My review of the book “The Making Of A Manager”
Years ago, when I became a manager for the first time, I thought I was ready to take on the role. Reality proved otherwise. Despite strong performance in earlier roles, I felt unprepared to take on various assignments of a manager: playing a coach at work, aligning humans who like to do their own thing on their own time, managing budgets when we must do more with less resources, refining goals when customers demand agility and evolution, failing at things you are expected to perform well – and still making it. I have developed a deep appreciation for what a manager accomplishes every day at work.
So this has been an interesting time in my career to be reading a book I would have loved to get my hands on fifteen years ago. “I never thought managing was easy. I still don’t,” says Julie Zhuo, a former executive at Facebook, and the author of “The Making of a Manager”. I can relate. With years of management experience and responsibility for a team of five hundred persons, I still have moments of self-doubt and anxiety.
Zhuo starts the book with the assertion that great managers are made, not born, grounding her readers in the notion that management is a set of skills, no matter what you have been told before. Just like other professional skills, you and I can learn to be great at management. Zhuo confesses that she did not know what she was doing in the first week at her job as a manager. Her story also gives us an insider view of a tech startup: making decisions in a new industry, growing employees, and succeeding despite obstacles. The author lays out the attitudes you need to be a good manager: you like working through other people, prefer getting to outcome rather that doing things yourself, and tackle problems in the spirit of growth for your team. A right frame of mind for a manager is to believe that a group of people working together can product better outcome that one person doing it alone. In her book, Zhuo tells us the steps to get to the goal of being a good manager.
As a manager, I divide the tasks I do in two broad categories – setting up a system for success and then running the system. Collaborating with a team to decide on a strategy is an example of setting up, monitoring a project to ensure things are done on time is an example of running; Hiring the rightly skilled team members is setting up, stepping in to provide feedback to someone is running. You get the idea. I came up with the “set up and run” metaphor because I think like an engineer. If you run a machine without setting it up right, it is not going to run efficiently; you will end up with a sub-optimal outcome. The framework of set up and run is simple, and it works. I read the book with my set up and run lens, and it delivers: the steps described will help a manager do both.
Zhuo takes the reader through her own managerial journey, sharing her learnings along the way with research-based ideas sprinkled in. Chapters are well organized with a special emphasis on feedback, something most of us can improve on. The skill of receiving and giving feedback has become critical as the professional work has become more collaborative. The author defines Management in her own words: a manager’s job is to get better outcomes from a group of people coming together. If you don’t like talking with people, you will likely not be happy in a management job, says Zhuo. I agree. She asks you if you can provide stability for emotional, challenging situations; If you can, you would make a good manager.
Many stories from the author’s career hit home for me. One of them is early in the book. Zhuo writes about a day when she brought her designers together and presented an idea to them, to solve a problem. “none of the designers were sold on my idea”, says Zhuo. Any new manager has had a moment like this where you thought you have the solution, and your team is there to implement it. Won’t it be better if present a problem and let the team create a solution? If only I knew that fifteen years ago.
The “the first 3 months” chapter is for a new manager to get the set-up work right. It reads like the framework in the First 90 days book (Watkins, 2003) calling for four different approaches to fit different company situations a manager finds after starting his job. Zhuo calls her approaches apprentice, pioneer, new boss, and successor. While advising us to be human and increase the likelihood of trust, she keeps going back to being a people leader first. Zhuo suggests treating a direct report with respect and as a whole person rather than for what she does for you. It is refreshing to read the pronouns “she” and “hers” for her coworkers; most management book authors refer to coworkers as “he” exceedingly. The author supports vulnerability (made popular as a leadership practice by Brene Brown) and strength-based management (Rath, 2007). Zhuo says there is one type of person you should not tolerate on your team; her story reminded me of the “no asshole rule” (Sutton, 2007). Zhuo also tackles the subject of firing; she mentions letting people go gracefully – advice even seasoned managers can benefit from.
Feedback works well if it is task based and specific. Zhuo advises giving feedback on time, during a project, not just during performance reviews. The advice Reminded me of an old Jim Rohn cliche, “inspect after a reasonable time, not too soon or too early.” Managers are reminded to set clear expectations for their directs, clarifying what success looks and feels like. Reflecting on my own behavior at work, I clarify what success looks like but don’t think enough about what success feels like – something for me to add to my skills. “you are not giving feedback often enough” is a good reminder for most of us. Deliver bad feedback in a spirit of collaboration, she says, hearing the other side as well. I can validate some of Zhuo’s advice from my own experience: “I would like to understand what happened” works much better than “you messed up”.
