The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo is an essential read for anyone working in tech. Here's the summary chapter by chapter.
You open a book, and see two pictures. The first one shows a stork carrying a newborn giraffe; the second one – a baby giraffe on an assembly line. This is an illustration to the introduction of “The Making of a Manager” by Julie Zhuo, and it best represents the idea traced on each and every page of the book – that good managers are made, not born.
You may think that management is only for the gifted ones, but in fact, it is a skill that can be learned. Management takes a lot of self-doubt and mistakes, even failures. It is a never-ending journey: you climb the hill only to see many others waiting for you to climb.
At the beginning of her career, Julie Zhuo, Facebook Vice President of Product Design, was told that she knew nothing about management. She had courage to admit it. Years after that, she became a management expert and started sharing her knowledge in a blog. The blog grew into a book. Now her “The Making of a Manager” is the Bible for many leaders who try to achieve success.
Below you can read “The Making of a Manager” summary chapter by chapter, learning the secrets of productive management:
What do managers do? You can think that they promote and fire people, share feedback, and have meetings with reports. This is true yet quite superficial. The real essence of management, says Zhuo, lies in building a team and achieving results by collaborative efforts. As a manager, you don’t do all work by yourself; rather, you delegate responsibilities and create conditions for a smooth work process.
Can anybody be a manager? No, says Zhuo. Considering a proposal to become a boss, ask yourself several questions: do you prefer leading or being an individual contributor? Do you like talking to people (70 percent of a manager’s time is spent in meetings)? Can you handle emotionally challenging situations, providing care for people sharing problems like health issues or family concerns that negatively impact the quality of their work? If the answers are “no”, just don’t do it.
Besides, to be a manager, you will need to be a leader who knows how to influence others. This is tightly connected to trust: you cannot inspire people, if you don’t have credibility. So work hard on developing it:
Leadership is not something that can be bestowed. It must be earned. People must want to follow you. You can be someone’s manager, but if that person does not trust or respect you, you will have limited ability to influence him.
According to Zhuo, getting a position of a boss, you will probably take one of the four paths – apprentice, pioneer, new boss, or successor. If you know how to act in your particular case, it will be easier for you to live through the first steps, usually the hardest:
You start to manage a part of a growing team. A huge advantage is that you know the team from the inside, so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. However, you may get stuck, if you keep doing things in a certain way because it “has always been like that.” To avoid this, make a list of what works great and what doesn’t. This way, you will get a perspective on how to move forward from a current point.
One of the challenges apprentices face is the need to combine their individual contributor responsibilities with management – it is like managing a group of people making and selling lemonade, standing at the counter and selling it at the same time. Another one is that you will have to establish new relationships with former peers. You can notice they share less information with you and generally treat you differently now when you are a boss.
You manage a new group you founded from scratch. A privilege you get in this case is the opportunity to pick the people you want to work with. However, you can feel “alone in a new, unfamiliar terrain”: the burden of responsibility can be very heavy.
Good news is that you can always ask for support – either from other managers in your company, or from subject matter experts outside your organization. For example, Zhuo often had coffee with people from Google, Airbnb, and Amazon where they discussed problems in design industries, sharing experience.
You start to manage an already existing team. It gives you a great chance to “form new ties and reset your identity,” getting rid of your old reputation. On the other hand, it is pretty challenging to get adapted to a totally new group and its rules.
The best thing you can do as a new boss, says Zhuo, is “to address the elephant in the room” – publicly admit that you are new, and you know very well your employees don’t trust you yet. Tell them about your failures. Don’t be scared to seem vulnerable – it will only make you look more human.
You are taking the place of a person who decided to leave. Like when you are an apprentice, it is easy because you know the work context, and hard because you have to develop new relationships with your former peers. Besides, people expect you to be like their boss, and that puts a lot of pressure on you. But you are a different person: give yourself permission to be so.
Taking any of these paths is stressful. But this stress is only temporary:
Your first three months as a new manager are a time of incredible transition. By the end of it, the day-to-day starts to feel familiar— you’re adapting to new routines, you’re investing in new relationships, and you may begin to have a sense of how you can best support your team.
Trust is a fundamental ingredient of building a healthy team. And if this team is small enough, trust becomes even more important. What can a manager do to earn it?
