Micromanagement

or Effective

Multiplying Strategy?

“What problems are solved when we leverage the powerful combination of Multiplier leadership with the Impact Player mindset? “

Several years ago, I found myself in a spirited discussion about Multiplier leadership with Nevin, a manufacturing leader. We discussed the fundamentals: Why do some leaders amplify intelligence (Multipliers), while other leaders drain it (Diminishers)? We explored the behaviors we’d experienced in our work and how they’d impacted us. As a twenty-plus year veteran in the heavy industrial manufacturing industry, Nevin’s stories were endless. Of particular interest was Charlie, a C-suite executive who managed to take the already frustrating corporate purchasing process to a brand-new level of drudgery.

Nevin was responsible for scoping and purchasing heavy machinery packages generally in the range of $500K to $2M. Sometimes, these were lump sum purchases, but often the purchases came in smaller increments. Regardless of size, each purchase order required an extensive approval process. The higher the price tag, the longer the process. While Nevin understood the need for checks and balances, he could not fathom the rationale behind needing Charlie’s signature on any purchase greater than $5K. Nevin joked that if you searched the term “micromanager,” Charlie’s picture would be the number one search result returned.

Charlie represented the biggest bottleneck in an already slow process ultimately causing delays and eroding customer satisfaction. I listened intently and nodded in agreement. His approach seemed absurd. My immediate thought was: “what great, low-risk decisions for newer employees to build confidence and learn the business. What is stopping this leader from trusting his people?” 

This looked like a classic case of hard-core micromanagement from a leader who thrived on control. Charlie’s approach became a brilliant example of “what not to do” that I shared broadly in workshops and coaching. You might even be nodding your head in agreement. After years of seeing this only as a diminisher approach, sucking the life (and intelligence) out of a team, someone helped me to see a new perspective. 

A conversation where a colleague contrasted C-suite executives in two of her previous organizations allowed me to see things differently. 

One leader set the bar for approval at $150K, while the other instituted a $5K minimum. Almost instantaneously, my brain called up the contrast between the Investor (Multiplier) and the Micromanager (Diminisher). Fortunately, I managed to hang on in the conversation long enough for my mental model to be disrupted. 

My colleague’s story sparked a new possibility – perhaps, requiring approvals at such a low level, actually taught the team to collaborate and to join forces. Leading them to design more impactful, robust, and higher dollar projects. 

What if this was actually a brilliant Multiplier strategy, with the potential to stretch people to make more efficient purchasing decisions? What if requiring approval for even the smallest of purchases wasn’t an obstacle, but rather, an opportunity?

Every purchase order adds overhead. So fewer, larger, well-planned orders offer efficiency gains. Despite some frustration, the approach has the potential to lead to a better overall system.

Unfortunately, higher approval thresholds don’t guarantee people will feel more empowered and propose better projects; the only thing the higher amount guarantees is that the CIO gets to avoid the monotony of approving an endless string of purchasing requests. 

These stories sparked my curiosity and made me ask questions about these leaders and their policies: 

  • What if employees never realized and understood that the low bar was a signal for collaboration instead of control? How were employees meant to figure this out?
  • What might be the unintended consequences of either a high or a low bar?
  • How intentional were either of these leaders in setting the approval amount? How explicitly was their rationale explained? 

I began imagining what it might take for leaders to bring their intentions more explicitly into the conversations, so employees have less reason to guess what a leader wants. If Charlie set the bar low to drive more collaboration, why did he obscure that rationale, rather than embrace and encourage it?  And why couldn’t Nevin see it?

Maybe the Impact Players – those indispensable colleagues who can be counted on in critical situations and who consistently receive high-profile assignments and new opportunities – are the only ones who routinely connect the implicit dots.

Multipliers are masters in putting aside their own thinking to allow for innate curiosity to kick in. This allows them to absorb the brilliance before them. 

Reflecting on my beliefs created space for me to see this distinction and allowed my paradigm of these two leaders to shift. 

The release of  Liz Wiseman’s latest book, Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact, highlights an opportunity. What problems are solved when we leverage the powerful combination of Multiplier leadership with the Impact Player mindset? How might Impact Players help the curious Multiplier leader see and communicate these opportunities and challenges?  

I invite you to consider these questions and ask what possibilities await if this magic happened in your organization.   

Early in her career, Elise Foster was happy as an engineer, managing high-profile global projects to solve complicated problems. But, it wasn’t long before she realized she wanted to solve different types of problems. Today, Elise is the co-author of The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools and a leadership coach who enables leaders to unlock their potential and achieve even greater success.

She is known for delivering dynamic, engaging and impactful workshops and keynotes for leaders across industries and levels of the organization. Building on her 15-plus years of engineering and organizational development, in organizations like Cummins, Inc. and Harvard University, she guides senior leaders to use their intelligence to make everyone around them smarter and more capable. She has coached leaders across industries, including bio-tech, energy, and higher education.

Elise has taught and coached students at Indiana University (Kelley School of Business) and as a management fellow at Harvard University. She holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in Engineering from Virginia Tech and a Masters in Education from Harvard University.

She is the mother of one school-aged daughter, and Elise also enjoys travel, running, and volunteering.

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