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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

None of Our Business
Avoiding the trap of micro-management

by Maureen K. Robinson

There is a perpetual ground skirmish going on in nonprofit organizations. An intense, preoccupying struggle between boards and staff over bits of territory that are by definition small but that aggregate into a huge, boundless area impossible to define, difficult to regulate,  and soggy as a marsh.

For example, you find yourself at a board meeting looking at an illustration for the redesigned website and hear a voice – your voice – complaining about the choice of colors. While you sit there wondering if those words came out of your mouth, others begin to chime in, glad to know that color choice is now on the table. 

Without intending to, you have re-ignited the skirmish over territory no staff should have to concede – color – and become the punch line of a story about micromanagement.

The example of the website and the board’s debate over color was not selected randomly.  In a lighthearted effort to build a “Top 10 Signs You Are Micromanaging” list during a recent board development exercise, I encouraged a board to draw a few boundaries for itself and its members, and find the internal discipline to honor them. 

This was an organization with an international scope of work and a large budget, yet the board put any discussion of color right at the top of the Top 10 list – the color of new letterhead, the color of invitations, the color of table linens, the color of new carpet or walls. The rest of the list was equally telling – award plaques, anyone? – and I detected some painful history behind this exercise.

Micromanagement is very difficult to define. Executive directors have the most sensitive antennas for it, and in an offensive strategy designed to thwart any appetite the board may have for the miniscule, will often define it very broadly. How much underlying detail to show in a budget presentation is a legitimate debate within the staff – too little and the numbers appear suspiciously unsupported, too much and someone on the board is sure to ask a question about photocopying.

Boards often have no collective definition of what constitutes micromanagement and end up swinging from sublime indifference to the kind of intense scrutiny possible only with a scanning electron microscope. Permission to set the standard is often granted to the most energetic, most obsessed, or least disciplined member of the board, rarely ever the wisest or best informed. In this way, we have an international organization with a board of smart, experienced people sucked into a discussion of colors because one member couldn’t resist the personal impulse to voice an opinion, and like a grease stain, the discussion spread.

When I am not advising boards and staff how to avoid this endless skirmish or declare a truce, I am trying hard not to be guilty myself of the inappropriate question or the blurted, ill-considered opinion. 

So, I am sitting in the boardroom of a great organization with a new executive director. She is different from her predecessor, and the staff is adjusting to the change. There is a fair amount of turnover at the senior level. I wonder what it means. Is it the natural turnover that occurs around a leadership transition or is it something more? The executive director is entitled to put a team in place. Hiring decisions are hers, and the board needs to keep out of that. But we have lost some good people and …  I finally decide to raise my concerns with the chair, knowing he sees more than I do and will tuck the question away for awhile to see how things go.

This has been my strategy – to find my pause button – and test whether I am asking the right questions at the right time in the right setting, or I am being nosy and bossy (and therefore obligated to get over it) or indulging myself because I can. I highly recommend the pause button.

I also try to incorporate in my meeting preparation a small ritual that I strongly recommend. As I look over the agenda and background materials for a meeting, I ask myself: What are the three best questions I could ask as a board member about … this budget, this financial report, the annual plan, the report on fundraising, the evaluation of our outreach services, the recommendation to seek a large and demanding contract with the city. By limiting myself to three and trying to keep my role as a board member in focus, I find that I want to make the questions count. It may not get me to the right altitude all the time, but it does keep me out of the grass.

Finally, when a skirmish breaks out over a very small piece of ground, I have learned to ask my colleagues on the board if we are doing our job or trying to do the director’s job. I do this pretty nicely if I do say so myself, but still, I realized I have to speak up or accept what could a long and unrewarding wait for the chair or the elusive other guy to bring us back within bounds.   
In an article on the New Work of Nonprofit Boards that appeared a few years ago in the Harvard Business Review, the authors – Richard Chait, Thomas Holland and Barbara Taylor – neatly summarized the defining characteristic of most nonprofit boards: a group of high level people doing low level work. 

It was a general assessment based on watching many boards work in many settings on many issues, and their definition of low level was probably more a reference to the mind-numbing quality of a lot of board work than to micromanagement. In the general scheme of things, the tendency to micromanage – which is a self-inflicted problem – falls well below “low level” to a subterranean place where light fails to penetrate. Yet, it still manages to entrap the same high-level people.

There are things that are very much the business of the board. We need to remain focused on our business, insist on it and bring our best to it. There are things that are none of our business, and we should try to remember what they are and remind each other when our memories fail.

Executive directors and staff will never tell us – they can’t really – so we must sidestep skirmishes over marshy ground and add respect for a few decent boundaries to the board’s list of things to do.

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