Book review: “The making of a Manager” by Julie Zhuo

Finally I got hold of this book “Making of a Manager: What to do when everyone looks to you” by Julie Zhuo, I heard about it from Twitter and got intrigued. I recommend reading this book to all managers, especially the ones newly-minted as well those who want to ensure they are not reinventing learning from wildly successful companies like Facebook where the author has learnt the ropes – rising from an intern to VP of Design. Seeing the recommendations from Silicon Valley stalwarts in the first few pages of this book would probably motivate you to dive into as it did for me!

Cover of the Book: “The making of a Manager” by Julie Zhuo

You would find this book easy to read (can be finished over the weekend), situations relatable and advice quite sensible to put into action immediately. That said, the overall tone of the subject matter is generalist in nature and may not especially cover for the peculiarities that PM managers face. That should however not deter you from imbibing the deep lessons embedded in the short 10 chapters of this book. What follows is my key takeaways in the order in which they appear in the book

A. What is management?

  • A manager’s job is to
    • build a team that works well together,
    • support members in reaching their career goals, and
    • create processes to get work done smoothly and efficiently
  • Your job, as a manager, is to get better outcomes from a group of people working together and therefore if the team’s outcomes are mediocre, you cannot be termed as a great manager
  • Being awesome at the job means playing the long game and building a reputation for excellence
  • Manager’s tasks can be filled into 3 buckets – people, process and purpose (making the team aware of what success looks like and ensure they care about achieving it)
    • Your role as a manager is not to do the work yourself, even if you are the best at it, because that will only take you so far. Role is to improve and process people or the purpose of the team! However if you are in survival mode, do what it takes!
  • How to know if you will be a great manager?
    • Do you find it more motivating to achieve an outcome or play a specific role?
    • Do you like talking to people?
    • Can you provide stability for an emotionally charged situation?
  • While manager is a specific role, leadership is the particular skill of being able to guide and influence other people and therefore in order to be a great manager, one has to be a leader!
    • If you can pinpoint a problem and motivate others to work with you to solve it, then you’re leading
    • Also leadership is not something that can be bestowed. It must be earned. People must want to follow you

B. What to do in the first 3 months as a manager?

The playbook varies depending on whether one is a freshly minted manager (apprentice), founding team member grown into a managerial role, new boss leading the team internally or an external hire or a successor replacing someone

  • To have hard conversations, it is essential to internalise that you own your team’s outcomes
  • To get honest feedback from your reportees, ask how their dream manager looks like
  • You need to proactively invest in building relationships. Being vulnerable sometimes helps in generating trust
  • You will be far more successful aspiring to be the leader you want to be and playing to your strengths than trying to live up to some other ideal

C. How to lead a small team?

  • No matter what work you do or the size of your team, knowing how to diagnose and solve problems with your reports is critical to your shared success
  • Trust is the most important ingredient
  • If the answer to your questions around “How are you” is fine for multiple weeks from a report, take it as a sign to prod further!
  • If you don’t truly respect or care about your team members, you cannot fake it! Managing is caring!
  • Supporting and caring for someone doesn’t mean always agreeing with them. What caring does mean is doing your best to help your report be successful and fulfilled in her work
  • If your report feels that your support and respect are based on her performance, then it will be hard for her to be honest with you when things are not going per expectations
  • If you can remove a barrier, provide a valuable new perspective, or increase their confidence, then you’re enabling them to be more successful
  • Your report should have a clear sense at all times of what your expectations are and where he stands
  • Help people play to their strength. However it does not have to always work since sometimes success is a function of personal and org priorities! 
  • When you decide to let someone go, do it respectfully and directly. Don’t open it up to discussion
    • Change is hard, but trust your instincts. Would you hire this person again if the role were open? If the answer is no, make the move
    • The end goal of management is to get better outcomes. When someone isn’t a great fit for his role, there is a cost
    • The growth mindset has taught us that anyone can get better at anything given the will, hard work, and time. The question is, how long would it take? And how would that affect the team?
  • Don’t tolerate brilliant assholes on your team, it actually is better off when they leave! In general, you should make people moves quickly!

D. How to be a great manager? Art of giving feedback

  • For a leader, giving feedback—both when things are going well and when they aren’t—is one of the most fundamental aspects of the job
  • Four common ways to inspire a change in behavior 
    • Set clear expectations in the beginning
    • Give task specific feedback as quickly as you can
    • Share behavioral feedback thoughtfully and regularly 
    • Collect 360 degrees feedback for maximum objectivity
  • Every major disappointment is failure to set expectations
  • You feedback only counts if it makes things better
  • The best way to give critical feedback is to deliver it directly and dispassionately
  • Own the decision, be firm and don’t open it up for discussion!