“Amazing Meetings” is a useful chapter for managers, new and experienced. Zhuo reminds us that some meetings don’t need you and some don’t need to exist at all. The advice in this chapter is easy to talk about and difficult to practice: be clear about what you want from the meeting, include the right people, and give people chance to come prepared. Most managers will understand the importance of managing norms, airtime, and feedback during a meeting. She writes about protecting your time like a dragon guards a treasure trash.
There is a chapter on hiring, an indispensable skill for a manger. Zhuo advises readers to get multiple interviewers involved. I have found this to be an effective practice in my own experience as an interviewer and interviewee, despite not so kind words from some experts (Beshara, 2005). Zhuo tells us to hire people who can do more than you need right now. She also reminds us to invest more time to do research when hiring leaders; a leader can have an enormous impact on an organization, for years to come. Hiring is an opportunity to build the future of the organization and not just solve a short-term problem is a sage advice to remember.
In the “managing yourself” chapter, Zhuo mentions fixed and growth mindset, made popular by Carol Dweck and practiced at many business organizations (Dweck, 2006). Discussions on the inner critic and imposter syndrome resonated with me. She reminds managers to keep growing themselves while they take care of the team, organization, and the boss. Zhuo shares her own story where she did not ask her manager for help when she was struggling. I can relate. I do that because I think if I ask for help, I have failed in my job and demonstrate that I am weak. What a wasted opportunity to improve? Asking your boss something like “how do you decide which meetings to attend?” will give you one more tool in your toolbox and will also help you understand how your number one customer, i.e. your supervisor, thinks. Every manager I have known struggles in a newly assigned job or a new project you just received. It’s normal to feel like an imposter and ask for support. Asking questions of all the people, aka unstructured mentoring, and setting reflection time aside are examples of tips given.
I was delighted to see a chapter called “making things happen”; it’s the reason we are called on to take the job of a manager. The chapter will be most helpful to a manager who is not a beginner but still finds it challenging to accomplish the desired outcomes. Start with a bold and concrete vision, says Zhuo, and I vehemently agree. I have worked with managers who don’t start with a vision; it is absolutely mind numbing for me every time I experience it. If you are a manager, pleaser mark my words: if you don’t set the vision for your team, nobody else will. In the spirit of making the vision clear to your team, Zhuo gives the example of Herbert Hoover’s campaign slogan, “a chicken in every pot.”
Translating a clear vision into a playbook the team members can work from, using a portfolio approach for multiple tasks, and continuously refining processes to fit the evolving needs – are true and tried methods, and they work. The discipline of Process Improvement finds its place in the book with a 1.0 and 2.0 moniker, taken from the tech industry’s versioning of their products. Zhuo reminds us to define who is responsible for what, something a project manager can relate to. Execution is more important than strategy, a lesson worth repeating. Managers are asked to decide without clamoring for complete information, balancing the short-term and long-term objectives. To build a good organizational culture, she asks managers to walk the walk. There is a good discussion about incentives, something you would know if you had an MBA and learned the basics of organizational leadership.
Organizing is an indispensable skill for a manager and Zhuo demonstrates a good organization of the content of the book. A manager’s job is never just her job, it is orchestrated by many humans working together under her leadership, in unison. The book editor seems to have done well, and so has the visual graphic artist – the expectations and reality cartoons in the beginning of a chapter stay with you, even after the book is gone from your view. I love to hear from managers working in trenches, i.e. boots on the ground, as one of my manager friends, Lee, calls it; Zhuo delights her readers with her version of the trenches. More practitioners should take time to write about their experience; their writing creates a reality-based blueprint for professionals embarking on the journey of being a manager.
Zhuo is frank about her struggles on the manager’s journey and brings a fresh perspective by discussing her performance anxiety – something we tend to discourage at work. She is comfortable enough sharing her own cultural metaphor of a dragon to explain the concept of using time wisely. It gives managers in a globalized world a model – to use their own metaphors to communicate, and not be pressured into using the popular ones from, say, American Football.
While Zhuo’s personal stories make the book relatable, it’s the action items where the book proves worthy of your time, e.g. scheduling an hour to think about what you are satisfied with and what you are taking away for the next week, and then jotting down an email to your team, is a practical way to make reflection a habit. “thoughts from the last week” and “goals for the next six months” are good practices worth adopting. Zhuo recommends taking time from your schedule to attend formal training, say, for 10 hours, because the return can be high measured in terms of your improved performance, saving more than 20 hours in a year for you.
Zhuo ends the book with thoughts of humility: “journey is 1% finished”, she says. This is a reminder, for all of us practicing the art of management, that the work of a manager is a lot more process and a lot less product – something I am getting around to, after a long career as a manager.
Beshara, T. (2005). The Job Search Solution. AMACOM/American Management Association.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House.
Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0. Gallup Press.
Sutton, R. (2007). The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Business Plus.
Watkins, M. (2003). The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels. Harvard Business School Press.