A manager’s most important deliverable

People moving toward management in their careers often develop a sense of unease about their contributions. This is natural. While it’s fairly straightforward to see your output as an individual, a manager’s work product is harder to define. Making peace with this ambiguity, and understanding the subtle ways in which you have impact, is a critical step in becoming an effective manager of people. In many ways, what you’re delivering—to your team, your manager, and your organization—is confidence.

As a software engineer, I always had a good, rewarding feeling seeing my code running in production. I knew that I had helped complete a project or ship a product. The hours I worked translated directly to an equivalent impact on the company. Furthermore, it was pretty clear whether or not I was doing a good job. Meeting deadlines, making customers happy, and keeping our product free of bugs are things that are relatively easy to measure.

As I started to take on management responsibilities, a new sort of stress crept in. More than just, “Am I doing a good job?”, you start to wonder: “How do I know what a good job is?” And, “What exactly am I doing, anyway?”

There’s an initial temptation to quell this anxiety by simply continuing to do a lot of work as an individual contributor—to keep doing your old job while you learn the new one. For me, this meant writing and shipping code. For a little while, this makes you feel better, and might seem like a solution. Over time, however, the pressures of doing two jobs simultaneously will break you. I reached this point one evening when I woke up on my train ride home, groggy and confused, several stops past the one at which I was to get off, the first time that had ever happened. At that point, I knew I had to choose—be an engineer or be a manager. You can’t be both at the same time.

Confidence

What I now understand, years later, is that the primary deliverable of a manager, the most important thing a manager can produce, is this:

Confidence.

This means different things for all the people you interact with.

Your team is confident that:

  • You have their best interests at heart.
  • You give them the information and tools they need to succeed.
  • You help them grow as people and professionals.
  • You protect them and advocate for them, insulating them from the distractions of corporate politics.

Your manager is confident that:

  • You get good results from your team.
  • Your team acts and behaves consistently with company goals and practices.
  • Your team is happy and satisfied with their situation.
  • You provide adequate career development for the people on your team.

Everyone else in the company with whom you interact is confident that:

  • You’re doing the the things that the company needs you to do, and doing them well.
  • You’re a valuable person to have in the company.

Recognizing that your deliverable is confidence makes some things easier. In particular, determining how much value you’re adding. Are the above statements true, for your team, manager, and colleagues? If yes, how sure are you?

Setting up tests

Understanding the answers to these questions is critical.

As an engineer, you typically write unit tests to make sure your code is functioning as desired, and to detect when it breaks. Think about the equivalent for the assertions about confidence, above. Your tests aren’t in code, but people. Who can you trust to tell you when people are concerned about a decision you make? What communication patterns can you establish to tip you off to a looming crisis of confidence? Regular one-on-one and staff meetings, if done correctly, are an important part of the solution.

Confidence is valuable

Getting great results from a team requires confidence. Without it, people will regress toward second-guessing each other, risk aversion, and a general loss of productive collaboration. Building and maintaining confidence in your team, and others, is an incredibly important and valuable skill, and the most important one for a manager.

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