Every CEO needs to know how to strike a balance between staying aloof from the nitty-gritty of his company’s operations and getting too involved in the day-to-day details of those employees and divisions far from the corner office.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that the CEO can do no wrong: If he decides to poke his nose into the mailroom, the information technology division, the assembly line, it must be good. Why? Because pro-active is good, management by walking around is good, hands-on is good.

Well, I’m not so sure. An example of how a hands-on CEO — or even just the hint of one — can backfire comes from the recent contretemps with Walt Disney Company’s chief Michael Eisner. All Eisner did was go on record in an interview about the company’s struggling television network, ABC, whose ratings have plummeted. “If I spent a couple of hours a day there,” he reportedly said, “I could make it No. 1 in two years.”

The quote apparently ricocheted around the ABC offices. Executives and producers who were working on the fall lineup found ways to communicate their alarm to the media. Hearing of the turmoil, Eisner said he was shocked: “My view is that when my boss got involved it was the greatest thing in the world.”

Now, the first thing to be said is that Eisner’s confidence in his ability to personally lift his network’s fortunes may well be warranted — but saying so wasn’t very smart. It undermined his executives in a public way, made all the worse by seeming so offhand.

But the main problem was what happened to the planning process once rumor had it that the boss was coming down. As might be expected, things apparently ground to a halt. “No one at Disney has any interest in being the champion of a project right now,” explained one executive to the newspaper.

It’s not hard to see why. If a project is approved or finalized before the boss weighs in, it runs the risk of being made an example of, scapegoated, or at the very least re-done. Nobody wants to see their considerable efforts go to waste that way. It simply makes more sense to wait until the boss is in the building.

The problem with this wait-and-see approach, however, is what happens if the boss was only sounding off. What if he delays making his much-awaited descent? The result is paralysis.

Ultimately, the problem was in the method of communicating: Eisner speaking obliquely to the press instead of directly to his executives.

Does that mean all would have turned up roses if Eisner had simply arrived at ABC and started the laying on of hands? Not necessarily: Nosy Boss interference is no more assured of success in person, although it does have the benefit of being in-house.

Let’s face it: It’s intimidating when a boss gets involved. If you’re a CEO or boss, or even an executive contemplating a flying visit to your scattered divisions, you have to anticipate the effect your presence will have. For you, the boss, it’s important to realize that what you see is most assuredly not business as usual. It may be better; it may be worse; it may be chaotic (imagine what it would be like for a Lee Iacocca to appear at a Chrysler dealership in Des Moines).

Such visits are actually better off being more ceremonial in nature. In manufacturing plants, for instance, it’s terrific when the boss comes in, and a foreman can tell him what they do, how it works, and who the folks are on the front lines. That’s a plus, because everybody loves knowing the boss is taking an interest — without presuming to get involved in the micromanagement.

The trouble arises when the boss can’t resist getting his hands dirty. Dashing in is tempting to your typical results-first kind of CEO, but if he does so without knowing all the background facts, without knowing the history of the relationships, without grasping the long-term picture, then it can have a very debilitating effect.

“Why are you serving steaks to the crew?” he may ask, not knowing that perhaps the crew is being rewarded for doing something it’s never done before.

Or the boss may think he sees a bottleneck and demand that the work process be re-routed — not knowing that what he saw as a delay was built-in quality control instituted from long experience with the realities of production. He can’t know that, and so robs Peter to pay Paul: Work goes faster, but the product comes out flawed.

And then there’s the tendency for a boss to have his own agenda, which he imposes on the unsuspecting division. Maybe you dislike employees eating at their desks. Maybe you want to keep an eye on the kid whose father was your Little League coach. So you show up and ask to speak to him, ask him a few questions, and actually listen to his replies because you’re looking for something positive to report back to his father. Meanwhile, you aren’t talking to or asking questions of your own executives. It’s entirely possible that the information you bring back from your flying tour will consist of whatever the Little League coach’s kid told you.

Even if it doesn’t come to that, you can be sure that your presence is distorting the reality of the workplace. Your executives undoubtedly have made a mental list of your hot buttons, so they will spend a day or two whipping things into shape, sweeping problems under the rug, all for your visit. You’ll come, see what you like, and go home, at which point everything reverts to the usual state of affairs.

My final point has to do with frequency. The CEO who only comes down from Mount Olympus once in a blue moon really has to restrain himself or risk doing serious damage.

The corollary of this is, if you’re going to be an active, hands-on boss, then do it on a regular basis. Nobody at IMG is too shocked when, in the course of passing through our offices or reviewing plans or meeting with executives, I make a comment, address a mishandled situation, suggest an improvement. That’s because I do it all the time. My employees may not like it, but they know to expect it. Because of that they don’t expend all their energy in managing my so-called interruptions; they simply focus on getting me the latest and most correct information — because they know it’s in their best interests for me to make the best possible decisions.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.