In this article, I share my notes and reflections from the book “The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You” by Julie Zhou. This includes an overview of the book itself and then some of my key takeaways, how they relate to my own experience, and what I am trying to implement as a result.
This article is a long one since the book really struck a chord with me. While I’m no longer in my first management role, I seemed to have picked this book up at the perfect time in my career to cause far too many reflections and eureka moments. As a result, this article also includes many thoughts about my career and, more often than not, my failings as a leader.
The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhou talks about what you should expect from your first management role. It focuses on that strange time when you start out as a manager with no idea what the job will really be like.
It’s a long-form book mainly focusing on advice suitable for new or potential managers. It gives some great insights into what the role entails, why you should and should not become a manager, and advice for being an effective manager. The book is broken down into the following chapters:
Each chapter starts with a Bojack Horseman-style cartoon showing a scenario to avoid and a scenario to aspire to, where the protagonist is a giraffe – major brownie points from me on that one.
Unfortunately, the majority of the author’s career has been at Facebook (they were one of their first employees). Some of the reviews on Goodreads do a good job detailing the hypocrisy of this. But, if you can weather the odd quote from the likes of Zuckerberg and Bezos, the author’s advice and views are worth reading. However, that being said, I did struggle with the later chapters of this book that talked about company culture.
I made a lot of notes from this book, despite initially not enjoying the audiobook. It took reviewing the paper copy, some reflection, and then reviewing my notes to find some common themes and interesting takeaways, much unlike The Art of Leadership, where the short-form essays allowed me to find the message without quite so much effort. This is probably due to my personality and background as much as the author’s ability to tell a concise story.
For this article, I’ll share my key takeaways from each chapter. There are plenty of them, but once I started reviewing my notes, I began to see some common themes. As a result, I saw diminishing returns as the book went on, and the author started to labor the same points albeit in slightly different ways.
Great managers are made, not born
This introductory chapter echoes the message from The Art of Leadership: management is not a promotion. The author compares the initial offer to become a manager to Hagrid’s “You’re a Wizard, Harry!”, which again earns brownie points in my book.
The author also shares an interesting point on why they started writing about leadership & management. Initially, when someone asked them to share their thoughts on management or write on the topic, they said no, and that they’d share their stories in a memoir at the end of their career. But they realized, by that point, they’d have forgotten what it was actually like to become a manager. Those initial trials and mistakes are long in the past and what mattered to you at the time is most likely forgotten.
What is management?
This chapter discusses what to expect as a manager and, interestingly, some wrong reasons to become one.
What does a manager do?
This is a really interesting question that I don’t think many of us would have a prepared answer for. Yes, it’s a job that changes daily, and you often find it hard to remember what you actually achieved by the end of the day, but the job is more than just a list of tasks.
The author breaks down each of their definitions based on their years of experience. Before they started management, they thought a manager’s job was to:
- Have meetings with reports to help them solve their problems
- Share feedback about what is or isn’t going well
- Figure out who should be promoted and who should be fired.
After three years on the job, they thought a manager’s job was to:
- Build a team that works well together
- Support members in reaching their career goals
- Create processes to get work done smoothly and efficiently.
But while a manager does all these things, they are just day-to-day activities. For example, if asked, “what is the job of a soccer 🤢 player?” you don’t say to attend practice, pass the ball to their teammates, and attempt to score goals. Instead, you say their job is to win games.
Therefore, a manager’s job is to get better outcomes from a group of people working together.
Why do you want to become a manager? Will I be a good manager?
Becoming a manager shouldn’t be a decision you take lightly. To help you, the author provides a list of likes that might suggest management is for you and, more importantly, some reasons that aren’t good enough for becoming a manager.
If the following describes you, then you may enjoy management:
- Do you find it motivating to achieve an outcome or to play a specific role? Do you want to be an enabler (a manager) or to perform a specific task (an individual contributor)?
- Do you like talking to people? As a manager, 70 percent of your time will be spent in meetings. You don’t have to be an extrovert, but the role may not be for you if you want a workday that has long, uninterrupted blocks of quiet focus time.
- Can you provide stability for an emotionally challenging situation? Would someone describe you as empathetic or undramatic? Do you defuse situations rather than escalate them?
What about why you should become a manager? If the following is your reason, then you may want to rethink your decision:
“I want to progress my career”.
While all C-level execs lead teams, becoming a manager is not a promotion but rather a transition. The author offers the example of a heart surgeon not needing to become a hospital administrator to earn more money or to have more impact in their field.
“I want the freedom to call the shots”.
