A Little Too Hands-On

Micromanagement can thwart a family-run business

By Timothy G. Habbershon

Brax Wright, CEO of Associated Supply Co. in Lubbock, Tex., was a serial e-mailer. Wright didn't want to be seen as a lofty CEO who never rolled up his sleeves, so he continually sent employees a flurry of electronic messages. But to Wright's staff, the e-mails were often deeply discouraging. It wasn't just the e-mails. When the Wrights took a long, hard look at why their family-owned company was not fulfilling its potential, they realized that their management style was a big part of the problem. In many ways, the Wrights were micromanagers.

For ASCO's 130 employees, the Wrights' discovery was great news. Very few owner-managers are ever able to identify micromanagement as a problem, much less address it effectively.

Micromanagement can be especially insidious in family-owned companies. After all, family members are expected to be highly involved in running their business. Many traits common to micromanagers -- taking over responsibility for problems that "they need to solve," insisting on personally making all "big" decisions -- can easily be misinterpreted as nothing more than a strong commitment to the company's future. So at ASCO, a salesperson with a deal ready to close couldn't get final approval from the sales manager -- they needed a nod from a family member. Managers who are also owners can be especially intimidating, leading workers to second-guess their own decisions and obsess over family dynamics.

Luckily, once micromanagement is seen for what it is, overcoming it, while challenging, is eminently doable. Micromanagers must begin by changing their mindset. The job of a leader, under these circumstances, is not simply to focus on doing things but to build organizations so that others can get things done.

Once owner-managers understand this, they can start to address their tendencies to micromanage. First, they must shift their focus from operations to organizational processes. The Wright family's task was to improve teamwork, communication skills, and decision-making -- which they did. When a parts manager and a service manager were feuding over how and when the service group should request parts, Wright asked the parts and service managers from another location to broker a settlement. That's a far cry from "just firing someone," as Wright admits he might have done in the past.

Second, family managers must welcome honest feedback. Most family owner-managers don't ask for it, and most employees don't feel safe giving it. Thanks to Wright's new emphasis on communication and teamwork, ASCO employees are much more empowered. For example, after an inventory miscount, Wright sent one of his customary e-mails, questioning his employees' ability to properly run inventory. But at a day-long meeting to address the issue with Wright family members, the employees were able to keep the focus of the discussion on improving the inventory process, rather than assigning blame for the miscount.

Finally, micromanagement must be part of the family ownership dialogue. Families must talk about their vision for the future, their leadership model, and how they can build teams. After all, family-business leaders who profess a commitment to change and growth must be willing to change and grow themselves.

Timothy G. Habbershon is the director of the Institute for Family Enterprising at the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship, Babson College.

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