manage, management, micromanage, strategy, priorities, results, leadership, head of school, administrator

How to Micromanage Effectively

Recently, my wife and I were signing up on the whiteboard at the YMCA to use the cardio equipment. With eraser in hand and knowing that my wife wanted to row, I quickly saw that no one was on one of the rowers and yet a name and time were written down. I erased the name and started to write my wife’s name when I heard a voice behind me: “Did someone just erase my name?” Doing what any respectable spouse would do in a situation like this, I handed over the pen and eraser to my wife and sheepishly left to do my workout. The only thing preventing this scene from reaching “Dilbert Cartoon” status would be for me to turn to my wife and ask in a loud voice, “Why did you erase that person’s name next to the rowing machine?”

Does this story sound familiar? A senior administrator or the head of school intervenes in a project, taking action before asking questions, and then, if things go wrong, points the finger at you. Yikes!

I can hear the experienced head right now thinking: “Of course, this is a terrible way to manage people. Heads need to hire outstanding senior administrators and let them do their jobs. Trust is the cornerstone of effective leadership, and as long as a head is not getting complaints, she should let the administrator do his job.”

But not so fast.

I freely admit that the YMCA example is micromanagement at its worse. But I would argue the hands-off approach described above is not much better. Here’s why.


Effective heads, like any strong leaders, are vitally concerned with results. This leadership quality, along with the fact that implementation is rarely a straight-line action, argues against the hands-off approach. Leading change has an organic quality in which key players are gathering information and making appropriate adjustments to strategy and tactics: “What’s working? What’s not? Why? What do we need to change?” These questions should be the subject of conversations between heads and senior administrators as they manage the process of change. If the head is focused on results, she will find it difficult to ignore the implementation steps required to achieve those results. After all, she wants to win. In my experience, when heads delegate too much, they don’t care enough about effective execution to achieve desired results. Or maybe they just don’t care enough about the results.

Who do you trust?
How does a new head know if senior administrators will be effective? There is a subtle learning curve in which new heads figure out the degree to which their expectations and values align with those of their senior administrators. In this regard, President Reagan’s mantra, “Trust but verify,” is an apt management strategy. The new head assumes that there will be alignment, but at the same time, initiates conversations that test the degree to which she and the senior administrators have the same perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the school. Effective heads are constantly looking for opportunities early on in their tenures to determine if they and senior administrators have similar views of reality.

There are times when heads must create a sense of urgency. In an ideal world, senior administrators would prioritize their work based on the school’s strategic initiatives. But in the people-intensive school business, stuff happens; problems need to be resolved; issues need attention. When the head takes the time to meet regularly with an administrator specifically about the implementation of a particular strategy, she is, in effect, helping the senior administrator prioritize. Through conversation, heads signal to senior administrators what is important. That signal, in turn, directs and motivates the senior administrator.

Head as Consultant
Senior administrators need a consultant to provide counsel on the change process, and heads can fulfill this role quite well. I know that in the ideal world, the senior administrator would call on her team to collaborate and devise strategy and tactics to implement change. But the reality is that independent schools are emotionally draining and time-consuming machines for teachers and senior administrators. Much of their day is consumed with solving problems—the toughest kind: people problems. Shifting from the trenches to the 10,000-foot level is not easy. Far better for the senior administrator and the somewhat detached head to have conversations so that the administrator can properly steer her team when it has little fuel in the tank and needs direction.

The above approach to management represents a middle ground between extreme micromanagement and total detachment. It accounts for any strong leader’s concern for achieving results and the need to devise the best implementation plans to do so. It provides a senior administrator with a thought partner, the head of school, whose detachment lends itself to a degree of objectivity that will lead to better strategies and tactics. And finally, it signals to the key administrators that the head of school is quite serious about realizing the vision for the school and that the strategic plan is not simply a document carted out for accreditation visits and then routinely placed back on the shelf.

So, to heads of school: “Go ahead; micromanage; just know when and how.”