Freedom from micromanagement and bureaucracy, in three lessons


Out of all the amazing advice I've received from mentors throughout my career, there are three lessons I come back to almost every day:

  1. Balance impact and opportunity
  2. Be coachable
  3. Test your thinking

Practice these habits consistently, and you will significantly reduce the amount of micromanagement and bureaucracy in your work.

Lesson 1: Balance impact and opportunity

Imagine being a summer intern at one of the largest companies in the world and getting a 15-minute meeting with the CEO to show him your work. When this happens to you, I hope you're not as clueless as I was.

Early in my career, I had an incredible summer internship at American Express. My job was to craft the materials that the CEO, Ken Chenault, and CFO, Gary Crittenden, would use in their presentations with the financial community. An important fact in this story is that I was completely unskilled at this work, and Gary took a big chance on me.

About a month into this internship, I had a 15-minute meeting with Ken. I had never met him before, and it was my first chance to get feedback. I worked hard to make a deck that was a chest-pounding story of all that American Express had accomplished that year.

As the meeting began, Ken walked into the conference room, sat down, and quietly flipped through my deck. After about 5 minutes, he broke the silence.  

"Son," he said, presumably because he had no idea what my name was.  

"Son, when you communicate with any stakeholder—your boss, your shareholders, your analysts—you have to balance impact and opportunity.  

If you only talk about the impact you've had, your stakeholders will believe you've run out of ideas, and won't want you anymore.

If you only talk about opportunity, your stakeholders will believe you haven't achieved anything, and won't want you anymore.

So always remember, half impact, and half opportunity."

And with that, he dropped the mic and left the room. He didn't need to say any more. I knew that my deck was all impact and no opportunity, so over the next few weeks, I reworked it to achieve balance.

Today, I see many leaders who have not learned this lesson. Their communications are imbalanced, and usually, like I had done, focused entirely on impact without opportunity. As Ken predicted, their stakeholders lose confidence.

Remember, when you communicate your work with your stakeholders, make sure your communication is half impact, half opportunity.

Lesson 2: Be coachable

A few years later, I was a young manager working for a leader named Oliver Jenkyn, who is now the President at Visa. Often, Oliver would check in on me to give me new priorities. Wasn't this micromanagement?  

One day, he noticed I was getting annoyed with him, so he said, "If you don't want to be micromanaged, share your priorities first."

The second he had stopped talking, I knew he was right. By not being transparent, I was forcing him to micromanage me. I was the jerk!  

From then on, every week I'd send him and other stakeholders a voicemail (it was a long time ago) with my priorities. And lo and behold, he not only stopped micromanaging me, but instead, he started coaching me. He helped me identify blind spots in my thinking, and when I had a good idea, he would help me hone it.

The lesson here is if you're being micromanaged, ask yourself, are you communicating your priorities first? This is why high-transparency cultures are also significantly more motivating.

Today, my colleagues and I use the Factor platform to maintain an up-to-date set of priorities. Any colleague in my organization can see my priorities in real time, and even contribute to them.  I can also see theirs and coach them if I can be helpful. For colleagues who are new to work, Factor even helps them develop their priorities with artificial intelligence.

Lesson 3: Test your thinking

In my very first job, I worked in software development at Citi. Over time I became close to the CEO, a brilliant leader named John Reed.  By most metrics, John was one of the most successful CEOs of his generation, having led Citi from the brink of bankruptcy to becoming the most profitable company on the planet.

I started to work with John because he was intrigued by some ideas I had on the future of the internet in the banking industry. But I was also extremely young, naive, and deeply inexperienced.  To help me implement my ideas, he would have me routinely meet with experts and senior leaders in the company.

My rash and naive younger self saw this as bureaucracy, and one day, I told John just that. He looked at me, with the "oh, silly child" look and said: "A car doesn't have brakes so you can drive slower. A car has brakes so you can drive faster."

My immediate response was, "Wow, did you just come up with that?!"  I instantly knew that I had just gotten a life lesson.

I had seen these meetings as performative check-the-box exercises. Instead, I should have seen these meetings as a chance to pump the brakes, test my thinking, and make sure I was going down the right path as fast as possible.

From then on, I have tried my best to build a cabinet of experts and test my thinking with them as often as they will allow. Because a car doesn't have brakes so you can drive slower; a car has brakes so you can drive faster.


Over the past two decades, we've developed the science of high-performing cultures. You can find this research in our bestselling book, Primed to Perform. In it we describe how performance motivation works. To perform adaptively - and feel motivated to do your best - you must work with others with transparency and humility.

Today, we work with many CEOs and executives to help them build their performance cultures. And every single day, I find myself coming back to these three lessons. I hope that by sharing what I learned from these great leaders, you too can benefit from their wisdom.

What wisdom have you received from mentors that left a lasting impact on you? We'd love to hear about it.

Originally published at:

Neel Doshi

Neel is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Previously, Neel was a Partner at McKinsey & Company, CTO and founding member of an award-winning tech startup, and employee of several mega-institutions. He studied engineering at MIT and received his MBA from Wharton. In his spare time, he’s an avid yet mediocre woodworker and photographer.

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