While micro-managing in any context is a big no-no, startup founders who micro-manage their fledgling companies can end up doing more harm than good.
Founders in every startup begin by doing whatever they can to stay afloat, which results in them wearing several hats and exerting an opinion into every project. After all, they came up with the original concept and put it into action, doing everything from building code to taking the garbage out. However, each person has skill sets that stand out, and not one person is good at everything. Founders are notorious for wanting to do everything their way. In the beginning, this is completely understandable, but as a business begins to scale, founders need to begin to relinquish the very things that got them there. For most founders, that is typically marketing.
This is where it gets tricky. If you’re not a founder, imagine that you are: you have built a great company and put all your time, energy and even money into it. You have gone through heartache and euphoria only to now hand over control of your branding to someone else. You feel like because you have built it to this level that your vision is solid and that things should continue to be done your way.
Despite that, you tell yourself that you are going to hire people who will be able to take on this workload so that you can focus on growing your business. Here is where denial sets in. While this is the natural next step for a company, you might not be able to fully extricate yourself from the process and proceed without interference. This can be deadly. Specifically with marketing, founders oftentimes cannot see the damage they have by micro-managing every step of the process, despite not having much experience with the field. They continue to complain that they don’t have time and need someone to take ownership, but then only hire people to tell them what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. To their own detriment, they can never get out of their own way. Micro-managing is a founder disease, even addiction, that be extremely damaging to the company and the people who work there.
While pretending to not be in denial, you hire someone to build out your marketing department while you focus on business and development. The following series of events occurs:
- You tell yourself that you only need to be involved for a short time to get them up to speed. You begin by telling the new hire your vision, informing them of the expectations regarding creative collateral and brand building, and let them know you won’t be standing in their way. (The very fact that you just spent an hour telling them your vision and how you expect things to be done is a clear sign of involvement, but isn’t yet lethal.)
- You start to give them tasks, but with stringent oversight. Let’s say you’re working on an email marketing campaign. Once your marketer has completed the campaign, you more or less shred it to pieces telling them all of the ways it could be changed. After all, who knows more about your company and how to market it than you? The answer: your marketer - that’s why you hired them. However, previous successes can obscure this obvious point. The silent killer of startups is oftentimes a founder who has found some success or luck, then thinks that their strategy is the only way to do something at the exclusion of any external input.
- You begin - consciously or unconsciously - willing them to become just like you. Despite your efforts at sourcing a professional to help you grow your business, you end up changing them so that the marketing looks exactly as you envisioned. This vicious cycle continues in each aspect of the marketing department’s ideas and creations, and can significantly stunt your company’s creativity.
There are very specific ramifications for this kind of behavior that founders who are perpetually in micro-managing denial never see:
- Morale – For employees who’ve been hurt by micro-managing, morale is one sentiment that cannot be easily reversed. You have hired staff - in most cases people who are highly qualified - to do a certain job. While your intentions are good, you cannot seem to let them do what it is you hired them for. The more this goes on, the worse they feel about their abilities and their career. It is a clear leadership issue - denying people creativity and innovation will disrupt any department faster than you can recover their good will.
- Growth – Founders are typically the face of the company and therefore need to be out drumming up business, whether in meetings or doing PR. A founder’s need for micro-managing stunts this from the start. Once a founder begins down the micro-managing road, it is almost impossible for them to turn it around. This will eliminate any significant growth opportunities as the founder is more concerned with managing the process than being out closing deals or branding their company through action.
- Creativity – When a founder is in denial and continues to get their hands into everything, it leaves a permanent mark on the staff. This is especially problematic for a marketing team which is supposed to be creative. Founders might not realize that every time they step in and make changes, they’re undermining the competency of the team. While there certainly are times for course correction, being told what, how, and when to do things can become overwhelming. The staff becomes complacent knowing that their work will be scrutinized to a ridiculous degree, and they lose the motivation to go above and beyond as they will just get stepped on again.
- Turnover – Micro-managing is a significant factor for high turnover in a startup. People join startups for the culture, the ability to create new products, and the opportunity to have a hand in building a great company. Sure, some do it for the payday, but most want to be able to put their name on something. A founder who can not get out their own way and constantly is micro-managing their staff will inevitably see a high turnover rate. The very idea of micro-managing in a startup is a deal breaker as far as most are concerned and many people will leave rather quickly.
Founders that refuse to address their tendency to micro-manage can cost their company time, talent, and future deals. Even founders of companies that survive early staff churn and creative suppression might ultimately be forced out by a board once these issues come to light. The luckiest micro-managing founders might successfully exit their first company, only to dive back into their old habits with a second startup that can’t sustain this damaging cycle. Our advice to founders: micro-manage the hiring process, but once you’ve made a decision, trust your hire. Give them the tools they need to succeed, then give them a chance to do so.