Dear haters of MICRO management: here is the case for ACTIVE management

This essay is ~risky to publish in the capacity that it goes against some cultural norms of today. I want to emphasize that I hugely value kind leaders—people who show excessive kindness. I think being an asshole is a hugely selfish decision often made by people who blame the world for their emotional reactions. In any situation, it is POSSIBLE to be kind.

You can choose to do this, and hopefully through this essay I can convince you that A) being a micro (I call it ACTIVE) manager is a really good thing and B) and I spend less time on this in the essay but I will emphasize for you here, that you can do it kindly. If you are reading this and you do not want to work with or for me as a result, that is totally fine and your choice.

As Nat Friedman describes, the technology industry has placed an unjust “cultural prohibition on micromanagement.”

Now, I have only been around for so many years, and I have only really been a “professional in the workplace” for half a decade or so, but I, too, believe that the latest version of the tech industry (and the culture surrounding the tech industry) is getting something (okay tons of things) WILDLY WRONG about management, culture, and effectiveness.

If you work in tech today, at some fancy splashy startup of sorts especially, you know what I am talking about. I do not think people are serious about doing serious work. They want other things. They want to work at Google and copy all the “benefits” (tbd if these are actually benefits) of working at a cushy job but say they work at a startup that is “changing the world” (still tbd if this claim is actually true for most of these companies, I would bet no, but hey I am not here to be a pure cynic).

People today say they want space. They want open floor plans but they want the ability to work with no one looking. They say they want to be judged by their outcomes but not necessarily responsible for them. They want the ability to DO THINGS THEIR WAY. They do not want people looking over their shoulder.

And supposedly? things have not always been this way. There exists companies where culture is about GETTING SHIT DONE and everything? else comes second to that? And that was not such a bad thing?

One caveat would be is that I did not work in the 1980s (I was not alive!)—I have no idea how far the pendulum has swung today or if it has really always been this way (an aside would be that I ~feel like “old heads” in the industry talk about how things used to be SO MUCH MORE DIRECT and honest. I am not sure if this is true). Another caveat would be that I have not really worked in other environments, as in other industries, so I cannot comment from my past experience (but, again, I come with anecdotes from friends and readings that it ~seems like other industries have not swung as far on the culture pendulum).

I think the tech industry gets a LOT of things wrong. I will emphasize that because I think we have created a halo of sorts around tech and that is probably incorrect thing to do. Tech people may be smart in some ways, but in terms of RUNNING EFFECTIVE ORGANIZATIONS, the experiment is going south. All tech companies get worse as they get extremely large and eventually slow their rate of innovation. Help me understand a counter-example to this (genuinely, curious). You do not see them hiring better people as they get larger or building more interesting products). Why this is happening is a separate area (that deserves more studying), but that is not the point of this essay. I would say that we underestimate to the degree that the industry at large gets things wrong (and thus gives out bad advice, often proliferated by VCs) largely because the POWER of making something people want (AND SCALING THAT FUNCTION) is so so so impactful on financial returns (a la power law/pareto principle) that you often are able to ignore the bad stuff because the good stuff, when it works, really really works.

But the thesis of this essay—or at least the main point I hope to get across (first to myself, then to a prior version of myself (not literally) that may be out there on the internet wondering how to tackle this sort of prompt)—is that ACTIVE MANAGEMENT is not bad (and in fact is often necessary for success). I hesitate to say anything is necessary for success—there are many ways to achieve your objectives. But I nearly use the word because I have yet to find examples in history, outside of people who win the lottery, who “stumble into SUSTAINED greatness.”

I am substituting the term ACTIVE MANAGEMENT in place of micromanagement because, well, I think micromanagement has gotten such a NEGATIVE cultural connotation that it hard to use the word without people immediately diving into the feelings state instead of the logical cognitive state. The feelings state is of course useful, just here, at least right now, I would like to make more of a logical appeal. Because…well…business is business, right?

To note, it has gotten so bad that people confound micromanagement with bad management. Note here that the first result for Googling the term “micromanagement” is this: “Micromanagement is a counter-productive management style characterized by such behaviors as an excessive focus on observing and controlling subordinates and obsession with details.”

Why is focusing on details inherently bad? Perhaps focusing on the wrong details is bad? Perhaps being wrong about the details is bad? But focusing on the details, focusing on the inputs, that sounds good? Wouldn’t your customers like that?

So what is active management?

Well, what is the job of management? To create a (false though hopefully helpful to see) dichotomy, I believe there are two camps of management (surely there are more but go along with this for the exercise for me!). I will illustrate this using a story. This is a real story. A real story that happened to me a few years ago.

