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The Making of a Manager – Summary and Insights

Below are some of my key takeaways from reading the book, The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhou. If you are interested in my detailed notes from this book, please email me.

The Making of a Manager


A brief synopsis of the book is reprinted below from Amazon.

“Congratulations, you’re a manager! After you pop the champagne, accept the shiny new title, and step into this thrilling next chapter of your career, the truth descends like a fog: you don’t really know what you’re doing.

That’s exactly how Julie Zhuo felt when she became a rookie manager at the age of 25. She stared at a long list of logistics–from hiring to firing, from meeting to messaging, from planning to pitching–and faced a thousand questions and uncertainties. How was she supposed to spin teamwork into value? How could she be a good steward of her reports’ careers? What was the secret to leading with confidence in new and unexpected situations?

Now, having managed dozens of teams spanning tens to hundreds of people, Julie knows the most important lesson of all: great managers are made, not born. If you care enough to be reading this, then you care enough to be a great manager.”


Product Management and People Management

Julie comes from a design background and talks about the commonalities between the design profession and people management. From her perspective, good design emerges from a deep understanding of users and their needs in order to create the best possible product for the users. Similarly, good managers deeply understand the people on their team and use that knowledge to empower their team members to be successful.

I think this also applies to Product Management. In his book Inspired, Marty Cagan defines product management as the ability to

Combine technology and design to solve real customer problems in a way that meets the needs of the business.

In order to be successful, Product Managers also have to deeply understand users and their needs. Product Managers typically balance both qualitative and quantitative data sources to try to understand how their users behave and why in order to improve the product. Instead of iterating on the product, people managers improve the people and processes of their team in an attempt to improve efficiency and performance. People managers observe their teammates and conduct interviews, typically in the form of 1:1s, in order to better understand each team member’s motivations and behaviors. While people managers may not have the ability to run large scale A/B tests or analyze detailed datasets, tools like OKRs can be leveraged to quantify the output of the team over time and benchmark performance against a set of goals.

Another interesting similarity is the focus on outcomes as a success metric. Product Managers are judged based on their ability to empower a cross-functional team of engineers and designers to improve the product to meet business objectives. In strong product teams, the focus is not on the number of features shipped, but the impact on the business. People managers also are judged not by their individual performance, but by their team’s ability to constantly achieve great outcomes. Both roles center around the belief that a team of people can achieve more than a single person working by themselves. This is especially true as the team size grows and the person in the PM or manager role has an influence on a larger portion of the organization.

What Makes a Good Team?

Julie reference’s Dr. Hackman’s research on the five conditions that increase the team’s odds of success.

I thought it was interesting to compare this to Google’s Project Aristotle research. Google identified five factors that make an effective team.

There’s significant overlap between the two sets of findings. Both discuss the importance of structure and clear responsibilities. This can be difficult in smaller organizations with more of a flat hierarchy where people fulfill different roles. It’s not only difficult to determine who’s responsible for executing different tasks, but also who has the authority to assign tasks and delegate work. It’s clear from these studies that effort should be taken to better define the roles and responsibilities of each team member and regularly review them as the team grows in size.

These studies also reinforce the common viewpoint that people are more successful when they are working on a task that they find personally meaningful. The problem is challenging and the goal is one that is worth pursuing. Ray Dalio emphasizes the importance of “meaningful work and meaningful relationships” as critical to personal happiness. Not everyone is fortunate enough to work on a problem that they are naturally passionate about. In Radical Candor, Kim Scott talks about a process of understanding the long term goals and dreams of each employee, identifying the skills they need to improve in order to attain those goals, and lastly assigning the employee projects which will allow them to work on this skills. I thought this was a great approach to help encourage employees to find meaning in work by taking a different perspective on the tasks.

Lastly, both research studies talk in different terms about team dynamics. Team members need to feel like they can be honest with each other when debating issues and depend on each other to get tasks accomplished on time. Google’s research found that psychological safety was the most important factor influencing a team’s performance.

Julie talks a lot about trust between a manager and an employee. She identifies the following actions as signs of trust:

It’s also important to foster a team dynamic where teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. Managers can encourage this behavior by allowing open debates and brainstorming sessions to generate ideas as well as holding regular retrospectives to learn from mistakes. It’s also important for the manager to admit their own mistakes and ask for critical feedback from their team to build a culture of psychological safety.

Giving Feedback

Julie also talks a lot about the tactics around giving feedback to a direct report. Echoing the importance of clarity around responsibilities for building an effective team, she mentions that the manager should set clear expectations when a new employee joins the team or someone starts a new project. Specifically, she mentions covering the following:

She mentions that often when an employee fails to deliver on a project, it’s more than likely that the expectations could have been made more clear.

Julie also talks about giving task-specific feedback and behavioral feedback. The most important aspect of feedback is to provide it more than you think you should. This is something I’ve been more cognizant of. It’s not only better for your reports to improve, but it’s also important to recognize that providing feedback is a skill that also needs to be practiced. She talks about providing task-specific feedback in the moment and reviewing it regularly to generate behavioral level feedback.

Everyone enjoys giving and receiving positive feedback, but negative feedback is more difficult to give and to receive. Julie recommends providing critical feedback directly and with an honest sense of curiosity to understand the report’s perspective. Julie provides the following template:

When I [heard/observed/reflected upon] you [action/behavior/output], I felt concerned because…

The feedback should be as specific as possible and delivered dispassionately. Julie recommends following up by asking the report for their perspective on the feedback. Delivering critical feedback is hard, so I definitely found these tactical recommendations helpful.

Managing Yourself

It’s important for a manager to understand their own strengths and weaknesses in order to be successful. Julie talks a lot about coupling experiences with periods of self-reflection. This focus on self-reflection is a constant theme in most self-development books but I thought Julie had an interesting take on it. In addition to finding your strengths and weaknesses, Julie talks about discovering the situations that trigger a negative reaction as well as knowing which environments help you do your best work.

Julie defines a trigger as “a situation that gets me more worked up than it should.” These situations trigger an intensely negative reaction that derails your effectiveness. Specifically, these triggers have an outsized effect on you personally more than they would on someone else. This is when you’re most at risk of being viewed as irrational.

To discover your triggers, ask yourself the following questions:

Typically, we focus on weaknesses as skills we want to improve or experience we need to have. I thought this focus on identifying individual triggers was a great idea to better understand how personality can influence effectiveness.

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