To quote the author, “no leader free reign without accountability. If the decisions turn bad, they are held to task. Owners see their business flounder; CEOs of public companies get fired by their board. […] The best outcomes come from inspiring people, not telling them what to do”.
“I was asked to be a manager”.
“I should” and “I can” are not sufficient reasons. Do you really want to?”. I think this book is a good start to understanding your answer.
Evaluating a manager
When you’re a manager, it can be hard to tell if you’re doing a good job and how your own manager might evaluate your performance. The author shares a framework that they use from Chris Cox, Facebook CPO:
- What are the team’s results? Did they achieve their goals? This looks at outcomes.
- What is the strength and satisfaction of the team? Did you do a good job of hiring and developing individuals? Is the team happy and working well together? This looks at outcomes for the future.
Leader vs. Manager
The author offers a really interesting take on the leader vs. manager discussion:
“A manager is a specific role. Leadership [..] is the particular skill of being able to guide and influence other people.”
Your first 30 days
This chapter is all about starting your management journey, the different types of start, and the advantages and disadvantages of each, including some questions to ask your manager to get you started in the right direction.
The author defines four manager starting types:
- Apprentice – your manager’s team is growing, and you’ve been asked to step up
- Pioneer – you are the founding member of a new team, responsible for its growth
- New boss – you’re coming in to manage an established team
- Successor – your manager left, and you are taking their place.
Leading a small team
This chapter talks about leading your first team and mastering the fundamentals. After all, most of us begin with leading just a single team of just a few people.
Trust is the most important ingredient
A big part of this chapter is about building relationships with your team, and one quote really stood out:
“It’s human nature to want your manager to think well of you and not complain, but if you don’t share how you’re feeling, things will fester and become worse than they are.”
This is a big thing for my attitude toward my own managers (more on that later), but I’d never consciously considered it for my team towards me.
The author proposes that you review the following statements to see if that trust is there:
- My reports regularly bring their biggest challenges to my attention - they come to you with their problems, with what keeps them up at night, rather than you hearing it through the grapevine. If they always answer, “everything is fine”, then this should be a sign to prod further
- My report and I regularly give each other critical feedback, and we don’t take it personally - are you comfortable directly telling them when they have done work you weren’t happy with? Strive to make all of your 1-to-1s feel a little awkward by having hard conversations. Relationships cannot be created on pleasantries alone. Build a relationship so that you can be direct.
- My reports would gladly work for me again - if someone wants to work for a manager again, this is the best sign of a great manager.
Invest time to help your report
Schedule 30-minute 1-to-1s every week. This is something I’ve seen echoed across all engineering management content I’ve come across so far. A weekly 1-to-1 to check in with each member of the team to find out what’s going on in their lives, how they are feeling about work, to share feedback, discuss priorities, and even to reflect on how things are going – it goes a long way to building trust and developing relationships.
Your team should not be wondering, “what does my manager think of me?”. Be honest and transparent about their performance. Don’t expect them to read between the lines or assume no news is good news. I’m crap at giving praise, so in my 1-to-1s, if I don’t have any feedback, I now at least explicitly say that I am happy with their performance.
Don’t let underperformers dominate your time while neglecting the rest of your team. A small improvement to a strong team member has greater returns than the same level of improvement for an under-performer. Remember to give some love to the rest of your team.
The “brilliant asshole”
The author presents the idea of a “brilliant asshole”. Someone who brings a lot of experience and ability to the team but is so wrapped up in their own opinions or just generally makes the rest of the team feel bad. Time is lost dealing with the fallout. Do not be fooled by their work as an individual. Removing this toxic individual allows the team to relax, bringing a different level of collaboration and honesty. The work of the team as a whole improves.
You don’t always have to make it work
It’s not your job to always “make it work”. Everyone doesn’t need to agree; you don’t have to make people get along or see things from each other’s perspective. You will often waste your time trying to make people get along, trying to solve the situation. Some situations are not solvable, and some people simply should not work together - they just have different values and working styles. If you try and force it, people will leave.
If someone’s not a good fit, no amount of extra work will solve this. Ask yourself:
“If this person were not already at the organization, would I recommend that another team hire them knowing what I know?”
This question cuts through it and reveals how you really feel.
The art of feedback
The author covers the usual importance of feedback, but they also encourage you to start giving feedback more often before even worrying about how to give it.
360-degree feedback is where you gather and aggregate feedback from multiple perspectives. It could be from all participants in a meeting, or it could be from peers across the business, as well as your manager and direct reports. If you do not have deep context into what your reports do day to day, 360 feedback can be a useful technique.
Every major disappointment is a failure to set expectations
A performance review should never be the first time your direct report hears that they are not meeting expectations. This will make them feel terrible.