I was in a conversation with a leader on our team. This person was responsible for leading an important part of our company. I remember having a conversation where I asked them what their role was. Not as a test, but as a way to get to alignment. They answered something like: “I am responsible for empowering my team to ship the product.” Great, I rolled my eyes. You know why, right? “No, you are responsible for SHIPPING THE PRODUCT. Empowering your team is a choice. You likely will leverage your team in some capacity, but at the end of the day, you are responsible for shipping the product. And that piece of the equation is responsible for helping us achieve the business objectives that are outlined.”

This discussion of sorts was not particularly productive. I take responsibility for that. My response was emotionally charged—I was frustrated, by such a small detail, but frustrated nonetheless. This comment of theirs was indicative of their broader view of their role and I could feel that in the tone of their response. Said individual had a fancy background and was paid a fancy salary. They thought of themselves as A LEADER, AND MANAGER OF PEOPLE. This is how their identity was formed. They cared about this. This is was brought them fuel. (There’s a lot of judgement and unaccredited psychoanalysis happening here—ignore the tone of it. The point is that people have egos that are often tied to their self-identity. When you have a different view of their identity, and communicate that, well, it rarely is effective).

And so, when I tried to CRUSH THAT VIEW, things went south. I thought of them as someone who would get outcomes. That was their job. Their identity told them otherwise. Our board does not care about how much we empower people so long as we achieve the outcomes we need to achieve. The latter is more important than the former. If you view the former—the empowerment of people—as a LAW OF PHYSICS, SOMETHING THAT CANNOT BE CHANGED AND SOMETHING WE MUST DO, then you are likely to prioritize it over objectives. If you view your identity as someone who needs a big team, or needs to have a fancy title leading a big team, or anything of that sort to enable you to do your best work, all that means is that you are placing priorities ABOVE the objectives of the company. You can do this, but it may stunt your ability to actually drive impact at the company. It will inevitably because at the end of the day you will need to choose between your priorities.

Now you can read the above exchange, as I have thought about it now, and recognize that I too acted ineffectively. I first of all hired the wrong person for the job and put them in the wrong role. I should have trusted my gut more in the interview process. Instead, I succumbed to the pressure and insecurity of being a young leader and thinking I needed someone ultra credentialed nearby. BS. That’s BS. If I could tell myself one thing—over and over and over and over—I would tell myself that is BS. Experience is NOT BS. But BS experience is BS.

I should have said the following, more explicitly: If you want to be a professional manager, this is the wrong organization for you. I do not know what organization is the right one for you, but I think it is one where political navigation is commonplace and the infection of ineffective work has already seeped so far that they have made meetings about meetings to decide that there is room for people to be “professional managers.” I do not buy it personally. I also managed them in an ineffective manner—I prioritized trying to change their world view over doing what is best for achieving the objective for the company. Lesson learned.

I would add that I do think management can be a skill, but I would not use the word management, I would instead use the word communication. I think there are good and bad communicators, and that as you are in a position where you are interacting with more people within an org, you need to be a better and better communicator. Ideally, the org’s culture is optimized for “better communicating” as CLEARER communicating. Clearer means clarity of ideas (so people know what you mean, and also you are meaning what you say). Hopefully better communicating DOES NOT spiral into meaning: “making everyone feel important” but at some scale, this often happens. I reject this as an inevitability but I do not know the better solution other than fixing this when the problem is small.

But back to me—because I was the one who made the mistakes and had the scars (hopefully you can be better than me, you probably can be).

How expensive was this lesson? Well, what ended up happening, before we parted ways, was the person basically spent all their time pseudo-working, aka people managing and very little time actually in the weeds GETTING STUFF DONE. Obviously obviously obviously this happened. Because they thought their job was to do this larp (live action role play) version of work which is to make people feel like they matter and empower them. BS. Be right and be a good communicator. That is how you get your team to like you, right?

But how would I apply that lesson moving forward?

I think about asking others the question: How would you describe a good manager?

This is an interesting question to ask someone. I find you generally get one of two answers—”my manager was great. They gave me lots of freedom.” and “my manager was great. They were right all the time. They were also a strong communicator, someone I would like to be like one day.”

Now who would you rather work for if you had the choice.

If you were optimizing for helping the company win, I think I would choose the latter. I know I would. I would rather work for the person who has great judgement over the person who is laissex faire and hands-free. Why in the world would someone who is lax be better at “management”? How would this yield better results? Show me the organizations created this way that ACTUALLY BUILT SOMETHING MAGICAL. Even so, I would say that most organizations die to mediocrity over time, so do not give me those examples.

