Opinion by Paul Glen

The measures of a manager

tape measure
Credit: Louise Docker, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The question is seemingly simple: “How do you measure your own success?” But it tends to rattle most managers.

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In my years as an IT management consultant, I’ve had the opportunity to ask one simple question of a wide variety of managers — seasoned and new, at large organizations and small; in the private sector, government and educational settings; and in numerous countries around the world. And the answers have been remarkably consistent, with rare exceptions.

The question is, “How do you measure your own success?” Though seemingly simple, it tends to rattle most managers. They haven’t given it much conscious thought, and because of that, their answers are unpolished and unrehearsed, revealing a great deal about how they think about their role as a member of an organizational community.

After fumbling around a bit, most answer a different, but related, question. They tell me about how they measure the success of the group that they manage, discussing hard numbers like:

  • Project metrics like schedule, budget and scope (strangely, quality rarely gets mentioned)
  • Operational metrics like uptime percentages
  • Support metrics like Incident resolution speed

Occasionally a few softer (or more speculative) measures come up:

  • Money saved
  • Revenue increased
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Staff satisfaction
  • Staff turnover rate

Then, I push a bit more, asking them not how they measure their group’s success, but their personal success. Essentially, I ask them, “How do you know if you’re a good manager?” Taken aback, most struggle to separate their own success from that of their group. They tentatively say, “I don’t see the difference. I am successful if my group is successful,” and look at me as if I had just grown a horn from the side of my head.

The worldview that these conversations reveal is both noble and limiting. “I am my group.” “We rise or fall together.” “I am part of a team.” So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, as far as it goes.

But it represents a very circumscribed view of the role of a manager. It’s the worldview of a manager who focuses on managing stuff rather than on the people who do stuff or on the organizations composed of the people who do stuff.

Of course, successful organizations need to deliver on their goals and satisfy their customers. But there’s much more to building a truly successful group than delivering on short-term goals. Real success is building an organization that continues to deliver over time, one that renews itself, grows new leaders, recruits people who drive it forward, corrects its own mistakes and adapts to new circumstances.

If you want to really measure your success, rather than that of your team, consider things that indicate the health of the group over time, not just in the short term. Consider things like:

  • Can I go on vacation for two weeks without harming productivity?
  • How many people have I grown into successful managers?
  • How many people have I helped to take senior technical roles?
  • Do people feel safe to make honest mistakes?
  • Do people feel that they have influence over their own success?
  • What have I done as a manager that will last after I leave this role?

When you think carefully about what you want to achieve, rather than what you want your group to achieve, you can begin the work of building something enduring. And you can feel the satisfaction of seeing how your work, your managerial work, makes a difference for the people in your group and for your organization.

is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at info@leadinggeeks.com.

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