“Hiring staff that will treat your business as if it were their own is a really tricky thing,” says Nate Nunnally, president, Custom West Pest Control, Missoula, Mont.
You want your people to “own it,” but many don’t.
You wish technicians would realize that the extra 15 minutes spent in line at Starbucks eats up profit. You want them to have their coffee — but not a cup that costs you 50 bucks.
You want to trust your people to do their jobs, though the fear of customer complaints or losing accounts is real.
You wish you could imprint your work ethic on everyone who wears your company uniform. But you can’t.
“It’s about hiring people with the right mindset who fit your culture and take on the job responsibilities like I expect,” says Nunnally, noting that after many years of cultivating a team, the one he has now gets it. “We all mesh.”
There wasn’t any magic trick Nunnally discovered to build a team that he trusts so he can step back and avoid hovering. It took time and careful hiring. “Once I trust someone, I’m more than willing to let them take the ball and run with it,” he says.
Nunnally says offering higher pay than competitors helps get the right people in the door. So does a robust training program, so he can rest assured that his team goes into the field with necessary skills to problem solve issues.
Nunnally admits, “I’m definitely a control freak.” (How else do you end up an owner?) “It’s hard for me to let go,” he says. “But there is nothing more glorious than letting go and watching someone else wear a hat after you’ve been wearing too many.”
How big of a problem is micromanaging in a service industry like pest control? Ours is an industry that can allow autonomy with independent routes and the reward of solving problems — gratification that comes directly from the customer rather than a manager in the office. A PCT Workplace study showed 76 percent of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with their supervisors. Just 9 percent said they are not satisfied.
“Micromanager” is, in fact, a label, says Stacy Feiner, business psychologist and CEO of Feiner Enterprises, Cleveland, Ohio. A manager can “lean in” too much because of situations in the workplace (lack of training, no standardized system) or because of personality. The former can be more easily solved. “It’s not helpful to make [micromanaging] an interpersonal issue first — it’s better to look at it first as an operational issue,” Feiner says. “Can you correct the problem by putting in standard operating procedures?”
WHY WE MICROMANAGE
Imagine being microchipped and tracked every second of the day. “That’s the feeling you get when you are micromanaged,” says John O’Connor, president of the consulting firm CareerPro, Raleigh, N.C.
Micromanagers sap creativity. They can unintentionally build a ceiling that boxes workers into a performance standard that’s based on just meeting expectations. People feel defeated. (“He’ll just redo it anyway.”) There’s lack of ownership.
“People like knowing they are productive and having a level of expectation and accountability,” O’Connor says. “If they feel like they can’t breathe because they are being micromanaged, that can create a desire for freedom and often that desire means they find another job — and you’ll have higher turnover.”
In a challenging labor market, the last thing any manager wants is to chase away workers.
You also don’t want to create an environment where employees need you all the time. “Some employees will become dependent and do what you want because they don’t want to make mistakes, but they won’t get creative,” O’Connor adds. “They’ll just get to the next jobsite so they can check that box.”
No business wants a team of box-checkers, especially since relationships are what sell more services and bring in referrals. “Some of the best salespeople in the world are often those who are onsite administering the pest control services, and they might take an extra 10 minutes to talk to the client about an offering,” O’Connor says. “You don’t want employees that are so dependent on you they can’t think for themselves or adjust. You want them to be independent enough to help you grow the business.”
Most of us have been in a position at some point in life where we felt micromanaged. “I think that really stuck with me when I moved from a supervisor position where I was hands-on to the manager role,” says Brian Froese, a pest management professional with more than 25 years of experience at various companies. “It comes back to training and mentoring your people. If you can train them to do the job properly, you’ll have trust in them to do it. I see the role of a manager as someone who supports their people.”
Sometimes support can feel like micromanaging, and other times there are good reasons for a manager to be more hands-on than an employee might expect.
“Micromanager is a label,” Feiner says. “And, sometimes a manager looks like a micromanager or acts like one because they are managing a low-performer or there is a lack of standard operating procedures.”
Micromanagement that is situational — and can be solved with systems and training — can occur because of low-performing employees, lack of systems or pressure on the manager to perform better.
Sometimes micromanaging is temporary, Nunnally points out. “When people first hire on as a technician, I might micromanage them pretty hard, but I also realize I have to kick them out of the nest. I have to let them learn how to fly, and they will fall and crash a couple of times. It’s a risk, because you can lose clients. That is why I try to be available by phone.”Letting technicians know he’s a call away is “being available,” not micromanaging, Nunnally says. “And, when a week goes by and I haven’t heard from one of the technicians, that’s a great thing.”
