Management By Absence

May 12, 2012

You’ve heard of management by walking around (MBWA), but have you heard of management by absence (MBA)?

Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, uses the MBA approach to manage his ever-growing employee base. In a direct assault on Milton Friedman’s idea that companies should never get involved in charitable efforts and being socially responsible, Chouinard is now being sought out by the likes of Walmart, Levi Strauss, Nike, Gap and Adidas to create supply chains that are more socially responsible, sustainable and cost effective. Thankfully, Friedman’s idea in his 1970 essay about the social responsibility of business is to increase profits has become a thing of the past. Companies that employ unique management practices and focus on the triple bottom line are the new black.

If you want to create a one-of-a-kind company culture and manage by absence, consider the following steps to ensure you do it well:

1. Assess the Situation

Does the project or task provide an employee meaningful opportunity for personal and professional growth? You must also be considerate of time; is there enough of it to train the person, allow for Q & A and progress checks? Be very honest with yourself about the organizations’ expectations or goals and how important the quality of the result is. If the person is capable of delivering, give him the opportunity.

2. Assess the Person

Is the person you would like to delegate to someone who has proven themselves through verifiable results and demonstrated trustworthiness? Does he have the right knowledge and attitude to represent you and the organization well? Does the project fit well with his long-term goals? If the person’s workload is already unmanageable, you may have to reassign tasks to others on the team.

3. Create a Framework

As with any project, you must plan the work so that you can work the plan. Work together to establish SMART goals and clearly define expected outcomes. His contribution to this part of the process is paramount for buy in and commitment. By clearly defining boundaries and expectations, you will minimize future time wasting.

4. Support

As a leader, your job is to flip the organization chart upside down and to show how you support the front line staff in your organization. You must delegate responsibility to the lowest possible level. The people closest to the customer are the best choice to make the customer happy. At first, practice MBWA so that you can ask questions about progress and so that your employee can ask questions of you to clarify expectations and have a few quick wins. It is not your job to suggest ways in which to complete the task, it is your job to set the goal and provide the tools necessary for the person to find success without you.

5. Close Well

The goal of MBA is to avoid micromanaging or managing through fear. Be sure to inspect what you expect, but do not hover over the project’s implementation. As the project or task is wrapping up, be sure to devote time to review the outcome thoroughly. You must only accept the highest quality work. Otherwise, the person you delegated to will not learn to do the job to your specifications. I suggest holding a lessons learned meeting to share valuable insights with others in your organization. Having a party to congratulate your employee for the successful implementation of the project is another great way to celebrate and build relationships.

Management by absence is difficult because it takes considerable effort on the front end. If you can wrap your head around the fact that you put more effort in at the beginning with the intent of growing someone else’s knowledge, skills and abilities, it’ll make letting go of a project or program much easier. In order to create community, you must share your knowledge with those around you.

Although Friedman (and many Wall Street firms) think the point of business is solely to make profits, we’ve seen the devastating consequences of extractive institutions focusing on the bottom line. Why not be different? Why not do something for your employees and your community so that they are committed to you as a person and as a business? MBA is a great way to accomplish more goals, grow your employees and drive wealth to the triple bottom line.

Jack Welch once said “If you pick the right people and give them the opportunity to spread their wings – and put compensation as a carrier behind it – you almost don’t have to manage them.”

Are you ready to practice MBA?

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