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The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo

Updated: Jan 14, 2022

Most recently, I’ve been reading “The Making of a Manager” by Julie Zhuo and I recommend it for anyone starting out as a people manager. Perhaps you’re a business owner who wants growth and needs to hire in others to help make it happen - read this book to help you reflect on some of the key skills you’ll need to be an effective manager.

The book is also a great way to remind any of us of some of the fundamentals of managing people well.

Julie Zhuo became a manager for the first time at 25, working at a start-up. But that start-up was Facebook and she had to learn fast. In this book, she tells us about her experiences of growing into a manager - for she definitely believes that good managers are grown, not born. I agree.

She starts off with a lot of reassurance about the doubts and fears that most of us have when we become a manager and want to get it right - whatever that means...

“Just as there is no one way to go about being a person, there is no one way to go about managing a group of people.”

Julie Zhuo defines the job of a manager as “getting better outcomes from a group of people who are working together”. What you do as a manager should lead to better results for the business than if you weren’t there, so she encourages us to focus on what will help the team do better.

She also emphasises that to be a great people manager you have to actually want to do it - all of it, the good, the bad and the ugly. Too many people focus on the step into management as the only progression route for them. There are businesses where people are promoted to lead a team because they are great at the technical role. But being a great people manager requires a completely different skill set and mind set.

In businesses I’ve worked with as a HR leader, I’ve sometimes actively tried to put people off applying internally for management positions, to test their motivation. Managers need to enjoy variety, switching from one thing to another, doing what needs to be done in a given situation, solving problems and making decisions; they need to enjoy interacting with their team on a personal level, and building productive relationships with people across the whole business; they need to be comfortable communicating bad news, giving challenging feedback and having difficult conversations; they need to be comfortable showing empathy and providing stability in emotionally charged situations. If this isn’t you then you’ll probably be more successful as a technical expert, rather than a people manager. And that’s just fine!

Key Themes: Purpose, People and Processes

As a manager, you have to have clarity on what success looks like for the business and for your team. You have to care about achieving it. You also have to be able to communicate a sense of purpose to your team so that they care about it too.

As a manager, it’s your job to set up your team to achieve that success - that’s hiring the right people, into the right roles, and providing them with what they need to be successful.

As a manager, ensuring good process in your team is key. Process is not about bureaucratic paperwork and tick boxes. It’s not there to slow you down, but to speed you up. You take action, learn from what happens and evolve how you work. You share those learnings to help everyone work efficiently. “Good process helps us execute at our best”.

What situation are you in?

Chapter 2 is all about your first few months as a manager and the author presents a really useful way of looking at the advantages and “watch points” for each situation you might find yourself in.

New Boss - you’re coming in to manage an already established team, replacing someone else

Successor - the manager of your team is leaving and you are taking the role

Apprentice - the team you are part of is growing, so you’ve been asked to manage a sub-team, still reporting to the overall manager

Pioneer - you are the founding member of a new team, and now responsible for its growth

This thinking was new to me, and I’ll definitely be using some of these ideas in how I coach new managers. The situation you’re in as a new manager really does make a difference to what you focus on and how you approach things.

Relationships and working environment

Chapter 3 focuses on two key parts of managing a team: relationships with the individuals and the overall team environment.

As a new manager, think about how you build a solid foundation for a healthy working relationship with each individual in your team. Because they are individuals then your approach may look different for each one - but the consistent themes need to be trust, respect, care, support and honesty.

You also need to create a team environment that enables the team to be successful. Don’t look to blame others if things aren’t working - take responsibility as a manager for discussing it with your team and making changes so that the team works well.

Key aspects of people management

The rest of the book highlights some key aspects of management and gives some good hints and tips on:

  • Managing yourself

  • Giving feedback

  • Holding meetings

  • Hiring for your team

  • Getting things done

  • Nurturing culture

I do think that managing yourself well is critical to being a good manager. When I completed my Level 3 Diploma in Leadership & Management, there was a module on Self Awareness and a module on Management of Self - two modules out of 10 were about knowing and managing yourself as a person.

To be a good manager of others, build your self-awareness and be brutally honest with yourself about how you behave when you’re at your best and your worst. We’re all human and we all impact others through what we do - understanding how that plays out for you will really help. Also, make sure you regularly ask for feedback from others, are prepared to ask for help when you need it, and practice some self-care (you need your own oxygen mask on before you help others).

Giving effective feedback is something I have trained managers on so many times, as I believe it’s a skill and behaviour that’s critical to being a good manager. Appreciation and recognition are important. You also owe it to your team to make sure that they know what you expect of them and to tell them if what they’re doing isn’t meeting your expectations. You owe them the opportunity to adapt and improve. Telling it straight, with care, is a sign of respect and builds trust with your team. Hopefully it also makes a positive difference to the team’s outcomes - feedback that doesn’t make things better is a bit pointless.

If you hate meetings, don’t become a manager! If you are a manager, make sure the meetings you are responsible for are good ones - where everyone feels welcome and is engaged in the content, where there is a clear outcome being aimed towards, where people leave feeling it was a good use of their time. Develop your understanding of different meeting types and how to make them work (the book gives some good starting points). Then develop your skills at managing meetings effectively. Become a manager whose meetings people love to be at.

Some managers think hiring people to join the business is HR’s job, but I believe it’s a core part of being a people manager. You need a process, to make it efficient and effective, but recruiting and selecting people for your team shouldn’t be a chore. To paraphrase Julie Zhou, hiring is not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity for you to make the most of. Own responsibility for hiring people, be intentional about what you want for your team and why, make it happen in a way that’s positive for candidates and for you, remember it’s always a gamble when you take someone on, but you can take easy steps to make your bet a smarter one. Take the time to learn how to do hiring well, it’s a core part of your role as a manager.

As a manager you are expected to ensure your team get things done. You need a clear vision, a well-thought-through plan, clear allocation of responsibilities, great execution and feedback loops to react and adapt along the way. It’s all a balancing act - short v long term, planning it all first v try it and see, empowerment and autonomy v oversight and control… When everyone’s looking to you then the decisions aren’t always easy and you won’t always get it right, but as a manager it’s your job to own the vision, the plan and the execution, and what you do should always be focused on what will get better results for the team.

Guess what, culture is also your job. As a manager, you play a big part in setting the tone for “how things are done around here”. Your team culture exists, whether you focus on it or not, but there’s a lot you can do to nurture a culture that will help your team to be successful. In this book, there’s an easy exercise to help you think about what culture you want in your team, what it’s like now, and how to make the shift. Key things for us as managers are to keep on talking about what’s important to us and to make sure we walk the talk ourselves. We have to personally live the values we want our team to demonstrate, and let those values impact all the little choices we make on a day to day basis.

Keep on learning...

The final chapter of this book is called “the journey is 1% finished”. It acknowledges that however far we come from our first ever attempts at managing people, there is always more to learn, there are always new ways to approach things, we will keep making mistakes and (hopefully) learning from them. Managing people is something it’s not easy to be good at, but when we do our jobs well as managers then our teams can thrive and create something wonderful.

This book has reinspired me to think about how I can help turn new managers into great managers, who enjoy the job they do and get excellent results through their teams. More soon ...

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