STEPPING BACK TOO FAR
You can “let it go” too far — and risk alienating employees, who might wonder if you care. This happened to one of Feiner’s business clients, who was in the engineering industry and developing a new product. “It was a high-stakes initiative, and there was a newness to it — so they were developing as they went along, and he didn’t give the engineers on the team an ability to experiment and problem solve,” she explains. “So, they started thinking way in the box, ‘What is he going to ask next?’ and it reduced the quality of the product design.”
The manager received feedback from staff that he was hovering. “So, what he did was completely back off,” Feiner says. “Over time, employees complained that they felt this manager didn’t care anymore. He had gone too far.”
There’s a continuum of manager hands-on involvement that ranges from absence to suffocation — from not being around when the team needs help to watching every move with a discerning eye. “Somewhere in between, managers need to trust their employees and have confidence that their people can perform tasks, while having a dashboard and reporting so managers can see what is going on without hounding employees,” Feiner says. “That way, managers can course correct.”
This manager had empathy for his people, which is why he took their feedback personally. He did trust them and did want them to be creative, solve problems and own the work. That’s why he stepped back — but he just took it too far.
To achieve a happy medium, the owner put in place a project management system. “Then, he felt he could measure progress and step in when necessary — and step out when he could,” Feiner explains. The owner also evaluated talent and identified each employee’s skills.
Feiner suggests asking:
- Did you hire the right person?
- Did you assign the right person to that project?
- Does the employee understand the job expectations?
- What are tasks/roles you are not delegating — and why? (Do you need to train someone else to help? Do you need to hire someone with the aptitude?)
- How do you assess progress? Is there a system in place?
“Make an agreement with employees so they know there will be regular check-ins with the manager,” Feiner advises. “Let them know, ‘There are times I’ll check in, and this is when that will happen.’”
Also, managers should consider their roles in the business and how they can best use their time. “If you are micromanaging, you are taking away time when you could be productive,” Feiner points out.
Rather than tackling micromanagement as an interpersonal issue first, begin by looking at the dynamic as an operating concern. “Do you have a team that is capable? Feiner asks. “And, do you need to raise up the team?”
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
When a technician asks a question about a label or a procedure that has been trained or is part of the company’s operating procedures, Nunnally says, “Look it up.”
“We sat down and wrote protocols for pretty much every insect and animal we deal with,” he says. “I have a training syllabus we use so everyone is trained the same way. The whole point is so technicians can pick up on any job on any route and solve a problem without disrupting the service process.”
Because of these systems, Nunnally can “drop the rope” a bit.
“If a technician asks me about a product, I say, ‘What does the label tell you?’” Nunnally says. “If they ask about a process, I will say, ‘What do our protocols say?’ I throw it back on them. The information has even been saved in a DropBox file so they can look up protocols in the field.”
When technicians have to look up the answer to a problem, they learn and retain the information, he adds.
What about situations when employees feel like there’s no wiggle room? How does a manager deal? That happens in business. Sometimes, schedules must be stringent, and there is no room for error to complete a route or achieve an objective. That doesn’t mean a leader has to “micromanage,” especially if people understand that their hard work and ownership for reaching goals will pay off for them in the end, too, O’Connor says.
“If you are going to take freedom, give it somewhere else,” O’Connor suggests. For example, reward technicians who meet weekly goals. “If you need them to stick to a schedule hard during the week, where is the break? If you need to be in control and (hold them accountable), that is understandable. But if they meet metrics during the week, maybe at least one Friday a month they are out of there at 1 p.m., no problem at all.”
Ask your people for ideas.
“Don’t be surprised if people on the frontlines give you ideas that actually increase revenues or decrease costs,” O’Connor says. So, if accountability or hitting goals is a problem, give employees an opportunity to share what they think could be done to improve the situation.
Be an “undercover boss.”
If your managerial role has taken you out of the field, pencil in time to spend a day, or even a few hours, in the field with technicians. “You fill out the forms or use the tablet app and see how you like it,” O’Connor says.
Realize your success is dependent on the successes of your people.
“My principle for success is that my success is based on the success of everyone else,” Nunnally says. “It starts with clients — we have to make our clients successful with their pest problem. Then, the technicians see success in that, and when they see that, I see the reward. If I have to micromanage, I take away from their feeling of success.”