Nose In, Fingers Out

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Are you a “hands-on manager”?  Many people wear this label as a badge of honour.  It implies someone who can work both sides of the street.  One minute they’re supervising staff, the next, they’re down in the trenches delivering the goods.  It’s an alluring concept, particularly for start-ups and smaller companies that are short-staffed.

But “hands-on managers” are sort of the oxymoronic “jumbo shrimps” of the business world.  As switch hitters, they are flexible but probably not as effective in either role as they think.  Beyond the first level of management, the value of “hands-on” managers becomes questionable.

I’m not saying that managers shouldn’t be well informed with a clear understanding of the roles, required skills and performance of their staff.  In fact, employees count on managers to use their expertise to help focus their efforts, provide the right resources, anticipate and clear obstacles and set priorities.  However, employees rarely appreciate being muscled aside when it comes to doing the work.  Rather than the learning and satisfaction gained from challenging projects, employees are left feeling unappreciated and disaffected as they watch their manager wrest the wheel from their hands.

Ironically, it happens at all levels of the organization.  An obsessive VP Marketing writes a press release himself rather than leaving it to the PR staff.  A meddling board member circumvents the executive team to influence R&D programs.  Managers resent executives who are DIYers.  Senior executives chafe at board members who step beyond their role to try to run the business.

Good people take pride in their work and expect their managers to show confidence in their ability (even if those managers secretly have doubts!). Employees are grateful for the interest, advice and support of a respected manager, and grudgingly acknowledge the value of informed oversight, especially when they are facing unfamiliar tasks.

But there’s a big difference between oversight and taking over.

It’s a tough transition for some managers to make.  It takes guts to depend on others to do work you know you could do yourself.  But management skills, particularly executive management skills, are a rare and valuable commodity.

Your organization and your staff need you to play your position and play it well, whether you’re a first level manager, a CEO or the chairman of the board.  So next time you’re tempted to “lean in” and do it yourself, remember this simple rule of thumb for managers at all levels:  “Nose in, fingers out”.

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