Something I struggled with as a new manager was finding a sense of accomplishment, and as I’ve moved on to manage managers, I’ve seen this become a challenge for them, too. It’s hard to find the right success metrics upon which to judge our work because our output is to make the team better, and so hopefully we give credit generously to them.
Without success metrics beyond the team’s improvement, though, it can be be easy to feel like you’re just riding a wave of good people doing good work without contributing anything yourself.
Some managers deal with this feeling by seeing their success metric as being available to their teams 24/7 (unsustainable), or by counting lines of code (which would be like editors focusing on the number of words they wrote themselves—absurd). Some embrace the performance of management without understanding the underlying motivations. They “perform good manager” in one-on-one meetings, team stand-up meetings, and feedback cycles, but it doesn’t really make them feel accomplished, and it’s hard to put a finger on why.
To that end, I’ve compiled a list of signs that I look for in managers on my teams that suggest they’re doing a good job.
Can you take a week off?
A rough one to start with if you lean toward constant availability as your metric, but there’s nothing like a week off (or more!) to show which of your activities has the most impact. When you come back, pay attention to what you find. What’s surprising to you? What comes up in your one-on-one meetings? What did people miss? What did they not need you for?
If your team is in a tough spot, and you don’t feel you can really disconnect, try designating one trusted person to check in with each day. Ideally you should be able to leave some way to contact you in an emergency and then disconnect—confident that if you were truly necessary you would know (and be relieved to find you’re not).
Can problems be handled without you?
On both the engineering groups I’ve led at Automattic, we have infrastructure teams dedicated to building and releasing the software. Recently one of our team leads was away when a problem arose that required an unplanned release. His team, which was relatively new to working together, found some gaps in our documentation, got wildly creative, fixed it, pushed a new version, and put up a detailed account of what had gone wrong, with next steps. At some point both he—and I—checked in to see if there were anything we could do, but the team had everything handled.
This is huge—you’ll never get away from using constant availability as your metric if every emergency must come to you. Ensuring that everyone on the team feels a sense of responsibility and ownership, and having a clear Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) is key.
Does your team deliver consistently?
Delivery is a trailing indicator for a healthy team, but it is an indicator. Healthy teams ship, consistently, and keep shipping over time. We all have projects that become unexpectedly complex, and every individual one may have a reasonable explanation, but if you look at the overall picture, is the team delivering more often than not?
Do people tell you what they think?
One thing that we all have to get used to in leadership is people being less candid with us. We need to make ourselves available explicitly to people who don’t want to presume to seek us out (these are important people to listen to; otherwise you just hear the loudest voices). Yes, there are still people who lean toward speaking their minds, but if we can create space and listen, we can get others to be open with us, too.
It’s also important to note how people give you critical feedback. Do they wait until it’s something they are really frustrated by? Or is it an ongoing conversation? Will people tell you what they are worried or insecure about? Will they share what they notice is going on around you?
I was talking to one of my peers (who used to be a lead on my team) about a situation recently, and she said, “Cate, I would never let you do anything that stupid.” I laughed, of course, but I was also deeply grateful to know that there are people around who will call me on bad decisions.
Do people on the team treat each other well?
Effective teams are inclusive teams. Fundamentally, I believe that inclusion is the right thing to do. However if we consider problems of exclusion—racism, sexism, ageism—they come from the idea that some people can do better if they push others down, and of course they start with the most marginalized amongst us.
As a leader, it’s on you to cultivate a respectful environment on your team, and to make it clear that you will not tolerate discriminatory words or behavior. This is the minimum. Beyond that, you can set some values around reward and advancement that make it clear that success on your team is something that happens interdependently, not as a competition.
Is the team self-improving?
Self-improving teams critique and iterate and change things as a part of their process. They’re not afraid to discuss what worked and what didn’t, make suggestions, and try changes knowing that some of the changes they make will fail.
These teams get better over time with less and less intervention from you. It can be really hard to get teams reflecting on what went right and wrong with a project, because this process is scary (and the first few times might be quite rough). But getting to a place where these “post-mortems” are a matter of course is the outcome of a self-improving team.
Can you give people who report to you meaningful, in-depth feedback?
The way I think about feedback is this: Feedback is someone’s work reflected back to them, in a way that helps them take pride in their accomplishments and makes actionable the places where they can improve.
This means having enough insight into their work, accomplishments, and struggles to be able to do that. A lot of that feedback happens as we go, but at most every six months I make a point to get some (qualitative or quantitative) feedback from team members that I can use to put together a bigger picture of how someone is doing. Think hand-mirror in one-on-one meetings, full-length mirror in a feedback round.
What kind of things can you delegate?
Do you feel like you can hand off pieces of work or problems to people on your team? Are those projects getting bigger over time? Maybe you started by giving people tasks, but over time, you want to be able to give them broader problems to own. This allows you to take on more from your boss.
If you manage managers and you don’t have people you can hand stuff off to, you will drown. It’s just not possible to operate effectively at that scale without the shock absorption of people being able to take things off your plate and handle them. If you don’t have it, you will need to build it, because it will only get worse over time.
Who is taking on bigger roles?
Two years after I joined Automattic, it’s gratifying to look at who on the mobile team I led is now a tech lead, or a team lead, or generally taking on things with larger scope. As the team grows, there’s more opportunity—and more need—for people to step up. Delegation flows down: pushing things onto the managers forces them to push things onto people on their teams, and this is how we grow new leaders on the team.
As much as we might adore everyone on our team, and want to keep them together, having a strong team means that sometimes people’s best path for success lies outside of it. It’s our job as managers to help them toward it, and to help our peers when they need a skill set that someone on our team can best provide. It’s a sign of success when people from our teams go to other teams and take on more responsibility there. It can also be a sign of success when people leave and take on bigger roles elsewhere.
Hopefully, this is something you can talk about together, but the success metric is: How have you helped them? What feedback, what projects, what responsibilities have you given them? How have you used your insight into their capabilities to help them find their next role inside your organization? If it’s more indirect, how has the way you’ve run the team contributed to creating opportunities for a broader set of people?
Can you take on work outside of your immediate scope?
Having our own teams in order, and strong support within them, makes it possible for us to provide more support to those above and around us.
What could you take on that would most help your boss? Your peers? What scope of things could you take on? Can that get bigger over time?
When I joined Automattic, one of the things the mobile team really wanted was for mobile to have a bigger role in the organization. One way that we achieved that was for me to take a bigger role in the organization, to do more to support other teams, to spread our practices and get invited into more conversations.
Do your peers value your perspective and come to you for advice?
Every organization has its own unique set of quirks, and the people who best understand the stress under which we operate are our peers. If we have a functional environment, and we’re not competing with each other, who respects who in a peer group says a lot. Pay attention to the topics people seem to value your opinion on. It shows what they notice—which are often the things we most take for granted.
Cate Huston is an engineering manager at Automattic.