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Micromanagement isn’t just an affliction of misguided bosses or obsessive colleagues. It can happen in the boardroom as well.

Judging from the contents of my inbox and from some of the questions I get asked, some board members don't seem to understand the doctrine of what I call "hands on, but not hands in" role of the board. Here’s a sample of some of the questions and comments I’ve gotten lately:

  • "How can I get any work done if I am answering emails from board members - sometimes as many as five or even 10 a day!"
  • "Our board is well intentioned, but they keep trying to run things on a daily basis. They keep popping round with ideas.”
  • “Please can you write about micro-managing board members?”

The results of this type of meddling can range from mildly annoying, to majorly destructive.

Far-reaching problem

This problem is not limited to just membership organisations or start-ups. In every organisation, be it public or private, big or small, not-for-profit or for-profit, micromanagement can be detrimental to the business and morale.

In part, it stems from board members and organisations not understanding the roles of the board. In the simplest terms, boards and particularly their non-executive members must balance oversight and strategy development. This is what I call "grounding and stargazing". Board directors need to keep a finger on the pulse of the organisation, ask hard questions, as well as help develop the strategy and direction of the organisation. We have some very hands-on roles, such as helping set the compensation structure of top executives and reviewing and signing off on the financials, but even those things are oversight in nature.

(Credit: Blue Jean Images/Alamy)

What do boards and board members not do? They don’t engage in the day-to-day running of the organisation, micro-managing the work of the executive team or taking advantage of our role to strong-arm the organisation to do what we want them to do. We are not the CEO, CFO, HR director, event planners or the like. 

If left to carry on, it can cause real problems.

So why do some board members blur the line between executive and non-executive functions? Sometimes it is as benign as being new to the role  or even as simple as having too much time on their hands. It can also be because the organisation is not well staffed in some areas, so board members step in to help for a short time, which sets an environment of too much interference. Whatever the reason, if left to carry on, it can cause real problems, including stressing out executives, an unhealthy tension between the workforce and the board, and eventually the board being ignored. 

Here are some things that can help avoid too much interference:

1)     Talk to the chair: The chair of the board sets the tone. If meddlesome or misguided behaviour is coming from one or two board members, it is the chair’s job to have a word with them. Of course this is harder if it is the chair of the board exhibiting this behaviour. Then a quiet word with another board member who seems reasonably helpful, diplomatic and understanding can sometimes help.

2)     Managing up: If people keep popping around for a quick word (which turns into lots of popping around or very long chats each time), it can help to suggest a set time to meet. Then, when they stop by, you can say something diplomatic like “Let’s add that to the agenda for our monthly chat.” Now they know there is a place to discuss the issue.

3)     Strategy days: Board members want to help and they can be very effective. But if there is no set process for that input, it gets messy. A yearly or twice-yearly strategy day outside the regular board meetings can be a good place for staff and board to interact and brainstorm. That can help avoid the distracting “I have an idea” emails that may come in dribs and drabs.

4)     Actionable outcomes: Make sure board meetings end with clear outcomes, with clear lines of responsibility for board members and staff members. Then ensure those outcomes are communicated to staff members, and let the staff get on with their work. Set specific points when they will report back on milestones of achievement or a timeline. That way everyone knows when they’ll hear back, and will stop some of the “what is the status” emails.

(Credit: Thinkstock)

It is true that sometimes board members need to take a more hands-on approach to the organisation. Either an emergency requires directors to step in, or something is headed badly in the wrong direction. That should not be the case on a regular basis. If the team in place is not strong enough or capable enough to handle running things day to day, give them some training or coaching, or get a new team. If they are capable, then let them get on with their work.

It is critical that directors keep on the right side of the line.

One of the most important things is keeping a sense of proportion. Board members need to be careful not to exhibit what I call “boy who cried wolf” behaviour. If every issue raised by board members is conveyed as the most urgent thing ever, people will grow immune. There is a danger that a director’s voice won’t be as effective because they are perceived as blowing things out of proportion. Then, when something genuinely urgent comes up, it won’t be recognised as such.

One of the most interesting and challenging parts of being a board member is treading this fine line of “hands on but not hands in”. It is critical that directors keep on the right side of the line.

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Lucy Marcus is an award winning writer, board chair and non-executive director of several organisations. She is also the CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting. Don’t miss another Above Board column by subscribing here. You can also follow Lucy on Twitter @lucymarcus

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