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Lessons Learned

4 Ways I've Learned To Stay In The Loop As CEO Without Micromanaging

Here are some real-world tips for evolving your management style as your company grows, and grows up.

4 Ways I've Learned To Stay In The Loop As CEO Without Micromanaging
[Photo: Flickr user Chris Phutully]

Being a good manager sometimes feels like walking a tightrope. You want to be hands-on and accessible. You’re invested in your employees' success and want to be a valuable resource for them. And, above all else, you need to make sure your department or company is making forward progress.

But at the same time, you don’t want to be so involved in your teams’ day-to-day activities that you squelch their creativity, hurt morale, and miss out on your priorities completely.

Growing Pains And Growing Up

I've done my best to walk this line as I’ve scaled The Muse over the last four years. Early on, my cofounder Alex and I did pretty much everything that needed to be done, from setting company priorities to selling partnership deals to even debugging the site (yikes). As we grew the team, we shed some of these responsibilities, but we still needed to find a way to remain involved.

Case in point: At one time in our early days, we missed a goal for a key monthly metric by nearly 20%—which came, at the time, as a shock. The team concerned had let us know initially that we were on track, but then there was radio silence until the news came that we'd fallen short. It wasn't until the end of the month that Alex and I learned we were SOL to fix the problem. It was especially frustrating because we both felt like we should've been more proactive about checking in.

As we learned, staying in the loop is important. And ideally, you’d be able to do that without hovering over people’s desks. The secret is to find methods that work for both you and your team members. And while that's never easy in practice, I've found that these tactics can help.

1. Know Your Employees (And That They Aren't All The Same)

Everybody’s different. We all have different work methods, communication skills, and preferred management styles. One person can take a vague idea and run with it, while another might need explicit direction and a little more supervision in order to execute. Maybe one employee prefers frequent check-ins to ensure he’s on the right track, while another wants to present the almost-finished product and get feedback from there.

Needless to say, it’s crucial that you get to know your employees in order to understand which methods and tactics work best for them. And you need to do that before you sort out the approach that's best for you to stay looped in. There's no golden management strategy that’s perfect for everyone. Take the energy you'd otherwise put into micromanaging and reroute it into relationship building. Discover what fits really well with your team members, and move forward from there.

2. Figure Out What Works For You

That said, in order to be effective, your management style also needs to work for you. Implementing a process that you can’t keep up with won’t do anybody any favors.

Personally, I know that it’s easier for me to process weekly or monthly emailed updates than it is to gather all of the information I need in a half-hour one-on-one meeting. My team and I also track our big priorities in a shared spreadsheet, which makes it easy for me to always keep an eye on the big picture without constantly needing to ask people for updates separately.

I still meet with my direct reports regularly in person, of course. But by using this system, we’re able to reserve that meeting time for brainstorming or solving complex problems, instead of getting bogged down by basic updates and progress information.

3. Get Involved In Training

A big part of avoiding micromanaging is simply trusting your employees. If you don’t have faith in your direct reports, that’s a bigger problem. However, I’ve found that by keeping involved in their training process, I can stay confident that they've learned the ins and outs and are ready to take charge on their own.

Personally, I like the "I do, we do, you do" format—it’s a little old school, but it’s effective. When handing off a task to someone, I start by sharing a number of examples of the way I used to perform it myself, making sure to emphasize why I made some of those choices, but also encouraging that they experiment and do things differently.

Next, we work on the task together, which gives the employee a chance to ask questions and me the ability to offer feedback. Finally, I transition things over completely, allowing the other person to take the lead.

It's a straightforward process, and it gives me peace of mind that I’ve armed my team members with the knowledge they need to succeed. And as a result, they feel empowered and inspired to forge ahead on their own.

4. Share Your Stuff

Simple digital file-sharing tools are a great antidote to micromanaging. They let you keep tabs on progress without actually having to interact with your employees.

As I mentioned, we use a shared spreadsheet to track projects, but it doesn't stop there. Some of my direct reports have even offered to create and maintain a shared task list. This lets me peek in at any time, add suggestions, and stay in the know as things are completed—without ever having to bother someone and explicitly ask for a status update.

To some, this might teeter on the edge of micromanaging, just by digital means. But that's why I only use it for employees who proactively want this sort of involvement, and prefer it to having to remember to update me. For them, it’s an easy and effective way to make sure I know what's going on—and I can always let individual employees’ preferences dictate how far we go with it.

There’s no denying that it can be tricky striking a balance between being involved and being too involved. But for any leader or manager, it’s crucial that you empower your direct reports to steer their own ships, or you’ll quickly hit a critical limit when it comes to scaling: yourself.

Kathryn Minshew is CEO and cofounder of The Muse. Follow her on Twitter at @kmin.

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