[Book Notes] 25 insights: The Making of a Manager

Julie Zhou’s The Making of a Manager is a great primer for new (as well as old) managers. I found the book to be full of practical insights to become a better manager and improve the outcome of my team. My notes from the book are in this post:


Crux of management: It is the belief that a team of people can achieve more than a single person going it alone. It is the realization that you don’t have to do everything yourself, be the best at everything yourself, or even know how to do everything yourself. Your job, as a manager, is to get better outcomes from a group of people working together.



[On the 3 roles of a manager]

I’ve come to think of the multitude of tasks that fill up a manager’s day as sorting neatly into three buckets: purpose, people, and process.

  1. The purpose is the outcome your team is trying to accomplish, otherwise known as the why. The first big part of your job as a manager is to ensure that your team knows what success looks like and cares about achieving it.

  2. The next important bucket that managers think about is people, otherwise known as the who. Are the members of your team set up to succeed? Do they have the right skills? Are they motivated to do great work?

  3. Finally, the last bucket is the process, which describes how your team works together. You might have a superbly talented team with a very clear understanding of what the end goal is, but if it’s not apparent how everyone’s supposed to work together or what the team’s values are, then even simple tasks can get enormously complicated.



As a manager, Your role is to improve the purpose, people, and process of your team to get as high a multiplier effect on your collective outcome as you can

If I spend all my time personally selling lemonade, then I’m contributing an additive amount to my business, not a multiplicative one. My performance as a manager would be considered poor because I’m actually operating as an individual contributor. 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. 



[on the difference between a manager and a leader]

A manager who doesn’t know how to influence others isn’t going to be particularly effective at improving the outcomes of her team. So to be a great manager, one must certainly be a leader. A leader, on the other hand, doesn’t have to be a manager. Anyone can exhibit leadership, regardless of their role. Leadership is a quality rather than a job. We are all leaders and followers at different points in our lives. Many aspects of this book should be useful to those looking to grow as leaders as well as managers, and great managers should cultivate leadership not just in themselves but also within their teams. while the role of a manager can be given to someone (or taken away), leadership is not something that can be bestowed. It must be earned. People must want to follow you.



The manager–report relationship is different than the peer relationship. You are now responsible for the outcome of your team, including all the decisions that are made within it. If something is getting in the way of great work happening, you need to address it swiftly and directly. This may mean giving people difficult feedback or making some hard calls. The sooner you internalize that you own the outcomes of your team, the easier it becomes to have these conversations.



Lackluster work is due to lack of motivation and/or lack of skills

What leads people to do great work? It feels like a complicated question but it really isn’t, as Andy Grove points out in his classic High Output Management. He flips the question around and asks: What gets in the way of good work? There are only two possibilities. The first is that people don’t know how to do good work. The second is that they know how, but they aren’t motivated. The first step to addressing any concerns about lackluster work is diagnosing the people issues behind it. Is it a matter of motivation or skill? This doesn’t have to be complicated. You can understand this through a series of conversations with your report. First, discuss whether your expectations are aligned—does “great work” mean the same thing for both of you? Then discuss whether it’s a matter of motivation. If both of those don’t resolve your concerns, then dive in to whether the issue is with skills.



No matter how you slice it, you are your reports’ boss. You have more impact on their day-to-day than they have on yours. This means that the responsibility of building a trusting relationship lies more with you than with them. You can avoid being blindsided by developing a relationship founded on trust, in which your reports feel that they can be completely honest with you because they have no doubt that you truly care about them. You’ve accomplished this if the following three statements are true. 

  1. My reports regularly bring their biggest challenges to my attention.

  2. My report and I regularly give each other critical feedback and it isn’t taken personally.

  3. My reports would gladly work for me again.



“If you take nothing else away from today,” he told us, “remember this: managing is caring.” Supporting and caring for someone doesn’t mean always agreeing with them or making excuses for their mistakes.



One-on-ones should be focused on your report and what would help him be more successful, not on you and what you need. If you’re looking for a status update, use another channel. Rare one-on-one face time is better spent on topics that are harder to discuss in a group or over email. The ideal 1:1 leaves your report feeling that it was useful for her. If she thinks that the conversation was pleasant but largely unmemorable, then you can do better.

  1. Identify: These questions focus on what really matters for your report and what topics are worth spending more time on. What’s top of mind for you right now?

  2. Understand: Once you’ve identified a topic to discuss, these next questions get at the root of the problem and what can be done about it. What does your ideal outcome look like? What’s hard for you in getting to that outcome?

  3. Support: These questions zero in on how you can be of greatest service to your report. How can I help you? What can I do to make you more successful?



“There is one quality that sets truly great managers apart from the rest: they discover what is unique about each person and then capitalize on it,” says Buckingham, the renowned management consultant who has studied hundreds of organizations and leaders. “The job of a manager . . . is to turn one person’s particular talent into performance.”



If you have five people on your team, four of whom are doing well and one who isn’t, you may feel like you should focus most of your time and energy on the struggling report because you want to “fix” the problem. But in the same way that individuals should play to their strengths, so should you pay attention to your team’s top talent—the people who are doing well and could be doing even better. Don’t let the worst performers dominate your time—try to diagnose, address, and resolve their issues as swiftly as you can. This is counterintuitive because your strongest reports aren’t likely asking for your help. Going back to the lemonade stand example from Chapter One, if Toby is selling thirty cups of lemonade an hour and Henry is selling only ten cups, you might feel compelled to spend a majority of your time with Henry to improve his output. But if coaching Toby gets him to even a 10 percent improvement, he’ll be selling an extra three cups. You’d have to help Henry do 33 percent better to get the same result, which will probably be much harder to achieve.