There are several ways, believes the author. To begin with, a boss must always stay human – which is, care and respect your team workers. Sometimes care means you have to give a bitter pill, and tell them something they don’t like.
It also means investing time to help your reports, discussing priorities or even the person’s state of mind; setting clear expectations; and admitting your own mistakes.
Staying honest is also critical. But to make honesty less harsh, says Zhuo, you will have to develop trust:
Imagine you go shopping with your best friend and she comes out in an unflattering green-and-yellow sweater. “How do I look?” she asks you. “Like a caterpillar,” you say. You’re not worried about insulting her because she’s your best friend and she’ll know you said it out of affection rather than spite.
Help people use their strengths. Do not tolerate any bullies, even if they are the best workers. Remember that people are the most valuable resource, especially in a small group where “you don’t get many cross wires when your team can still fit around the table”. So focus on them.
When something isn’t broken, we accept that it’s good enough, so why say more?” – this is probably one of the worst approaches a manager can take. Giving feedback is a central aspect of management, and not giving it means not caring about your team members.
Feedback shouldn’t be vague, but it shouldn’t be emotionally charged either. The best feedback inspires you to improve, says Zhuo, suggesting four characteristics of it:
Zhuo also emphasizes that sometimes people perceive your feedback not the same way you initially planned it to be:
If you’ve ever played a game of telephone as a kid, you know this to be true: What you intend to say and what the listener hears are not always the same. You might think you’re being clear when in fact you’re saying too much, or too little, or sending a different message through your body language.
To avoid this situation, she recommends making a verbal confirmation directly asking a report how he understood the remark, or asking him to summarize it in an email. But remember – it is very important to be on the same page.
Managing large groups of people is impossible if a person cannot manage his own behavior. Having to do things they have never done before (for example, you cannot practice firing people before you actually do it) on a permanent basis, many managers face a problem called “imposter syndrome”: they always doubt themselves and feel like “they are not supposed to be here”.
How to overcome this state? Accepting yourself, in the first place. The top world leaders do not share some special type of personality: you can come across extroverts, like Churchill, introverts, like Lincoln, people avoiding attention, like Gates. Realize that you are unique.
It also helps to understand yourself at your best and your worst, continues the author. Think of rituals that make you feel more effective: for example, you can notice that you function best after 8 hours of sleep. At the same time, think of triggers that decrease your effectiveness – like arrogance or injustice you observe at a workplace. This information is very valuable.
Zhuo also underlines that even if you find yourself “in the pit” – lonely and frustrated – you should always try to get your confidence back. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Understand that the worst-case scenarios in your head are not necessarily true. Celebrate little wins:
Learning how to be a great leader means learning about your superpowers and flaws, learning how to navigate the obstacles in your head, and learning how to learn. With these tools comes the confidence that you’re meant to be here just as you are—no masks or pretenses needed.
Gathering team members in a big room on Fridays and asking them to share what they have done this week sounds like a very logical thing to do. You can analyze what already happened, and you can make plans for the future. But it is not enough to just have a meeting: it has to be a productive meeting.
Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with the statement “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Meetings are much the same.
This is ironic but true. The absence of clarity and a lot of confusion, repetitive remarks, a couple individuals dominating the room – this is what a bad meeting looks like. A good meeting, on the contrary, is straightforward and simple: you get a clear understanding of what is expected from you; you learn something new; your time is not wasted.
So what are the techniques that help organize a productive meeting? Zhuo comes up with several ones:
Focus on decision making: present all options and make a fair decision, even if you didn’t find the consensus.
Share information. Emails and group chats have made it possible to quickly exchange information, but they will not replace a real-life meeting where you can express your opinion not only verbally but also through body language and eye contact.
Generate ideas. Despite the popular belief that brainstorming is super effective, our brain produces the most creative ideas when we are by ourselves. The best way is to hear the ideas of everyone in a room, and let them evolve within a detailed discussion.
Set the norms. If you want everyone to say something, insist on it.
Meetings take a lot of time and energy, which are precious and finite. This is why, says Zhuo, you should guard them “like a dragon guards its treasure stash. If you trust that the right outcomes will happen without you, then you don’t need to be there.”
Hiring isn’t about filling holes, says Zhuo; it is about finding talents who would inspire the team. However, as she ironically points out, “As they say in fairy tales, you’ll have to meet a lot of frogs in order to find a good match.”
