I used to think judging whether a manager was great was like judging whether a fifteen-year-old was qualified to drive. There would be a series of tests, and each successful demonstration would earn a satisfying check. Are they well regarded by other people? Can they solve big, strategic problems? Do they give killer presentations? Can they knock out twenty important tasks in a day? Reply to emails while waiting in line for coffee? Defuse a tense situation? Always be closing? Etc., etc.
These are all wonderful qualities to have in a manager, to be sure, and we’ll discuss many of them later on, but the litmus test of whether or not a manager is excelling doesn’t need to be so complex.
If the job is defined as getting better outcomes from a group of people working together, then a great manager’s team will consistently achieve great outcomes.
If the outcome you care about is building a thriving lemonade business, then a great manager’s team will turn a higher profit than a mediocre manager’s team. A bad manager’s team loses money.
If the outcome you care about is educating children, then a great manager’s team will better prepare students for the future than an average manager’s team. A bad manager’s team fails to give kids the skills and knowledge they need to thrive.
If the outcome you care about is getting amazing design, then a great manager’s team will consistently deliver concepts that wow. A mediocre manager’s team will produce work that gets the job done but doesn’t stand out. A bad manager’s team will regularly suggest proposals that make you think, "Surely we can do better than this."
Andy Grove, founder and CEO of Intel and a legendary manager of his time, wrote that when it comes to evaluations, one should look at “the output of the work unit and not simply the activity involved. Obviously, you measure a salesman by the orders he gets (output), not by the calls he makes (activity).”
You can be the smartest, most well-liked, most hardworking manager in the world, but if your team has a long-standing reputation for mediocre outcomes, then unfortunately you can’t objectively be considered a “great” manager.
That said, at any given point in time, it can be hard to accurately judge. A great manager might be asked to lead a new team, and because it takes her time to ramp up, her results might be unimpressive at the beginning. On the flip side, a bad manager might achieve a few quarters of amazing results because she inherited a talented team or set high-pressure ultimatums that had people burning the midnight oil.
Time, however, always reveals the truth. The best employees don’t tend to stick around for years and years under a boss who treats them poorly or whom they don’t respect. And talented managers can typically turn around poor-performing teams if they are empowered to make changes.
Six years ago, I switched my reporting to a different manager, Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer. One of the earliest conversations I remember us having is when I asked him how he evaluates the job of a manager. He smiled and said, “My framework is quite simple.” Half of what he looked at was my team’s results — did we achieve our aspirations in creating valuable, easy-to-use, and well-crafted design work? The other half was based on the strength and satisfaction of my team — did I do a good job hiring and developing individuals, and was my team happy and working well together?
The first criterion looks at our team’s present outcomes; the second criterion asks whether we’re set up for great outcomes in the future.
I’ve gone on to adopt this framework for assessing managers on my own team. Being awesome at the job means playing the long game and building a reputation for excellence. Through thick or thin, in spite of the hundreds of things calling for your attention every day, never forget what you’re ultimately here to do: help your team achieve great outcomes.