I am sitting in a cafe in San Francisco, enjoying my double espresso and killing bit of time before I fly home. I love this city. There is so much more of it that I want to visit and explore, so why am I instead churning over a simple question?
Mirror mirror in my mind
I had a lovely day yesterday with two friends from back home who recently moved out here. I worked with Sylvain at a software company in Ottawa for over a decade. One problem we clearly have is that when we do get together, our conversations tend to drift to our shared experiences at that company. I am quite positive that this gets annoying for anyone else who is along for the ride (sorry Andrew, and thank you for accommodating our social dysfunction).
Somewhere along the way, Sylvain asked me the following question:
“Do you think you are a good manager?”
I opened my mouth expecting an answer to join me in this effort. I closed my mouth. Opened it again… still no answer. It has now been a full day and I find myself still considering this question. It feels like an amazingly simple question, but I have discovered it to be very complex. Not just in how I evaluate “good” but also with respect to how I feel about the way I go about answering it.
Am I a good manager? What does this simple question mean? Am I contributing to a safe environment for the team? Am I challenging them? Am I helping them with their careers? How would I gather evidence to make such an assessment? Also, what are we comparing me to? The last person in this role? Other people that members of the team have reported to over their careers? Expectations that were set over a lifetime of growing and learning? Wait, this is only considering those who were in my group. I would need to consider many dimensions for members of other teams. What about the other managers? I worked with them on a daily basis to help our department function. I should consider my department executives, and the senior leadership of the company. With each new connection, I am not only measuring my effectiveness using different parameters of what interactions took place, but also applying a different measuring stick based on their personal histories and beliefs.
It’s just a question
At this point, Sylvain deserves an answer for such a great question. I won’t lie, I truly wanted to answer “Yes I am”. But I not only struggled to properly evaluate myself given everything I just wrote, it also weighed on me that I had not really ever considered this before. I really need to do this. This should be important to me. This is important to me.
I started to think back to my time at my old company. I always discover a lot of joy thinking back to the relationships that I formed there. Some of my closest friendships formed there over years. We still meet often.
Some of my greatest learnings (professional and personal) took place at that company as well. And… Not all of these learnings were emotionally positive. While I know of many individuals who speak quite fondly of my efforts within the team and across the organisation, I have also heard that others do not share these views. Especially my colleagues in the management layer. I have been told that some of the executives and directors mostly remember me as being aggressive… and angry. To them, I suspect that this is the lasting image of me that will stay with them forever. Truthfully, I was really quite hurt when I heard these opinions. It rocked me for a few weeks, but over time I have learned to accept it. I do not like being remembered this way, but those opinions are very fair. They reflect the relationships as they existed towards the end of my time there, and the deterioration of those relationships was a big part of why I left, and when I left.
I am still struggling with the question. Am I a good manager? Do I think that I am a good manager? Did I do a good job being a manager? Clearly I need to consider a point in time. Opinions on this question change depending on when the question might be asked. While trying to evolve a way to properly evaluate myself, I realised that there are some of the dimensions of “good management” that I should have considered more often:
Thinking About the Now, and Then
I have always felt that the role of a manager required releasing control of tactics, and helping others contribute to evolve a common strategy. I wanted to focus on providing others some insights to help them identify factors that contribute to their ability to make responsible and informed decisions.
However, as I consider the question that started this blog, I now am trying to define how I might best have worked on the relationships that could best define “Am I a good manager?” Taking a moment to reflect on individual relationships, it is immediacy that matters most. I am trying to consider a specific point in time, and evaluate all individual relationships. Why was each relationship important (from both perspectives)? How was I contributing to (or damaging) those elements that I and the other person each felt were the most valuable? Working across the identified relationships that I maintained at that time, I can likely form an evaluation of how I did… At that point in time.
I can then move to a different point in time to gather data and see how things changed. The very act of doing this causes me to question what internal and external factors contributed to the changes. If only I was still working at that company, I could probably align it to emails and events that might have impacted priorities and behaviours across the organisation.
Based on this effort, I am identifying some moments at my old company where I feel that I indeed was a good manager. I can also clearly circle some periods where in fact I would say that I was not. Certainly the period when I left is the strongest example of me not being a good manager, and leaving probably stands as the best “good manager” decision that I made at that time.
What is your point?
I should apologise here. Most often when I write something, it is to share something that I feel is well thought out and “clear to me”. This time, I am writing to help me make sense of something. Specifically, why is this one question was so difficult to answer, and why that difficulty bothered me so much.
I think that I have settled on the following ideas:
- One method of evaluating yourself as a manager is to do so based on maintaining relationships (in all directions)
- As a tool, I have found that this works best when you focus on all relationships at a specific point in time. (If I had done this iteratively, I suspect that it would have been much easier and I might have designed an interesting approach to do so)
- This helped me be be a bit more objective about my behaviours and helped me move away from summarising decades of professional work when considering the question.
- I accept that I find that it is exceptionally hard to evaluate myself as a good or bad manager without providing context: “with who?”, “under what conditions?” and “pursuing what goals?”. It is a bit like being asked “are you the right person for any job?” without knowing what the job is and who you will work with.
I wrote my friend Sylvain to thank him. I feel that I have stumbled on an interesting new method to review my work week to week, and help me identify opportunities to improve my effectiveness within organisations. I have not fully flushed out an approach just yet, but it is a good start. I am anxious to see how this goes.
I think that the next time I am asked if I am a good manager, I will answer: “I know that I always want to be.”