The techniques that are typically used for hiring are interview, resume, and the reference check. Interviews are not reliable methods because they do not recreate the real work environment; besides, interviewers can be personally biased against a particular candidate.
Resume is helpful since it lets you see if a candidate has specific skills or experiences you are looking for. It may happen that a candidate is very eager to work, and it impresses you – but it does not mean he is the right person.
Reference check is usually underrated but it is actually the best way for evaluation, says the author. Talking to multiple people who know the candidate, you may get the most trustworthy picture of who really this person is.
Another important thing to remember while hiring is diversity. According to a 2014 report, companies with greatest ethnic and racial diversity were 35 percent more likely to have financial returns.
Hiring is not something you can avoid as a manager. It is not just a process – it is a skill you need to acquire:
When your team is growing swiftly, hiring becomes easily the top one or two most important skills. If you need to build out a large team and you don’t have a strong bench of managers, the problem quickly becomes intractable. You can’t create great outcomes without consistently attracting talented people.
The more arbitrary and heavy work processes are, the harder it is to achieve goals. So it makes sense to optimize every process involved. How can managers do it?
To begin with, through planning. “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything,” said Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of history’s top generals. Even though it is impossible to control everything and plans do not always work, planning can help understand at what stage of your work you are.
It is very useful to focus on a few things and do them well. The Pareto principle, also known as 80/20 principle, means that 80 percent of results come from 20 percent of causes. Instead of giving too much effort where it is not needed, it’s better to identify things that matter the most.
Creating a concrete vision is priceless too. Mark Zuckerberg would often repeat that one day they would connect the world – even when Facebook was a small company, and my Space almost ten times bigger. The vision he had was very clear, and everybody knew what it was. Eventually, Facebook became a part of everyday life for billions of people.
Zhuo emphasizes that no matter how scared you are, you should try new ways and keep making mistakes – this is how you make things happen:
The most brilliant plans in the world won’t help you succeed if you can’t bring them to life. Executing well means that you pick a reasonable direction, move quickly to learn what works and what doesn’t, and make adjustments to get to your desired outcome.
The contrasts between managing large and small teams are striking. If you have a small team, you can individually approach each person; if it’s bigger, you cannot – at least, not directly, but through other leaders at lower levels.
In both cases you as a manager are responsible for the outcome. With a big group, it can be very challenging since you cannot get deep in all the details. All you can do is to learn to trust your people and find the balance between controlling the situation and giving freedom:
“Dive in too much, and you’re the micromanager… if you step back too much, you’re the absentee manager.”
In a position of authority, you will be in charge of numerous things; however, you are only a human, and your resources are limited – so you must prioritize. The author suggests keeping a calendar and preparing for each meeting, taking notes, and making time pockets for reflection.
One more thing to mention here is that when a team is growing, a manager will inevitably have to replace himself. It can be hard because people get attached to what they are doing. However, it also means personal growth everyone involved, because it presents many opportunities:
The act of constantly trying to replace yourself means that you create openings to stretch both your leaders and yourself. Right ahead is another mountain that’s bigger and scarier than the one before. Everyone keeps climbing, and everyone achieves more together.
Culture is the norms and values that determine how work is done. Since a manager has a lot of influence, he plays a very important role in shaping it.
What kind of culture do you want to have in your company? Zhuo recommends thinking of 5 adjectives you would want an external observer to describe your company with. Then, analyze the current state of things. Is the work environment hostile? Is there too much drama? If the answer is yes, this needs to change.
Try to see the difference between your aspirations and the situation you’ve got at the moment. Talk more frequently and more patiently about your values, persuading others to adopt them as well. Zhuo says it has never been annoying to her colleagues – on the contrary, they responded positively and asked what steps they needed to take. Finally, don’t forget to reward those who behave according to your values.
Sharing values is a priceless instrument of developing a team and achieving results – it unites people and leads them to the same destination:
A group of people working in unison is a wonderful thing to behold. Done well, it ceases to be about you or me, one individual or another. Instead, you feel the energy of dozens or hundreds or even thousands of hearts and minds directed toward a shared purpose, guided by shared values.
The path to becoming a great manager is not straight, and the journey will be long. You will fall and rise, try new ideas and fail. But make sure you always keep your mind open. Learn from your mistakes and from the experience of others. You will see many opportunities just around the corner.
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