This is the usual advice of giving feedback often and clearly; however, this book talks about their psychological response to rationalize your failure to provide feedback. The shock of your feedback will make them try to explain it away in their heads that the review wasn’t fair, that you, their manager, are being negligent, or that you are being dishonest.
“Every major disappointment is a failure to set expectations” – their shock and disappointment are on you.
Delegating challenging projects and the “swoop and poop”
Sometimes you’re going to need to delegate projects that you want to keep an eye on. However, if you frequently drop in and ask for an update or give unsolicited feedback, you will make them feel disempowered.
It’s best to set expectations at the beginning of the project about how you’d like to be involved. For example, be explicit about how frequently you’d like to review the work and talk through important problems together. Tell them which decisions you expect to make and which decisions they should make.
Managers who pop in out of the blue and throw down new requirements breed resentment in the team. This is known as the “swoop and poop”.
Is my feedback being heard?
This book talks about the other side of the Art of Leadership’s receiving feedback. How do you know if your feedback has been heard?
When giving critical feedback, the author recommends approaching it with curiosity, with a desire to understand their perspective. When you give the feedback, ask if it makes sense to them, if they think it is fair, and if it resonates with them. Ask why or why not. Always end with key takeaways and next steps.
Another interesting one is when receiving feedback about a report from someone else. Instead of trying to deliver it yourself, ask if they are comfortable sharing it directly. This can remove the go-between and any possibility of the message becoming distorted.
Delivering critical feedback and the scared manager
“I have a few questions about your latest work - do you have a moment to walk through it?” – this is the scared manager’s opener. You’re afraid of upsetting your report or unsure if your opinion is 100% right, so you phrase your concerns as questions.
At best, framing feedback as a question looks disingenuous. At worst, the feedback will be missed entirely. I’ve definitely fallen into this trap before.
This book recommends giving feedback directly and dispassionately. Say what you see the issue to be, what made you feel that way, and how you’d like to work together to resolve the concern.
“I’m concerned about the quality of the work I’ve been seeing from you recently”, or “your last few deliverables were not comprehensive enough to hit the mark”.
Try the template:
“When I [heard/observed/reflected on] your [action/behavior/output], I felt concerned because… I’d like to understand your perspective and talk about how we can resolve this.”
Don’t start with a preamble; don’t sugarcoat or pad it with softer points. And certainly, no poop sandwiches.
Own the decision
If you’ve made a decision about something and you are delivering bad news, own the decision.
“I’ve decided to go with someone else for this project…”
Don’t try and make it a decision you come to together. If nothing they can say could convince you to change your mind, it’s insincere to act as if they had a say. Some decisions are yours to make.
“I recognize that you may not agree with my decision, but I’m asking for your cooperation in moving forward.”
People are not fragile; no report wants you to treat them with kid gloves. On the contrary, they want your feedback to improve.
“You’ve been told since you learned to talk, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Now all of a sudden, it’s your job to say it. You’ve got to undo a lifetime of training.” - Kim Scott, Radical Candor.
This is something I try and remind myself daily.
This chapter focuses on self-care. Why you should look to your own skills and ways of thinking, as much as your team’s. You need to understand yourself to be the best leader you can be.
“Impostor syndrome is what makes you double, triple, or quadruple check your email before hitting Send so that nobody finds any mistakes and figures out you’re actually a fraud.”
Ouch. That one cuts deep.
Management constantly puts you in positions that you’ve never been in before:
“You can’t just snap your fingers and say, “I’m going to practice firing a lot of people this month.” You must actually go through the real thing in order to gain the experience you need.”
Strengths and weaknesses
Your strengths and weaknesses directly affect the people you manage. You need to understand yours.
While there are ways of reviewing your strengths and weaknesses, you should confront the truth of what you’re really like by asking others for their candid opinions.
Ask your manager to help you calibrate yourself:
- What opportunities do you see for me to do more of what I do well? What do you think are the biggest things holding me back from having a greater impact?
- What skills do you think a hypothetical perfect person in my role would have? For each skill, how would you rate me against that ideal on a scale of one to five?
Understand yourself at your best and your worst
Building upon this idea of self-understanding, the author suggests understanding what habits you have that work well for you and what your environment brings out the best in you, the conditions that enabled your best moments to happen.
On the flip side, what triggers you but not other people? Reflect on when you’ve behaved irrationally in the eyes of others. Understanding this is a good step towards catching yourself in the moment before you get too upset. Besides that, getting a handle on your prejudices is a damn good idea.
It’s good to share your triggers and learn what other peoples are.
- When was the last time someone said something that annoyed me more than it did others around me? Why did I feel so strongly about it?
