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Make the most of being a manager

Facebook's Julie Zhuo has written a guide for new managers that reminds us of the power -- and limitations -- of managers.

5 min read


The Making of a Manager


For all the discussion about managing and leading people, sometimes it seems like we’re rehashing the basics: be kind and courteous, be an advocate, train thoroughly and then take a step back, be communicative and listen more than you speak, treat people as individuals and not automatons or costs. That sort of thing.

The trick is in how you do it, how you handle that responsibility along with everything else in your life, and how you handle that in the environment you’re in. That’s where I believe a lot of common examples — Steve Jobs, for instance — fail to resonate.

Most of us don’t share his circumstances, or his position of power, or even the urgency of what’s at stake. Even if we can relate, there’s often too much going on to reflect on the high ideals of leadership. Sometimes you’re just trying to get everyone through the week while balancing family issues, staff on vacation and a random internet outage.

So that’s why I’ve been excited for a long time that Julie Zhuo, a vice president of product design at Facebook, has written a book called “The Making Of A Manager.” This book follows years of writing about her journey as a manager of fast-growing, fast-moving teams, and she even takes questions about managerial situations as part of an email newsletter she delivers.

She’s a leader who has done the work of a contributor and the work of a manager, and she’s risen high enough at Facebook to be thinking about the bigger picture, too. And, this is especially important, she hasn’t fallen into the trap of thinking that what worked for her will work exactly for you. Advice is a starting point that requires reflection, hard work and trial and error. Advice is not a prescription.

Even the epilogue reflects the mindset that Zhuo brings. It’s titled “The Journey Is 1% Finished.” Most epilogues are a look back, and hers is more of a “look what we can do together, let’s go forth.” As she writes:

“A group of people working in unison is a wonderful thing to behold. Done well, it ceases to be about you or me, one individual or another. Instead, you feel the energy of dozens or hundreds or even thousands of hearts and minds directed toward a shared purpose, guided by shared value. If you or I do our jobs well, then our teams will thrive. We will build something that will outlast us, that will be made stronger by all who become a part of it.”

You won’t feel this level of heightened feeling or purpose every single day. However, each day represents a chance for incremental gains, or to stop a slide, or to simply help yourself and your team make it through to tomorrow. You could see that as a burden, and sometimes it’ll feel like that. But every day you and your team have a chance to grow and learn and succeed. As Zhuo argues, take advantage of this platform — be open about who you are and what drives you.

“As I’ve given greater voice to what I care about, nobody, not even once, has told me that it’s annoying or condescending. Instead, the feedback is the opposite–talking about your values makes you a more authentic and inspiring leader,” Zhuo writes.

I’ve been jumping around in the book more than reading it straight through, but this is because I expect I — and maybe you — will come back to it regularly. I’m not in my first three months as a manager, for instance, but chapter 2 can still be useful when I want to re-examine my approach. The next time I have to hire (and maybe before then), I’ll be turning to chapter 6, and so on and so on.

Zhuo’s book also has an impact in a way that’s perhaps unintended. She’s offering a guide to new managers so they can be better for themselves, their people and their organization. But she also works at Facebook, a company that’s enormous (many managers) and also run more like a monarchy (one CEO with full control) than a traditional public company. As much influence as anyone has at Facebook, what Mark Zuckerberg thinks is more important.

And so there’s the contradiction so many of us live: You need your front-line managers to be educated, empowered and engaged. That’s how culture is formed and maintained, that’s how companies sustain themselves on the day to day. But those managers live within the structure that the CEO and other executives establish. Consider this from Zhuo in her chapter “Nurturing culture”:

“Don’t underestimate the influence that you can have. Even if you’re not the CEO, your actions reinforce what the company values.”

Take both lessons within those two sentences. You, as a manager or leader, have more influence than you might realize. But you cannot unilaterally change the culture. Hopefully, you’re in an organization whose values match yours — or are at least values you can live with. But if those values run counter to yours, or if in practice the organization ignores its values, you might want to look elsewhere.

So, is this book the right fit for you? We all learn differently. Some of us get nothing out of leadership books. That’s OK! But if you are someone who can be inspired by another manager’s journey, and you’d benefit from a guide to common situations that you can reference regularly, then “The Making of a Manager” can be your trusty companion.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for distributors, manufacturers and other professions. Before SmartBrief, he was a copy desk chief at a small daily New York newspaper. Contact him @James_daSilva or by email.