Thursday, April 22, 2010

Micromanagement: Board Style

One of the biggest complaints I hear from executive directors and board members alike is about board “micromanagement.” Executive directors are driven crazy by it and fellow board members feel their time is being wasted, in board meetings or retreats, when boards engage in the minute details of organizational operations.

Recently an executive director of a million dollar a year nonprofit revealed that he had a $500 limit on his signing authority. $500 doesn’t get you a lot and if you have to go to the executive committee or full board for every expense over $500 you’ll be spending a lot of your time asking for permission. A basic brochure print job can easily run over that limit. A copier contract will certainly top that limit. Heck, coast to coast airfare could force you to seek board permission.

Some boards want to approve every press release the executive issues, resulting in several edits, rewrites, etc. Other boards involve themselves in what kind of paper the organization uses, issuing edicts on “green” content percentages or which manufacturer the organization will purchase paper from.

The craziest thing I ever saw was a frustrated executive who had been asked by the board to account for every minute of his time and his plan for every minute of his time for the coming year. What should have been a broad work plan with achievable goals resulted in a day by day projection (for 365 days) of what projects he and his staff was going to work on. When I flipped through it all I could think of was how toxic the executive/board relationship had become.

One executive I knew could never take a real vacation; he was expected to be on committee and board conference calls even though he was supposed to be on vacation with his family. In another instance, a treasurer wanted to re-open an audited financial statement because he found a $10 discrepancy. Thank goodness the accountants convinced the treasurer that in order to remedy the $10 discrepancy it would cost the organization about $1,500 in accounting fees.

Then there are the boards who insist upon approving every hiring decision down to the receptionist at the front desk. Or the boards that want a presence at every meeting the executive has with other organizations. And the boards that want the executive to “clock in” and “clock out.”

Micromanagement is never good, whether it’s a board micromanaging an executive or the executive micromanaging staff. Micromanagement is literally saying “we don’t trust you to do the job right.”

I firmly believe that when an organization hires an executive they should hire the best talent they can find and once done, trust that person to be professional, competent and capable. And if that person proves to be none of those things, then it is the board’s prerogative to fire them. But to hire an executive and then treat them like an errant child who needs constant oversight is demoralizing to the executive and to the organization.

What is the job of the board? Two things: setting policy and fundraising. Unfortunately in the nonprofit sector most boards do both of those things badly.

Setting policy means determining goals for the organization and then leaving it up the executive how he or she will reach those goals. For example, a board may say that they want a 15% growth in membership over a twenty-four month period. Now it is up to the executive to figure out how to achieve that membership goal. Or a board may say it wants the organization to offer new services such as specific types of membership training, then it is up to the executive to determine how that training will be delivered.

On the second topic of board fundraising, this is probably the area I hear the most complaints about from executives, because most boards don’t do any fundraising. They talk about fundraising, they promise to raise money, they come up with grandiose schemes for bringing money through the door, but rarely to never do they actually execute the plan or deliver on their promises. Recently an executive told me of a special fundraising event in which only one of his board members actually bothered to show up, even though the event was the board’s idea.

If you are a board member I want you to take a long hard look at how the board manages the executive. Has the board hired the best and the brightest and is the board allowing that person to do his or her job? Or is the board way too involved in the day to day operations of the organization? Ask yourself at the next board meeting which things the board is micromanaging. If the board makes a decision, is that a policy decision or is it telling the executive how to do his or her job?

There is no doubt that when boards stop micromanaging, executives can shine and relationships can improve all the way around.


  1. Thank you for this, I'm on the receiving end of this kind of behavior and have begun to look for another position less than a year after starting.

  2. I totally agree with you about being micromanaged. It is a creativity killer and a time waster. It implies lack of faith and trust. Reading your post made my blood boil, thinking about all the life energy I've wasted while someone micromanaged me!

  3. I doubt that most "micromanagers" enjoy it either. I got forced into that position of being a micromanager once and I hated it. Eventually I quit and decided to free lance instead. Micromanaging seems to be a Lose-Lose proposition! Thanks for the great post.

  4. Micro management always been my weakness, i need to figure this out fast! Will be building my own company in the next 3 month. :)

  5. This phrase from your blog captured me "When I flipped through it all I could think of was how toxic the executive/board relationship had become." It makes think that this board members are more like a bully, even the executives, always gives commands to the people under them, it's like they are manipulating these people. I'm glad you post this article.

    Marlene Nichols

  6. I agree, we have the same type of micromanaging at my company, every little decision needs to be pre-approved before we have the go-ahead. This can often drain a lot of time out of the day.

  7. Everyone feels bad being micromanaged and the very fact that one has made to to the board means they can manage things pretty well.

  8. Excellent post. Micromanagement is a problem that affects more people than you'd think. I would definitely recommend executive coaching programs for anyone looking to break the habit and improve their management and communications skills. It can truly make a difference and help you in making that step to an executive-type of position.