Knowing whether we have done a good job can be like trying to decipher Enya lyrics. Accomplishments seem fuzzy and hard to define and the best efforts may be abstract. Middle managers, in particular, face this challenge because the work they do is often indirect and facilitative. While success is measured by results, answering the daily question of, "Am I managing well?"?? can be more elusive.
One reason for this is that many leaders struggle with what great management looks and feels like. Those who define success in terms of completed to-do list items completed and meetings attended will deprive themselves of feeling satisfaction and pride for results that are less concrete. This is a shame because this fuzzy work often has a much greater impact on the business than to-do list tasks. What if we defined a great day as one in which we do little and make breakthroughs happen? What if the action that would make the most difference were to say something that enlivens someone´s curiosity?
Having had the privilege to see and work with many great managers, I have noticed that the best believe their day has been successful when:
- They have enabled work to move forward. They have had an impact that would not have occurred without their intervention.
- They have removed barriers and solved problems standing in the way of results.
- They have encouraged others to create and share new ideas helpful to the department and company.
- They have analyzed and come to a new and better understanding of how the department is working, and have identified potential areas of concern or opportunity.
- They have ensured that their team members and peers are clear about priorities and how their work contributes to business goals.
- They have taken the initiative to deal with situations needing attention instead of procrastinating.
- They have strengthened internal relationships.
- They have had the courage and conviction to discuss important topics that are political, uncomfortable, gnarly, or thorny and therefore difficult to talk about.
- They have had fun being in the thick of things. Their pace is brisk with a fitting sense of urgency for the work.
- They have not let their to-do list get in the way of doing great work.
These measures of success can give us different and better ways to judge our managerial success. They call out and acknowledge the indirect actions we take that make a significant difference to the business. Although it is not practical to accomplish these things every day, we should endeavor to achieve as many as possible. These indirect, fuzzy, or abstract actions take little time but can make a huge impact. Here are a few examples:
- Enabling a conversation that helps move stalled work forward.
- Killing a project that does not make sense.
- Asking just the right question to create an ah-ha moment for a peer or team member.
- Facilitating a process improvement discussion.
- Taking 15 minutes to plan and clarify the day´s game plan.
- Being the one who brings up a touchy but important subject in a staff meeting.
- Relentlessly tracking down the source of a major problem and then getting the right people together to discover and implement a solution.
We know these activities make a difference. It is important that we measure our success on the impact we make and see the value of our indirect actions. A former colleague of mine used to lament at the end of many days, saying that he had not accomplished a thing. In fact, he was exceedingly effective in enabling work to move forward and helping people get unstuck. These are significant accomplishments and add more value to the company than do many tangible activities. So go out there and move mountains with just the fresh breath of a provocative question or a moment of imagination.