Micromanagement is a killer.
All founders have trouble getting out of the weeds.
When the company is just a hand full of people, we are involved in everything.
We choose the logo and initial tag lines. We choose the office location and the color of the chairs. We decide what’s for lunch. We choose the design elements of our products. We interview every candidate. We are part of every decision stream of each day.
We are in total control. Besides, it’s our company, right?
But, as the company scales past 40–50 people, this modus operandi could quickly unravel everything.
The reason being, most ventures are not dictatorships run by Idi Amin. They are instead a collection of smart people trying to do the right thing.
Instead, the role of a CEO is to transition from a state of control — powered by micromanagement — to setting the context and moving the decision making down to the team.
“‘Okay, we’re doing this for this reason.’ It’s almost like you want to provide more context versus trying to exert more control. Because maybe in a very autocratic, hierarchical, bureaucratic structure, you can exert control, and you can micromanage. But most successful, high-growth, fast-moving companies are instead an environment of smart people who are all trying to optimize and do the right thing,” explains Clair Hughes Johnson, COO of Stripe, in an interview.
Context over Control is a recipe for success.
In this second installment of Tribe Vibes, our series about culture and teams, we’ll explore why.
Let me start by sharing a story from one of my previous ventures.
One year, we were experiencing a barrage of negative customer feedback on our products and our services teams. I would get an earful in my weekly check-in calls with clients.
“Your product is costing me business, and your team does not seem to understand the urgency,” they would say more or less.
In the fall, during our annual planning process, we spent time discussing the importance of customer-focused execution. We put together a detailed plan, and all that was left was to roll it out.
During our annual holiday break, I gave a deep thought on how best to get our team to understand the plan and how it would drive our growth.
It was during one of my solitude trips.
I had an epiphany after reading a book about Zappos — Tony Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness.
During our January kickoff event — we had about 50 employees then — I shared our operating plan for the year.
This time, I did something different.
First, I shared the Zappos story, something many of my employees could relate to. It describes how one founder made his entire competitive advantage about the customer experience — their happiness.
(Many in the room were customers, or their spouses were.)
Then, I distributed a copy of the book to each employee, put up a slide and said, “our mantra for this year’s plan will be ‘3C.’”
I explained that our goal (that year) was to ensure that our customers: (1) had a world-class experience with us, (2) achieved successful implementations,(3) offered us expansion opportunities for more business with them and beyond.
I didn’t, however, tell them how to translate the 3Cs into their day to day execution. Nor, did I visit each manager or engineer getting into every minor detail of their execution.
I only gave them context for what was important that year.
And I repeated it every chance I got. In my internal blogs, my quarterly all-hands meetings, in 1:1s and in management meetings.
That year we saw the highest increase in customer satisfaction and expansion revenue.
Why did that work?
Because what I did with my vivid Zappos example and a one-word mantra was communicate something the military calls the commander’s intent.
Mission Command: A Military Playbook
Accompanying every military operation in the US Army is a mission plan. It outlines every detail of a planned operation, the resources required, the strategy, and the chain of command.
But, the moment a team hits the battlefield, all bets are off. Invariably “all hell breaks loose,” and teams in the field must fend for themselves. This is where the commander’s intent comes in.
According to the Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 6–0, the comprehensive manual explaining “Mission Command”:
2–12. The commander’s intent is a clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired military end state that supports mission command, provides focus to the staff, and helps subordinate and supporting commanders act to achieve the commander’s desired results without further orders, even when the operation does not unfold as planned (JP 3–0). The higher commander’s intent provides the basis for unity of effort throughout the larger force. Each commander’s intent nests within the higher commander’s intent.
In simple terms, the commander’s intent is a clear explanation of the goal of the mission.
“We need to take that hill.”
“We must capture or kill Osama Bin Laden.”
“We must rescue and bring back the hostage alive.”
“We must deliver a customer implementation within three-months of kickoff.”
These are all examples of the commander’s intent.
Every rising military officer learns that the essence of mission command is the art of leadership through commander’s intent.
As General Gus Perna explains it,
To get mission command right, leaders must first understand the difference between mission command and command and control.
Commanders who lead through command and control make every decision for their organization. They are reluctant to take risks and let others lead because they fear the possibility of failing. The commander is the single point of success or failure in the organization.
Conversely, mission command relies on the art of leadership. It requires trust and confidence in others to achieve the collective objective.
Leaders who use mission command to empower others to figure out the ways and means to get to the end state.
Within prescribed parameters and guidance, commanders underwrite risk in allowing others to make decisions and execute without micromanagement.
Commanders are responsible for understanding the environment and tailoring communication to achieve results based on guidance and intent.
While some situations require leadership through command and control, leaders should strive to master the art of leadership through mission command.
(Gen. Gustave “Gus” Perna is the commander of the Army Materiel Command at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama.)
So, command and control is about control. It’s micromanagement, not leadership.
Great leaders trust their teams. They trust their decision-making abilities. The members of the team know they can be trusted to make decisions in the heat of battle, even if they are the wrong decisions. It is the leader’s job to communicate the context — commander’s intent.
General Colin Powell has been known to say, “the best way to create a winning team is to train them, give them everything they need to get the job done, and second, make sure they know what the job is and what the job will be.”
This relationship is the cornerstone of mission command — true leadership. It relies on teams taking “disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent.”
After the success of the “3C” mantra, I continued with the ritual each year.
Catchwords like: “Sell,” “Transform,” “Evolve,” “Scale,” “Execute,” each respectively became a yearly battle cry.
These mantras carefully encoded my commander’s intent, setting the context for that year.
I believe it was a critical factor in our success and continues today as my go-to approach to management.
What’s your mantra going to be this year? Give it a try and let me know how it goes.