“How do I feel worthwhile as a manager when my people are doing all the implementing?”
— An Engineering Manager
Hey, real quick: how long have you been managing? If it’s less than two years, honey, the answer is “you don’t.” Your feelings about your performance don’t mean much in a new role. If you think you’re crushing it, you probably aren’t. But hey, if you think you’re screwing it up royally, you probably aren’t that either. ☺️
It took years for you to develop reliable instincts as an engineer, right? Then you switched careers and went right back to beginnerhood. That rarely feels good. So just don’t worry about it. Try not to obsess over how well you’re doing or not doing. Just engage your beginner brain, set phasers to “curiosity!” and actively pursue every learning opportunity for a year or two. Your judgment will improve. Give it time.
But experienced managers still struggle with this too. So if that’s you: let’s talk.
job satisfaction feels different for managers
First, let’s be clear: job satisfaction as a manager, should you find it, will feel very different than it did as an engineer. As an engineer, you get that very tactile sense of merging code, solving puzzles and incrementally pushing the business forward. It has a rhythm and a powerful drip, drip, drip of dopamine, and as a manager you will never ever feel that. Sorry!
Some people eventually make peace with this, but many never do. No shame in that.
This is partly a function of time and proximity. Manager successes and failures play out over a much longer period of time than the successes and failures of writing and debugging code, and you can only indirectly trace your impact. It can be hard to draw a straight line from cause to effect. Some of your greatest successes may resonate and compound for years to come, yet the person might not remember, may never even have known how you contributed to their triumph. (Hell, you might not either.)
It is also related to your changing relationship with public credit and attribution. It is extremely poor form for managers to go around taking credit for things, so hopefully your org has a sturdy culture of celebrating the people doing the work and not their manager. But if you are used to receiving that stream of praise and recognition, it can be disorienting and deeply demoralizing when it dries up.
Most managers are unreliable narrators
There seems to be precisely one acceptable answer to the question of what motivates managers: loftily waxing on and on about how they get ALL their joy and fulfillment from empowering others and watching other people succeed without ever personally building anything tangible or receiving ANY of the credit. I call bullshit. (This bugs the ever-loving crap out of me.)
It reminds me of the self-abnegating monologues women are supposed to give about how amazing motherhood is, as they’re covered in vomit and haven’t slept in a week.
There is nothing wrong with wanting credit for your work, and affirmation and validation, and there is nothing inherently noble about not wanting those things. Whatever motivates you, motivates you. What matters is that you are self-aware about your needs, generous with credit, and conscious of who you lean on to get those needs met. Anyway, lots of people who become managers find themselves suddenly adrift and lacking reliable indicators about their job performance.
Part of becoming an effective manager over time is learning to recognize your own contributions and derive your own inner sense of worth. Nobody wants a needy manager. So here’s where I’d start: by locating your impact in the Really Big Stuff, the small personal moments, and any sort of crisis.
1 💜 The Really Big Stuff.
Are your users happy, and your business growing? Are you setting ambitious strategic goals and hitting them? Are your DORA metrics excellent? Are people happy to join your team and report to you? Are they awesome? Great, then you deserve some portion of the credit for that.
Most big shit is unfortunately only truly visible over much longer timelines, **but!** the longer you are a manager the more sensitive your feelers will become, the more they will pick up on subtle hints that betray deeper concerns. The sideways glance that suggests lack of trust, the offhand comment with an edge that sticks with you — those are fleeting clues which you may then delicately and expertly probe and use to disarm bad situations before they deteriorate or detonate.
(And sure, it can be really lovely to watch someone succeed when you know you had a small part to play. Congrats, you earned your salary. I just find it a little creepy and culty to act like this is what every manager must live for. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with you if living vicariously thru your reports’ successes doesn’t do it for you.)
2 💙 Random little moments.
On the flip side are the small and precious moments: did you just make someone feel supported in taking their mental health days? Did you pick up on someone’s anxiety and take a moment to check in them? Did they leave with a smile? Did you amplify someone’s voice, or help them work through a problem, or argue someone into receiving a well-deserved raise? Wielding your manager powers for good can be so easy and so gratifying.
(Seriously — give yourself a little pat on the back. This is the closest you’re going to get to a compliment most weeks. And nobody else is going to do it for you. 🤣)
3 💚 In a crisis.
Every manager will eventually encounter a crisis, and those are the moments that reveal the most about how well you have done your job. Do you have the credibility to speak for your team? Does your manager reach out for your support? Do your peers take you seriously or confide in your? Will people vouch for you? You’ll find out!
Not to put it too harshly, but in a clutch situation, are you a source of calm or are you often on the list of “situations to be managed”? Do you consistently tamp down drama and lower the stakes and the volume, or do you react in ways that amplify and escalate emotionally-charged situations? Do your feelings become other people’s problems? This reflects your ability to regulate your own feelings and emotional impulses under stress, and most of us quite overestimate our own power to self-regulate.
Go to therapy. Practice that mindfulness shit. Find what works for you, but pay attention to the energy you are contributing to any situation.
“Does it even matter if I come to work or not?”
A friend of mine was recently lamenting that it didn’t feel like it mattered if he came to work or missed all his 1x1s or not. What even was the point of showing up, as a manager?
In a way, he’s right. It shouldn’t matter if you’re out for a day, or a week. No single 1×1 should make or break something major, or you were already on terribly thin ice.
It is impossible to predict what the next crisis will be. All you can do in the meantime is keep your sociotechnical systems humming along and steadily work to improve them. Build good relationships and deepen the web of trust around you. Optimize your systems so that your people can spend as much of their time as possible on satisfying, high impact work. Make sure nobody is running ragged or being taken advantage of. Ensure redundancy and resiliency across all social and technical domains. Never stop learning. Keep your troops shiny.
Managerial value accrues over time. You can’t show up in the middle of a crisis and start fixing trust issues, any more than you can be a good coach who only shows up on game days. Train yourself to rejoice when things go smoothly in your absence (and really mean it).
In the end, your worth as a manager is seen in the trail you leave behind. The teams that got buy-in to achieve continuous delivery. The coworkers who fondly remember working together and recruit each other, or follow you from job to job for years. The way they saw you advocate for them. Set the bar high enough that their future managers will be compared to you. 🙃
If you are a good manager, you will rack up moments over the years that mean the world to you, heartwarming and vulnerable moments when people share the impact you’ve had on them. Treasure those like rare, unpredictable treats that they are, but don’t confuse them with fuel. It will never be enough to run on.
(And hey — if you’re just starting out, and all this sounds impossibly long-term? — never underestimate the value of just being fucking kind and generous and a pleasure to interact with. The job isn’t a popularity contest — the day will come when your effectiveness means the right people hating you. But that day is not today. And it is hard to be a good manager unless people genuinely enjoy talking to you and affirmatively want to help you meet your goals.)