ranking equivalent to the strategic corporal was the “tactical general.” This was meant to reflect the fact that many senior officers in the military appeared to be micromanaging operations from headquarters.

Micromanagement is a bugbear in most organizations. People lower down in the hierarchy often feel that their every move is being analyzed and watched by senior executives. The general feeling is that the leadership doesn’t trust them. Those running the organization are often afraid to be perceived as micromanaging, and therefore fail to exercise control at the right time and place to gain the proper strategic effect.

Despite the bad reputation of micromanagement, I think it is often missing in organizations. Leaders –strategic, operational, or tactical – must be prepared to step in and manage certain aspects of the business in detail. This can occasionally require focusing on operational and tactical details for extended periods of time, simply because they are of critical importance and are strategic in impact.

Take the case of BP, which has always prided itself on its culture of risky operations. Its strategy is based on seeking out and exploiting the riskiest and most dangerous sources of oil on the planet. Starting in 2005 and 2006 senior management decreed the need for a new culture of safety and prudent risk management to replace the “cowboy” mentality that had prevailed for decades. Unfortunately, the problems continued, with the results that we’ve seen in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP would have needed a complete makeover in its culture in order to avoid the disaster at the Deepwater Horizon rig. While many changes were underway, there were still many aspects of the culture that showed a lack of concern for basic safety. When you read the accounts of what happened on the rig, one of the striking things is how reticent managers were to intervene and take action to remedy obvious safety violations and a general lack of “command presence” during the early events of the disaster.

Leaders set the general tone and direction for an organization, but they can’t just delegate and disappear. They have to constantly reinforce new approaches and policies, especially when they differ in a major way from previous practices and expectations. As a rule, the deeper the changes, the more the leadership must micromanage. They have to be at the forefront of the new expectations, inspect facilities, challenge people’s understanding, seek to remedy mistakes and anything that can possibly lead to the belief that things haven’t really changed or that they will get back to normal once the fuss is over.

Once a routine is set in and everyone is comfortable with the new expectations and culture, then the leaders can go back to being hands off, but during the change, they have to be involved in the details.

The same goes for beliefs and practices that touch the core of an organization’s culture. Steve Jobs is intimately involved in the development and launch of all of Apple’s new products and services. Why? Because avant-garde product design is what the company is all about.

In a company that is less product-focused or that has a completely different driving force, the CEO should focus on whatever is central to the organization’s mission and culture. For instance, BP is an oil company, so it’s driving force is resource based: finding resources, acquiring exploitation rights, extracting them, and distributing them. The CEO should focus his efforts and leadership on shaping the most important decisions and processes surrounding these needs, even to the point of micromanaging if the issue is critical or strategic.

The reality is that there is a delicate balance between being too strategic (aka aloof) and being too tactical (aka micromanaging). Leaders need to know when to be hands off and when to get their hands dirty. This requires prudent judgment, and bromides about the undesirability of micromanagement are useless in that regard.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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