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Micro Manage When You Must; Macro Manage Because You Can

By Bill Willard
Contributing Author

The Issue

What is your management style? Are you a macro or micro manager? When is micro management appropriate, and why, and when is macro management appropriate and why?

What I Think

As a small-business owner you interact with your employees more than you would in the corporate world. That is, if you have employees. If you don’t, this Issue of the Week is moot. Go grab a cup of coffee! A company’s setup, staff education level and experience will actually dictate which management style is more appropriate for you as much or more than your preferences.

Managers and SBOs are, by definition, big-picture macro managers; that’s why you get the Big Bucks. Knowledgeable, well-trained employees are micro managers. They manage themselves and any other employees they’re assigned to supervise (think of NCOs in the military).

Speaking of the military, for a terrific illustration of micro v. macro management read Joker One (Random House, NY 2009), Donovan Campbell’s first-hand account of “Courage, Loyalty and Brotherhood” in a Marine platoon in combat in Iraq. Considering that the author graduated with honors from Princeton and the Harvard Business School, and was first in his class at the Marine Corps’ ultra-challenging officer training program, The Basic School (he thought it would look good on his resume!), it is hardly surprising that anything he writes about small-unit leadership would have a lot more going on than a riveting war story—though it is every bit of that!

A two-tour combat vet, Iraq and Afghanistan, the spring of 2004 found Captain Campbell back in Iraq commanding an infantry platoon known by its radio call sign, Joker One. Before crossing into Iraq from their staging camps in Kuwait, Campbell got to know his command, and learned valuable first-hand lessons in leadership—including the difference between micro and macro management.

Leadership 101

Joker One would be carried to war in two seven-ton flat-bed trucks, which were configured for movements stateside where “carrying capacity took precedence over personnel protection or fighting capacity,” Campbell suggests dryly. The cab of each truck held only two people: “Myself and the driver…in the first and the platoon sergeant and [the other] driver in the second…The rest of Joker One had to sit in the truck beds.”

The trucks as configured were extremely uncomfortable, but worse, the Marines could not readily return fire if that was needed. So Joker One’s battalion commander “instructed each platoon to come up with two designs apiece for centerline benches using only what we could carry with us,” Campbell notes, “The best design would be standardized and used throughout the entire company.”

Campbell called his NCOs together to explain what the CO wanted and why, then turned them loose: “As much as I wanted to direct their efforts, to appear the in-charge leader who knew exactly how things should turn out, two minutes of observation convinced me that my men working together would create something far better than I would working on my own…Standing on the side, carrying the occasional…case of water, I looked for opportunities to give direction, but they didn’t need it.” A winning design was soon turned in and implemented with no need for micro management, as Captain Campbell wisely recognized.

Two days later, Joker One readied itself to head north into Iraq. Captain Campbell was charged with navigating the battalion convoy through the largely trackless wastes of southern Iraq: “I spent [that last night in camp] checking and rechecking my crude map…I also had a GPS, and should that fail, I wore an electronic compass on my wrist and a magnetic compass on my flak jacket…This redundancy may seem like overkill, but I was all-too aware that if I missed a checkpoint or made a wrong turn somewhere, a thirty-vehicle convoy spread over two miles would somehow have to make a U-turn on a two-lane highway with no shoulder to speak of and treacherous, slippery sand on each side.”

Worse, insurgents had demonstrated their ability to find and attack vulnerable lost convoys: “The weight of 200 or so lives was heavier than I expected,” Campbell concedes.

The best way to ensure the safety of his convoy was never to make a navigation mistake. Worried that he would, Leader Campbell recalled all he could of the land exercises he had done during his months at The Basic School, and when the battalion arrived safely at its destination, proved to be land-nav proficient and the first-rate leader that he and all Marine Corps officers are trained to be.

As an SBO you set the ground rules for results and efficiency, but are primarily responsible for the Big Picture—avoiding those navigation mistakes and completing the mission. Micro management is typically appropriate with newer employees during training and testing, or when an emphasis on work details, schedules and corporate policies is called for.

Otherwise, treat employees as if they know their jobs and are best left alone to do them, as Donovan Campbell so ably demonstrated. By forgetting that lesson, you may be inhibiting the potential of your employees and denying them the role of creative innovators for your business.

But that doesn’t mean letting them do whatever they want whenever they want do it, or to create discord. Some employees require more supervision than others, and not every employee has the discipline and dedication of enlisted Marines (“Gung Ho” is more than an expression!) or the mission focus and maturity of their NCOs. So be ready to turn on your micro management skills when necessary.

What Do You Think?

How much or now little do micro and macro management mean to your business? Are you able to maintain an effective balance between them? How do you do it? We’d like to hear from you. Have you registered?

Bill Willard is a commercial freelance writer in Clearwater FL. A high-impact writer and editor for over 30 years, in addition to his byline pieces, Bill’s beat includes ghostwriting and editing for businesses of all types and sizes, professional practitioners and individuals. He is a Contributing Author. Visit his Website: Or contact him at to sign up for his popular e-blog, Daily Grin.

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4 Comment(s)

  1. Greg | May 26, 2009 | Reply

    Great piece.

    In my observation and experience, “micro-management” is essential when training or teaching a new employee or someone new to a position or culture. After they understand what is needed and expected, turn them loose. One of my worst job experiences was being left on my own from day one, then six months later my boss could not understand why I did not do things exactly as he wanted me to.

    A couple of quotes from David Hackworth (also a military man);
    1)if you do not learn to do it right the first time, you will spend the rest of your life trying to learn how to do it right.”
    2)What does not get checked by the boss does not get done.

  2. Bill Willard | May 26, 2009 | Reply

    Excellent observation, and so true, which is why be build detailed Learning Objectives and measurable Performance Standards into training curricula. But I’ll see your Hackworth, and raise you one:

    “Training must not be controlled, but instead be completely free-play…in a simulated environment in which soldiers can discover for themselves that war is not a series of canned problems with a limited range of responses, but a human encounter where the unexpected always happens and flexibility in the key.”

    That’s from Col. Hack’s bio, and has been framed on my office wall for many years!

    Thanks for visiting TFE and for your Comment.

  3. Bill Willard | May 26, 2009 | Reply

    Allow me a Point of Privilege: This weekend, I emailed our son in Hawaii, asking him to style-check the Marine Corps portions of this Issue of the Week. He made a couple of suggestions, but when he noticed I’d included a courtesy reference to him as a prior-enlisted Marine Captain and Iraq vet, he asked me to remove it: “Dad, don’t put me up there with a Grunt officer; I’m an Intel pogue.

    For the initiated, pogue is an offensive military slang term to describe non-infantry, non-combat soldiers, staff, and other rear-echelon or support units.

    I told him I’d remove the reference, thinking how modest this accomplished man has always been and continues to be.

    Semper Fi, Son. We love you.

  4. Darla H. | Oct 5, 2009 | Reply

    Can I add something about micro-managing?

    In psychology-related slang, control freak is a derogatory term for a person who attempts to dictate how everything around them is done.

    It can also refer to someone with a limited number of things that they want done a specific way; professor of clinical psychology Les Parrott wrote that “Control Freaks are people who care more than you do about something and won’t stop at being pushy to get their way.”

    In some cases, the control freak sees their constant intervention as beneficial or even necessary; this can be caused by feelings of superiority, believing that others are incapable of handling matters properly, or the fear that things will go wrong if they don’t attend to every detail.

    In other cases, they may simply enjoy the feeling of power it gives them so much that they automatically try to gain control of everything around them.

    Thanks 🙂

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