Feedback, at its best, transforms people in ways they’re proud of. It may seem counterintuitive, but the feedback process should begin before any work does. At that point, you should agree on what success looks like—whether for a given project or for a given time period—get ahead of any expected issues, and lay the foundation for productive feedback sessions in the future. It’s like starting a journey with a well-marked map versus blindly walking a few miles and then asking if you’re on track.

  1. Task specific feedback: As the name “task-specific” implies, you provide this kind of feedback about something that someone did after the fact. This is the easiest type of feedback to give because it’s focused on the what rather than the who, so it feels less personal. Task-specific feedback is most effective when the action performed is still fresh in your report’s memory, so share it as soon as you can.

  2. Behavioral feedback: is useful because it provides a level of personalization and depth that is missing from task-specific feedback. By connecting the dots across multiple examples, you can help people understand how their unique interests, personalities, and habits affect their ability to have impact.

  3. Many companies run a 360-feedback process once or twice a year. If it’s not formally done, you can gather the feedback yourself. Every quarter, for each report, I send a short email to a handful of his or her closest collaborators asking: a) What is X doing especially well that X should do more of?, and b) What should X change or stop doing?



Managers who pop in out of the blue and throw down new requirements can breed resentment with their team (just Google the term “Swoop and Poop.”) But managers who proactively lay out what they care about and how they want to engage in projects rarely encounter those tensions.



I’ve read thousands of reviews written by reports about their managers, and the most common response to the question “How could your manager better support you?” is simply “Give me more feedback. It’s worth pausing for a moment: before getting deep into the nitty-gritty of the how, the first step is simply to give feedback more often and remind yourself that you’re probably not doing it enough. Watch out for only ever giving task-specific feedback. The second most common ask from reports is: “Give me more feedback related to my skills and my career trajectory.”



Some years ago, at a design review, my manager Chris told us that our proposed designs showing a registration form felt too “heavy.” One of the designers in the room suggested that we change the outline stroke of the form field boxes from blue to gray and that we put a little more space between them. “It’ll feel lighter and more breathable,” he said. Chris thought about it. “Think of the lines at Disneyland,” he finally said. “You’re actually waiting in a really long line, but because you’re going from one small room to another, it doesn’t feel like the line is overwhelming. That’s what I’m going for.” Instantly, we had a clear sense of how to improve the flow—break the one long form into a series of smaller ones. Suggest next steps. Often the easiest way to help your report translate your feedback into action is to share what you think the next steps should be. Be clear about whether you’re setting an expectation or merely offering a suggestion.



When you give feedback or make a decision, your report may not agree with it. That’s okay. Keep in mind that some decisions are yours to make. You are the person ultimately held accountable for the output of your team, and you may have more information or a different perspective on the right path forward. Managing through consensus may feel like a good idea because you won’t offend anyone, but I can’t think of a single influential leader who hasn’t had to go out on a limb and do something somebody else disagreed with. Acknowledge the disagreement respectfully, then move on. “I recognize that you may not agree with my decision, but I’m asking for your cooperation in moving forward.”



At Facebook, we have a saying immortalized in posters all over campus: Feedback is a gift. It costs time and effort to share, but when we have it, we’re better off. So let’s give it generously.



The key is to treat your manager as a coach, not as a judge. Can you imagine a star athlete trying to hide his weaknesses from his coach? Would you tell a personal trainer, “Oh, I’m pretty fit, I’ve got it under control,” when she asks you how she can help you achieve a better workout? Of course not. That is not how a coaching relationship works.



One of the scenarios I play out with the leaders on my team is what I call the “extended vacation” test. (Others have used the term “hit by the bus,” but that’s just morbid.) It goes like this: If you were to hike some distant mountains or sunbathe on a remote island for a few months, how much would your own manager need to step in to ensure that everything ran smoothly? If the answer is “not much,” then congratulations! You’ve got a great bench. If the answer is, “Hmm, my manager would need to do a lot,” then that’s a sign your next layer of leadership could use some shoring up. Having a great bench is one of the strongest signs of stellar leadership because it means the team you’ve built can steer the ship and thrive, even if you are not at the helm.

“But wait,” I hear people say. “That sounds nice in theory, but if your team can be successful without you, doesn’t that mean you’re not actually valuable?” Excellent question. But ask yourself: Can even the best leaders be coached to even better performance? The answer is absolutely yes, so you should still see your job as being a multiplier for your people.



The team moves quickly, especially with reversible decisions. As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says, “Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow.”



Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”



Great managers, in my mind, were like my grandmother—they took on the biggest burdens of the team to spare their reports. There are two major errors with that line of thinking. The first is overestimating what you, the manager, are capable of. Yes, it may be within your power to solve a wide variety of issues, but as a single individual, you can’t solve that many of them. The best work comes from those who have the time to live and breathe a problem fully, who can dedicate themselves to finding the best solution. The second error is assuming that nobody wants to take on hard problems. In fact, the most talented employees aren’t looking for special treatment or “easy” projects. They want to be challenged.



The best managers I know all agree on one thing: growing great teams means that you are constantly looking for ways to replace yourself in the job you are currently doing.



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. From this, you can extrapolate that anything your report can do just as well or better than you, you should delegate. Once, as I was describing the philosophy of always looking to put yourself out of a job, a report asked me: “Okay, but if you did delegate everything to others, doesn’t that mean you become overhead? Why would you still be valuable?” It was an excellent question, and one I’ve asked before as well. In response, I said, “If you delegated everything you did today to someone else, do you think there’d be no more problems left for you to solve?” Today, my job looks very different than when I started. Every time I’ve given a piece of it away, I’ve discovered that there was ever more to take on.