Be a wise control freak

A lot of people building businesses struggle with the concepts of micromanagement and empowerment.

A lot of people building businesses struggle with the concepts of micromanagement and empowerment.

A lot of people building businesses struggle with the concepts of micromanagement and empowerment.

Textbooks tell them that empowerment is good and micromanagement is bad. The reality is that, in the business world, there’s a place for both.

Many entrepreneurs are control freaks.  They don’t believe anyone can do the job as well as they can and they’re terrified someone will screw up the business that they have put so much into building. There’s also a bit of them that says: ‘I can outrun, outshoot and outfish anyone.’

These people check everything that others do; look over their employees’ shoulders and at their worst, treat even their experienced staff not as executives, but as assistants.  For those entrepreneurs who only want a small business, that’s fine, because that’s all they’re going to get. Micromanagement is for small companies – and for small people in big companies.

The fact is that any start-up entrepreneur has to be deeply involved in all aspects of the work.  Often there is no one else to do it anyway, but it also gives the entrepreneur a broad understanding of the business. It’s difficult for employees to bluff their boss when he or she has done their job before them.

As the company grows there comes a point when even the most dynamic and driven entrepreneur is overstretched. This is the hire and delegate phase.

The first hirings should support you and make you more efficient. The point is to enable you to spend more time on the more important things. It’s unashamedly self-centred, but it’s right for the first ‘lift-off’ phase.

Delegating is simpler than people think: any task can be done by someone else as well as you can do it, so delegating allows you to be more selective with your time.

This is hugely important because most entrepreneurs at this early stage of building their business are only just learning to let go. Initially, delegating to people is frustrating because it takes up valuable time, particularly when done properly. You should explain not only what is required,  but why it is required so that the task is put into a proper context.

As a result, the smarter hirings will start to use their own initiative and contribute more and, if they receive the right encouragement, they will work harder too.

As the company grows, hiring people to support the founder is not enough: functional managers with real expertise are needed.

To gain the best return from these more expensive people, they need to be given authority in their area of responsibility. They have to be allowed to make mistakes, but not the same ones again and again. This is the empowerment phase.

Many assume that this means the boss has to let go. This is only true to an extent. Yes, you have to give people real authority, and that means giving them power. But it needs to be absolutely clear what the precise responsibilities and objectives are, and how the budget is fixed. Moving away from the brief or going over budget should always require authorisation.

This may be only partial empowerment,  but it’s your business: you understand it better than anyone else and, initially, you can’t take any chances that people will screw things up.

You will be checking how these managers are doing – dipping in and dipping out, asking a few well-aimed questions each time; making suggestions and moving on. And you should show them if you are pleased or not with the answers.

It is imperative that employees know they are noticed, however senior they are. The really good people feel appreciated and repay you with loyalty and commitment. The idlers and corner-cutters know it’s likely they will be found out. If you have recruited and developed your team well and provided an environment in which they can shine, there will come a time when you will need to start fully empowering people.


To me there was a stage at my advertising agency CIA when it became clear the company had moved to the next level. A number of my key executives were answering all my questions well whenever I dropped into their department. They were introducing initiatives I hadn’t thought of, and doing some things better than I could. That was the time to give them full power and to treat them more as business partners than employees.

You will no longer be concerned with ‘quality controlling’ these people, but instead you’ll be worrying about how you retain and reward them.

This is hugely important and the final stage in building a highly successful business – you have moved from micromanagement to delegation, empowerment to partnership.

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram is a businessman, entrepreneur and art collector who was judged London Entrepreneur of the Year' in 2000 in the Ernst & Young awards and was founder of the CIA advertising agency.

Related Topics

Tech Jobs & Careers