- What would my closest friends say my pet peeves are?
- Who have I met that I’ve immediately been wary of? What made me feel that way?
- What’s an example of a time when I overreacted and later regretted it? What made me so worked up in that moment?
When stressed, write down what is bothering you on a post-it note. Acknowledge it and then focus on what you need to do that day, not the stress.
The story in your head is probably irrational
If you’ve been left out of a meeting, you might think you weren’t invited because your teammates don’t like you or don’t think you are useful. If you feel this way, then ask why! They likely didn’t want to waste your time or make you feel obliged, they didn’t realize you cared about the meeting topic, or it was just an honest mistake. It is rarely because they didn’t want you there.
How can you be twice as good?
Ask for feedback all the time. The more concrete you are about what you want to know, the better; otherwise, you’ll be met with “I think it went well”. Consider: “I’m working on making sure my key point comes across clearly in the first three minutes. Did that come across? How can I make it clearer next time?”.
Always thank people for feedback. Even if you don’t agree with it.
Treat your manager as a coach
Your growth is in your hands; it is up to you to make sure you are learning from people, including your manager. However, people shy away from asking their managers for help. When a manager has to step in, it makes you feel like you have failed and cannot do your job. However, a manager’s job is to help their team get better results. They are on your side and will want to help you.
You do not hire a personal trainer and then say, “oh, I’m pretty fit; I’ve got this under control”. You instead ask for coaching. You do not hide your weaknesses.
Engage your manager for feedback. Ask, “what skills do you think I should work on in order to have more impact?” or share your personal goals with “I want to learn to be a better presenter. Can you keep an eye out for opportunities where I can get in front of others?”, or ask them to work with you with “I’m struggling to choose between two candidates. Can I walk you through my thinking and get your advice?”.
Come up with open-ended questions to ask your manager in 1-to-1s. For example, “how do you decide which meetings to attend?”.
Make a mentor out of everyone
Explicitly asking someone to be your mentor won’t work. It sounds needy and time-consuming. Instead, ask for specific advice.
Try the template:
“Hey, I was really impressed with the way you [handled x]. I’d love to learn from you. Would you be willing to meet up with me and share your approach?”
Keep in mind that you are asking for a favor. It’s well within their rights to say no. Thank them anyway.
Set aside time to reflect and set goals
Studies show that people who choose to reflect outperform those who just constantly look for new experiences to learn. Which is exactly what I’m doing right now!
Giving a meeting a purpose isn’t enough. Instead, ask yourself, “what does a great outcome look like?”.
Use your answer to understand who should be invited. Who needs to be there to make the outcomes happen? If people disagree and want to be there, consider a different meeting to communicate this rather than the full discussion.
Always send an agenda and always confirm next steps, who owns what action item, and when the next check-in will be.
Making a decision
If two sides disagree, whatever your decision, you are going to make someone unhappy. The author wants you to challenge this. Everyone in the team is ultimately working towards the same goals. However, sometimes you have to “disagree and commit”.
A good decision-making meeting:
- Includes the people directly affected by the decision and a clearly designated decision maker
- Presents all credible options objectively and with relevant background information, including team recommendations
- Gives equal airtime to dissenting opinions and makes people feel that they are heard.
Bad outcomes to avoid:
- People feel their side wasn’t heard and therefore do not trust the resulting decision
- Decisions take a long time to make, delaying progress. Be careful doing this for small, easy-to-reverse decisions
- Too much time is spent trying to get a group consensus rather than escalating quickly to a decision-maker.
- Time is wasted on rehashing the same argument in twenty different ways
Make it safe for people to contribute
“Early in my career, I was the quiet person whose contributions in meetings were inversely proportional to how many people were in the room. Which meant that in 1:1s, I’d say a lot, but in groups over seven, I’d make like a ninja and stay as inconspicuous as possible.”
You will get better results if you get everyone in the meeting to contribute. Ask someone for their opinion. Be explicit about the norms you want to set (e.g. Q&A expectations, hard questions, silly questions).
An unstructured group discussion might not work for a set of introverts.
Consider a round-robin approach, where every person gets a say on what option they prefer and why. This ensures no perspectives are left unsaid.
Consider a retrospective style approach, where everyone submits post-it notes ahead of time, you group similar proposals/topics, and then discuss from there.
- Do not allow people to talk over one another
- Call out fidgeters - give them an opening - “X looks like they might have something to say”
- “X, you look puzzled - what do you think we should do?”
- “X, we haven’t heard from you yet. What’s your opinion?”
- Nip over talkers in the bud – they obviously feel strongly about the topic but make space for other opinions.
