Review: The Making of a Manager

Written on //7-minute read

Beyond contextual reasons why this would be a timely read to me, Julie Zhuo's The Making of a Manager is a great book. One reason to start with is Julie's story: she was Facebook's first intern grown into VP Product Design in her 13-year long tenure.

The book's chapter structure expresses the same progression than the title, as it starts with "what is management" and ends up in "nurturing culture". Surprisingly though, as the chapters have minimal dependencies between themselves, the book is easy to pick from where you left and to go to a chapter further and come back afterwards as you wish.

Furthermore, beyond going over foundational management themes in an unpretentious tone such as how to give feedback, how to run meetings and how to hire and build teams which work well together, the book also covers some concepts which were very interesting to think about.

Concept #1: The multiplier factor

Very early on the book Julie talks about how managers have the responsibility to be a multiplier factor to the team. That is, a manager's responsibility is to improve the outcomes of a team. Through a metaphorical growing business story, a lemonade stand, she mentions how common it is for one transitioning into management roles to hesitate reducing or stopping their individual contribution as a response to the fact that it will reduce the team's pace, at least temporarily, and get it further away from its goals.

The trade-off on slowing short-term is a fair one: as the book mentions, there is much more to yield through finding opportunities that make the team more efficient as a whole. Regardless if it is by finding skill gaps, fixing process flaws or mentoring team members – you will be able to add a multiplier factor to your team's outcomes if you focus on figuring out what is slowing you down, or in what could be better.

Even though the book attains itself to the context of individual contribution to line management progression in this chapter, there is clear applicability to progressions from line management to senior management roles too. Given the similar paradigm involving responsibility shifts and the counter-intuitive reality of the new position – less depth and further away from the craft, more breadth and larger context switch propensity – you will likely have to gradually step back and repurpose your contribution at a different level.

Concept #2: The critique meeting

Another great concept Julie talks about is the critique meeting. Here is how it works:

  • The team gets together and spends 90 minutes every week to share their progress for the week to each other;
  • One team member starts the presentation and shows what they've achieved and then opens up for questions, concerns or suggestions;
  • Every other team member raises their points, asks questions, proposes other approaches and expresses their point of view, regardless of whether the criticism is strategic or tactical;
  • The presenter then takes notes from the feedback given, agrees on a list of next steps with their peers, and moves the conversation to the next person;
  • The process then repeats until everyone had their turn.

I believe the main reason this concept caught my attention is that every team has different dynamics, and collectively learning how to productively criticise each other's work can take considerable time. With a structured session centered on criticism, you likely will learn how to give/receive feedback for the team setting much faster, while also reiterating the sense of trust between team members, which is invaluable to any team.

Differently from agile retrospectives, where the focus is usually behaviour, attention is sparse, and feedback can be less objective, and from reviews and demos, which the primary intention is usually gathering feedback from users or stakeholders making it is shallower from a technical standpoint and outcome-focused, the critique meeting results in specific feedback by design, has narrow focus with the intention of raising concerns, giving feedback, finding consensus of next steps, and then holding each other to account for progress and improvement.

Concept #3: Peg your work back to the mission

Another very entertaining part of the book is Julie's story on how her team approached the extension of Facebook's iconic Like button. For context, Facebook's mission statement is "to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together", which makes that specific capability – liking a post, a photo, etc. – an incredibly strategic feature.

When extending the design of one of the platform's most critical features, options were many, including a "dislike button". Even though it sounds like a good idea at first sight, additional insights guided the feature's extension in another direction.

Whilst diving deeper into the user's motivations, Julie's team found some interesting insights. Firstly, users were asking for a dislike button, although this was an oversimplification of how they felt. "Dislike" in fact means a range of emotions which are can be more specific such as sadness, anger, surprise. But most importantly, a dislike button doesn't get you any closer to bringing the world closer together. It actually sets people apart. With that said, the team decided to pick another route which made more sense.

In conclusion, it is easy to disconnect yourself from the company's mission, especially when you are trying to make a decision which can feel very practical, or when you feel under pressure to move on. With that said, a great candidate eigenquestion for hard decisions is "how does this fit into the company's mission?" as it can likely help you reframe the problem, as a consequence of that, pick a better solution instead, and also increase your cohesion to the overarching goals.

Concept #4: Aim to put yourself out of your job

Lastly but certainly not least, as this is my favourite concept in the book, Julie talks about how her process for delegation is "aiming to put herself out of her job". Expanding on that, her work delegation strategy comes from working on the intersection of two factors:

  • Most important things for the organisation;
  • Things I can uniquely do better than anyone in/for the team.

If the task at hand isn't both, you should delegate. Here is her rationale on the subject:

  1. If anyone in your team can do one of the most important things either as good as you or better than you, delegate it. This will allow them to increase their impact while freeing you up to pursue further support other opportunities for the team.
  2. For things you can do better and are not necessarily the most important ones, delegate to someone interested in the challenge and coach them to achieve it. This will be a valuable learning experience for them and will help you reduce this capability gap in your team.
  3. That leaves to you things that align with your skillset and are most impactful opportunities to work on within your remit. These should be your priorities – for the time being.

In due time, as you delegate enough lower risk opportunities, the team will be better positioned to do the most important things for the organisation which they initially couldn't. As that happens, firstly, you have fulfilled your role as a manager by improving the team's performance to achieve better outcomes. As a consequence to that, you are also taking care of succession planning, which as Julie says, puts yourself out of your job – but for your team's growth and your own progression's sake too.

Even though many management book authors talk about the motivations and mechanics of delegation such as growing people, managing risk, and the dynamics between full abdication at one side of the spectrum to being overly prescriptive/protective at the other side, what I particularly love about Julie's lens on this subject is her pragmatism on putting together an incredibly simple framework that is practical and has unambiguous criteria for putting it into practice.

In closing, The Making of a Manager was a refresher to some extent, by bringing me back to my first management experience. It also reminded me of how it is fundamental to focus on building a strong foundation and gave me a pragmatic perspective to subjects which are often spoken about but very rarely fleshed out that simply and clearly.