Why is this a better approach, ever? Why not keep promoting people who have great judgement to have more responsibility and then demote/fire people who have bad judgement? I think this is generally the type of organization I would like to work in.

I think what often happens in organizations is you end up promoting people with bad judgement to having more responsibility. I do not understand this and would advise against it. Well, I can try to understand it. I think it actually all boils down to a fundamental belief that I have that is sometimes uncomfortable to say and certainly not accepted by the tech industry (nor accepted by people at large nowadays) which is that people are NOT equal. Yes, they are equal as human beings and have rights and should be treated ethically, morally, and humanely. 1000%%%. But people are not equal in terms of value they are delivering to the company. Nor are they equal in terms of the capacity they have to generate value for the company. And you would think this is a non-controversial statement—I mean, we literally pay people different amounts and give them different titles for a reason. But people do not get that. They do not want to say it at least because it makes them feel uncomfortable. They do not get it because they do not want to admit that perhaps there exists someone at the company who is MORE VALUABLE than them. There are heroes in the world. There are better people out there who WANT IT MORE. Sure, they can say the executives are—but what about the people who are similar to you (your age, background, etc.)? Would you allow them to be more valuable to you?

Do you get insecure then? Do you get nervous? Get over it.

And once you do understand this, and recognize it, and stare at it in the mirror and ACCEPT IT, then why wouldn’t you want to scale the people with the best judgement, give THEM the resources as best as possible.

I will add a qualifier—the people with the best judgement should make the most impactful decisions. Even people with the best judgement should be challenged and criticized. Even they should be open to the idea that they are incorrect. But they should drive. The world is built by these drivers. The canons or barrels or whatever you want to call them. This is a broader essay, about what to do with these excess geniuses (read this one as a starting point on the topic)—but if you can buy into this fundamental belief that, yes the pareto principle is relevant here, that small groups of people (or individuals often) are the ones really driving things forward, then you can understand concentrating POWER within an organization is the best (and really only way) to drive true innovation.

There’s a lot to study in this category. I do not think you need to study it to pick up tactics but if you are anything like me and every so often, or sometimes very often, find yourself doubting yourself, recognize that YOU SHOULD KNOW know that YES YOU SHOULD BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.

Because…why not?

Why let yourself get diluted into insecurity? Why give up your power of ego? Why not care? Why drop your standard?

Put another way…

What other choice do you have?

What other way is there to live?

Look at your heroes. Forget your heroes. Look at the people who built the modern world. The geniuses of sorts who drove things forward. The quality I admire in the few are those who LIVED LIFE TO THEIR FULLEST. The key word in that sentence is THEIR. Notice it is not THE fullest. The difference is, well hopefully obvious—there is no generalizable fullest version of life. There is only a version that is BEST FOR YOU.

There are people, and you know them, the people with the IT factor, that sprint towards that version of life. They ACTIVELY LIVE that.

Look at Napoelon.

Napoleon was known for micromanaging. After the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror that succeeded it, Napoleon restored order to the nation. Unfortunately, he didn’t know when to limit his controlling tendencies. According to historian James MacGregor Burns, Napoleon was not a bloodthirsty tyrant but a control fanatic. He controlled the press, books, theater, workers’ associations, and public demonstrations.

To teach the youth of France to respect the country’s laws, for example, he took control of French schools from the locals and hired instructors who were required to teach from the same syllabus and textbooks. The result of this overcontrolling approach was that children fled to Catholic schools. And when Napoleon enacted conscription for military duty, the lives of soldiers became so draconian and restrictive that as word spread, it produced “mass resistance of a sustained, endemic character,” according to historian Isser Woloch.

Napoleon was in the weeds, and all the details:

There were on his writing-table reports of the exact state of the land and sea forces….supplied by the Ministers of War and Marine…and…renewed on the first of each month.  They were divided into columns indicating the number of the infantry and cavalry regiments, the names of the colonels, the number of men composing each battalion, squadron, and company, the departments where they were recruited, and the number of men drafted from the conscriptions, the places where the regiments were garrisoned, the position and strength of the depots, and the state of their troops and material. If marching regiments had been formed, particulars as to their composition, destination, and the dates of their departure and arrival were mentioned in these reports…. The corps of engineers, and of artillerymen, and the batteries of artillery, were also described in these reports. …

The columns of the report referring to the state of the navy contained the names of the officers commanding them, the composition and strength of the crews, the names of the departments where sailors and marines were levied, the names of ships which were in docks and particulars as to what progress had been made in their construction.