I think some of these are worth experimenting with. Hopefully, they can improve my otherwise unstructured group discussions.
This book echoes The Art of Leadership: you, the manager, are also a recruiter. However, this time there’s a focus on hiring the right person for your team. You are looking for an attitude and perspective that will improve your team. Someone that will add something this is missing from your current team. This is something a recruiter will never be able to do for you.
Look for passionate advocates rather than consensus
The author makes an interesting point: you should never hire to fill the role. A lot of weak hires are from when a candidate doesn’t have any obvious issues. They seem pleasant enough, and people don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t hire them. But they didn’t wow anyone.
The author recommends that you reject weak hires. While they likely won’t bomb, they’re also unlikely to add much.
Prepare interview questions ahead of time
The author shares some interesting open-ended interview questions:
- What kinds of challenges are interesting to you and why? Can you describe your favorite project? Find what they are passionate about.
- What do you consider your greatest strengths? What would your peers agree are your areas of growth? Get an idea about their self-awareness and their real strengths & weaknesses.
- Imagine yourself in three years. What do you hope will be different about you then compared to now? Understand their ambitions and how goal-oriented and self-reflective they are.
- What was the hardest conflict you’ve had in the past year? How did it end, and what did you learn from the experience? Understand how they work with other people and how they approach conflict.
- What’s something that’s inspired you in your work recently? Get some idea of what they think is interesting or valuable.
Aim to deliver an amazing interview experience. Have them accept an offer because the interview process was so good (attentive, focused, and fast). Even if they turn you down this time, they will be back! Use interviews to build relationships and play the long game.
Reject anyone who exhibits toxic behavior
The author suggests being on the lookout for red flags during the interview process, such as:
- “My last manager was terrible” - bad-mouthing past employers
- “The reason my last project didn’t succeed was because of internal politics” - blaming others for failures they were associated with
- “The sales team were bozos” - insulting groups of people. Strong use of the b-word.
- “It feels like a step up for my career” - asking only about what the company can do for them
- “I was attracted to this position because it seems like you need someone really senior” - arrogant or no self-awareness
Making things happen
This is quite an interesting chapter, deconstructing the iterative design that led to the creation of Instagram and disputing the idea of the sudden “Eureka!” inspirational idea that will change the world.
“It’s not about suddenly having the single, brilliant, lightning-flash insight that suddenly wins the game. Instead, it’s about consistent planning and execution - you try what seems like a good idea. You do it quickly. You keep your mind open and curious. You learn. Then you scrap what failed and double down on what’s working.”
The author talks about creating a vision and building a game plan for your team. The guidance boils down to the following:
- Focus on doing a few things well
- Define who is responsible for what
- Break down a big goal into smaller pieces
- Talk about how everything relates to the vision. Keep talking about the goal and link deliverables to the goal.
Perfect execution over perfect strategy
In a similar vein, the author also warns you not to spend too long creating the perfect strategy. While you could spend weeks debating which idea is best, instead, choose to learn as quickly as possible by doing. Build simple tests that help you understand which options you should double down on and which things you should. However, this does require that you make each task short enough so that you don’t waste too much time if one idea fails.
The portfolio approach
The author suggests taking a portfolio approach, where you balance short, mid, and long-term deliverables. For example, a third of the team is working on quick wins (delivered within weeks), a third is working on medium-term projects (delivered in months), and a third is working on innovative, early-stage ideas whose impacts won’t be known for years.
Leading a growing team
This chapter was mainly about managing managers. While I did read this chapter, I didn’t find as much use from it as the others. To be fair, this is something that isn’t top of mind for me just yet, but it is something I plan to revisit within the next 12 months.
This chapter was a little hard to swallow, considering the author’s history of working at Facebook. The quote “nothing at Facebook is somebody else’s problem” was a bit of a shocker.
But there were still some insights to be gained from this chapter; particularly some questions to ask yourself and others about your culture:
- What moment made you feel most proud to be part of your team? Why?
- Imagine a journalist scrutinizing your team. What would they say your team does well or not well?
Another key point was to never stop talking about what’s important to you and the culture you’re trying to create. Keep reinforcing your message and values over time & consistently.
I ended up really enjoying this book and, after a few reads, ended up making way too many notes, around 50% of which found their way into this article.
I’m currently recommending this book to anyone considering switching to the management track; the first few chapters alone are worth the price of entry. If you’re already in a management role and starting to reflect on your approach and upping your game, this is a decent read; however, you may need to give it a few reads to distill the value. In fact, I’ve already found myself recommending this book to colleagues, albeit with a warning about the Zuckerburg & Bezos quotes.