Last Updated Sep 7, 2011 1:43 PM EDT
Steve Jobs has been widely lauded for sweating the details (as when he called a vice president of Google on a Sunday morning phone call to note the shade of yellow in the Google logo did not render properly on the iPhone.) But other senior executives have been blasted for meddling in the minutiae, ordering up last minute product or service changes that succeeded at nothing but just making them feel powerful.
So when does attention to detail become counterproductive, even destructive? The answer inevitably circles back to motivation. Many execs want to feel that they are making a difference. The word "feel" is important. Senior executives typically work strategically, making decisions that will not come to fruition for months or even years. And some of them miss the satisfaction that comes from accomplishing one's tasks at the end of each day or each week. They miss the feeling of accomplishment that comes from getting things done.This lack of feeling prompts some to get involved in areas technically below their pay grade.
Can pointing out a problem with a color in a logo or the wording in a document be helpful? Certainly. But if you do want to speak up, here are some guidelines.
Focus on your expertise. For example, Jobs is a gifted self-taught designer; he is attuned to color and knows of what he speaks. But when a finance executive at an automaker starts commenting on fit and finish in a vehicle, he or she is likely out of their depth. Part of knowing your expertise means knowing your limitations. In such instances, it is better to defer to "the experts on ground," that is, those responsible for doing the work -- designers, engineers, financial analysts, and the like.
Keep your hand in it. One senior leader I worked with struggled for a time with letting go of his pet projects. He is a gifted manager and had no problem delegating, save for one area: negotiation. He was a talented negotiator and had made a name for himself. His compromise was to delegate all but the biggest negotiations, saving some of the detail work for himself and where it was appropriate for his intervention.
Find your juice. Feeling a sense of accomplishment as a senior leader is a matter of mobilizing the team to action and achieving intended results. Day to day this can be a slog, especially when projects hit roadblocks or resources become scarce. Also, people issues can complicate productivity. So this is where the leader rises to the fore. By focusing the team and its management on the results the leader applies attention appropriately. And when the team succeeds there is a great deal of satisfaction.
Knowing when to intervene and when to hold back is tough, but consider this: Constantly meddling thwarts others' development. If you parachute in to solve the crisis, you prevent those on the ground from figuring things out for themselves. Better to let those closest to the problem find the fix, and in the process, learn not simply how to problem solve but how to avoid problems.
Teaching by example, that is, showing others what to look for and how to respond, may be the leader's most lasting legacy.