The Emperor always had a strange pleasure in receiving these reports. He used to read through them with delight, and would say that no work of science or literature ever gave him so much pleasure.

https://shannonselin.com/2022/01/napoleon-workaholic/

Read Hard Drive about young Bill Gates. Microsoft succeeded because he drove the company. Now, I would not advise copying Gates, but still look!:

He further added, “I knew everybody’s license plates so I could look out in the parking lot and see when did people come in [and] when were they leaving.”

Read about Bezos:

Jeff Bezos is an infamous micro-manager. He micro-manages every single pixel of Amazon’s retail site. He hired Larry Tesler, Apple’s Chief Scientist and probably the very most famous and respected human-computer interaction expert in the entire world, and then ignored every goddamn thing Larry said for three years until Larry finally — wisely — left the company. Larry would do these big usability studies and demonstrate beyond any shred of doubt that nobody can understand that frigging website, but Bezos just couldn’t let go of those pixels, all those millions of semantics-packed pixels on the landing page. They were like millions of his own precious children. So they’re all still there, and Larry is not.

Read about Sidney Lumet talking about trusting his gut when making movies:

I decide completely instinctively, very often on just one reading. I don’t analyze a script as I read it for the first time. I just sort of let it wash over me. Sometimes it happens with a book. I also make sure that I have the time to read a script straight through. A script can have a very different feeling if reading it is interrupted, even for half an hour. The final movie will be seen uninterrupted, so why should reading the script for the first time be any different?

The list goes on and on. I think the commonality with these characters is that they trusted their gut and then TOOK CONTROL of their lives. They lived with agency. They did not stumble into their successes. This is a myth. A myth that unsuccessful people write about to make themselves sleep better at night. You can (and should likely, especially if you are complaining) ACHIEVE the conditional probability by exerting influence over the world around you.

So enough of this “egoless work.” Enough of this, you go to a restaurant, you say this food is bad, and the chef just doesn’t care. CARE! Be offended. If you do bad work, you should be upset. (What you do with these emotions is up to you, I would advise against being an asshole, so sometimes consider externally smiling and waving).

Management is just a small piece of this but it is a great example. Enough of this “micromanagement is bad.” Enough of this is: “you are the CEO, you should zoom out and just hire great people.”

What companies have been built this way? Show me?

Switch to active management. Get shit done. The most important shit done. Try harder until you do that.

Active management is merely the pursuit of MANAGING THINGS TO OUTCOMES by controlling the inputs as best you possibly can. An active manager is someone who uses their judgement to make sure things reach a quality bar they can be proud of (as they believe it will get the outcomes they need).

I really like what Henry Ward, CEO of Carta, writes about this topic:

There is no A for effort
Most employees are given credit for trying hard. If a new onboarding manager isn’t able to get a customer live when they were supposed to, we give them a lot of credit for doing their best, working hard, and doing everything they could to succeed. Even if they don’t succeed we keep encouraging them to work hard and get better.

On the other end of the spectrum is me. I get zero credit for effort. Nobody cares how hard I work. Customers don’t care, investors don’t care, employees don’t care, the market and the world doesn’t care. Nor should they. If I don’t make payroll, don’t raise money, don’t grow the business, don’t build new products, it doesn’t matter that I tried really hard to. And that is how it should be.

Executives are more like me than a new onboarding manager. But it can be easy to forget that. Employees, particularly those working directly for an executive, will feel it is cruel and unfair if I depart a beleaguered executive that is working hard but struggling to be successful. They think it is unfair because it would be unfair if it happened to them. And they are right. But executives don’t get credit for effort. Only results. Steve Jobs describes this shift from effort to results based evaluation as a person’s career matures. I think it is a fundamental lesson in thinking about careers.

As a career unfolds and you get closer to the ceo, the evaluation of an employee moves from effort to results. A Director might get some points for effort but more for results. A VP might get slightly less points for effort but still can earn a few. But at some point if flips completely to results. At Carta today, that is when you become an executive. You don’t have to be an executive to act this way. But you have to act this way to be an executive.

So dear haters of micromanagement — you have not fooled me. The best leaders are those who care about the details and fully understand what they are doing. I agree with you, we should get rid of the bad leaders. People with bad judgement should not have lots of responsibility. People who are bad at communicating should not have lots of people they interface with. But let’s build organizations where outcomes are what matter. Let’s build meritocracies that celebrate the right things. Not mediocrity. And I believe the way to do that is to EMPOWER the greats. And if you are one of the greats—believe in yourself.


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