E. How to manage yourself better?

  • Being a great manager is a highly personal journey, and if you don’t have a good handle on yourself, you won’t have a good handle on how to best support your team
  • No matter how often imposter syndrome rears its ugly head, it doesn’t have to derail you
  • Be brutally honest with yourself
  • The first part in understanding how you lead is to know your strengths—the things you’re talented at and love to do. This is crucial because great management typically comes from playing to your strengths rather than from fixing your weaknesses
  • Develop a growth mindset i.e. be motivated to seek out the truth and ask for feedback because you know it’s the fastest path to get you where you want to go
  • When a negative story takes hold of you, step back and question 
    • Is your interpretation correct? 
    • Are there alternative views you’re not considering? 
    • What can you do to seek out the truth?
  • To fight self-doubt, visualise success. It is a powerful tool!
  • Maximize on the job learning. Treat your manager as the coach and not as a judge!
  • Take advantage of formal training! Or maybe professional coaching
  • When you invest in your personal learning and growth, you’re not just investing in your own future but also the future of your team

F. How to organise meetings?

  • Analyse efficacy of meetings by their purpose. It could be broadly of 5 types 1. Making a decision 2. Information sharing 3. Providing feedback 4. Generating ideas 5. Strengthening relationships 
  • A great decision making meeting has the following components
    • Gets a decision made
    • Includes the people most directly affected by the decision as well as a clearly designated decision-maker
    • Presents all credible options objectively and with relevant background information, and includes the team’s recommendation if there is one
    • Gives equal airtime to dissenting opinions and makes people feel that they were heard
  • Invite right people to the meeting
  • Give people a chance to come prepared. Float a pre-read if possible 
  • Before concluding the meeting, summarise next steps
  • Make it safe for people to contribute. Sticky notes or having a round-robin around the table are helpful
  • Some meetings don’t need you and be ruthless in culling ineffective meetings
    • If you trust that the right outcomes will happen without you, then you don’t need to be there

G. How to hire well?

  • Hiring doesn’t just matter at scale—even a single great hire can make a big difference in your team’s outcomes.
  • The most important thing to remember about hiring is this: hiring is not a problem to be solved but an opportunity to build the future of your organization
  • Design your team intentionally. Have a thoughtful one-year hiring plan in the beginning. Tweak as you go along
  • Hiring is your responsibility. Align with your recruiter in defining the role, sourcing, the onboarding process and onboarding really closely
  • Describe the role as clearly as possible and deliver an amazing interview experience
  • Examine a candidate’s past experience. They are probably the closest predictor of performance at the job!
  • Hiring is a gamble but do make smart bets! And since it’s a gamble, reject weak hires!
    • If you are going to make a bet, bet on someone who has at least a few passionate advocates in the interviewing panel!
  • References matter the most, contact your common connections towards the same
  • Prepare your interview questions in advance. Take a long term view with top talent!
  • Build a team with diverse perspectives, hire people who are more capable than you!
  • You can’t create great outcomes without consistently attracting talented people and ensuring that they can also hire well
  • Make it clear that building the team is not just one person’s job, it’s everyone’s job!

H. How to make things happen?

  • Start with a concrete vision. An inspiring vision is bold. It doesn’t hedge. You know instantly whether you’ve hit it or not because it’s measurable. And it’s easily repeated, from one person to the next. It doesn’t describe the how, it simply describes what the outcome will be
  • Create a believable game plan i.e. strategy
  • Craft a plan based on your team’s strengths
  • Focus on few things well, prioritise
  • Define who is responsible for what
  • Treat big projects like a series of small projects. Keep in mind the planning fallacy: our natural bias to predict that things will take less time and money than they actually do
  • Choose perfect execution over perfect strategy
  • Good process is ever evolving. A resilient organization isn’t one that never makes mistakes but rather one whose mistakes make it stronger over time

I. How to lead a growing team?

  • Differences between big and small teams
    • People treat you differently. They’re less likely to tell you the ugly truth or challenge you when they think you’re wrong, even if you’d like them to
    • Context switching, everyday
    • You pick and choose your battles i.e. what are the most important topics for you to pay attention to, and where are you going to draw the line
    • At higher levels of management, the job starts to converge regardless of background. Success becomes more and more about mastering a few key skills: hiring exceptional leaders, building self-reliant teams, establishing a clear vision, and communicating well
  • Delegation is an art. It doesn’t mean you walk away!
    • The rule of thumb for delegation goes like this: spend your time and energy on the intersection of 1) what’s most important to the organization and 2) what you’re uniquely able to do better than anyone else
    • Anything your report can do just as well or better than you, you should delegate
  • People trump projects—a great team is a prerequisite for great work.
  • Beyond people, you and your report should be aligned on why you’re doing what you’re doing and what success looks like
  • The act of constantly trying to replace yourself means that you create openings to stretch both your leaders and yourself

J. How to nurture culture?

  • As you manage more and more people, you’ll play a bigger role in shaping culture. Don’t underestimate the influence that you can have
    • Pay attention to your own actions—the little things you say and do—as well as what behaviors you are rewarding or discouraging
  • Make a list of the aspects of culture that you admire about other teams or organizations. Why do you admire them? What downsides does that team tolerate as a result?
  • Never stop talking about what is important
  • If you say something is important to you and you’d like the rest of your team to care about it, be the first person to live that value
  • When a report does something difficult that is in the spirit of your team’s values, recognize them for it
  • Invent traditions. Rituals are powerful

This is a great book, do read and internalise the lessons. Almost all of those are universally applicable across roles!

PS: Additional recommendations from the author for frequent referencing are the book “Crucial Conversations”, articles like High Output Management and How to Win Friends and Influence People

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