Being a manager — and especially a great one — is not an easy feat. It takes continuous work: trying, succeeding, failing, learning, adapting, and trying all over again. And for anyone who’s felt like they don’t know what they’re doing, you’re not alone. In her new book The Making of a Manager, Julie Zhuo dives into the building blocks of becoming a successful manager, including overcoming imposter syndrome and making meetings suck less. As one of Silicon Valley’s top product design executives, Zhuo leads some of the world’s most popular mobile and web services teams. We chatted with her about the biggest rookie manager mistake, why you should never give a compliment sandwich, and the benefits of being a female manager.
Brit + Co: What inspired you to write this book?
Julie Zhuo: The Making of a Manager grew as an extension of my blog, The Year of the Looking Glass, when I realized, “hey, the management book I wish I had when I started still doesn’t exist.” I wanted something that was like a friend taking you out to coffee and telling you everything you needed to know with the authenticity and practicality of someone who’s gone through it herself, made a ton of mistakes along the way, and picked up some tips and tricks that could make your own path easier.
In my mind, it’s a field guide, an “everything you need to know to get started as a successful manager.” It covers the topics that comprise most of my day-to-day as a manager: having great 1:1s, running effective meetings, hiring and interviewing candidates, scaling a team, and setting goals, with lots of stories and examples and practical questions and exercises to try yourself. It goes deep into two of my favorite topics that I wish more managers felt comfortable talking about openly: managing yourself (and your own psychology and feelings of imposter syndrome) and having tough conversations with reports.
B+C: What is the biggest mistake most first-time managers (or even managers in general) make?
JZ: There’s a misconception that managers need to be superheroes. The biggest mistake all managers make is pretending to know everything. It doesn’t work for two reasons: People can see through it and will question your credibility, and you close yourself off to possible avenues for help. An important part of management is managing yourself — and that comes with being brutally honest about your strengths and weaknesses.
B+C: What separates an average vs. a great manager? Are these inherent qualities or can they be learned/taught?
JW: A great manager is someone who gets great outcomes from her team. It doesn’t mean she has to be great at everything, but she has to be able to enable the people on her team to work together to create those outcomes. Think of it like a symphony — you’re the conductor and you have three levers: People, process, and purpose. People: Do you have the right talent and can you coach them to great performance? For example, do you have the appropriate number of talented flutists, violinists, and percussionists? Process: Is the “how” behind doing great work clear? For example, is everyone sitting in their right chair and understanding how to interpret the signs from the conductor? Purpose: Does everyone have the same vision of success? Is everyone playing the same sheet music?
Great managers are made, not born. And the best managers know that management is like exercise — you get better as you practice.
B+C: What’s the best way to give hard feedback?
JZ: It’s hard to do this! But remind yourself why doing this matters — you want to help the other person (and the team as a whole) improve. Feedback is a gift, and it’s self-preservation rather than selflessness to conceal or water down a tough message because you don’t want to be the bearer of bad news.
When it comes to delivering critical feedback or news, you can convey the same point a dozen different ways — by varying your words, your tone, or your body language. The most important thing is to plainly say what you perceive the issue to be, what made you feel that way, and how you’d like to work together to resolve the concern. I like the formula: “When you did , I felt because . I wanted to bring this up with you to understand your perspective and see what we can do to work through it.” I don’t believe in the compliment sandwich (praise, criticism, praise) because offering a few superficial words of praise to temper a hard message comes off as insincere and the thing you actually want the person to pay attention to might be lost. Telling it straight is a sign of respect.
B+C: What’s your favorite question to ask in a job interview and why?
JZ: I have a few that are my go-tos.
1. “What kinds of challenges are interesting to you and why? Can you describe a favorite project?” This tells me what a candidate is passionate about.
2. “What do you consider your greatest strengths? What would your peers agree are your areas of growth?” This question gets both at a candidate’s self-awareness and what their actual strengths and weaknesses might be.
3. “Imagine yourself in three years. What do you hope will be different about you then compared to now?” This lets me understand the candidate’s ambitions as well as how goal oriented and self-reflective they are.
4. “What was the hardest conflict you’ve had in the past year? How did it end, and what did you learn from the experience?” This gives me a sense of how the candidate works with other people and how they approach conflict.
5. “What’s something that’s inspired you in your work recently?” This sheds light on what the candidate thinks is interesting or valuable.
B+C: What’s more important as a manager — being liked or being respected?
JZ: They’re not mutually exclusive, but as a manager, your priority is to be respected. It’s hard for first-time managers to get past the idea that not everyone is going to like you or agree with everything you say. That’s okay. You have to do what you think is right for your team and organization with the best information you have. Managing by consensus is no way to run a team. That said, you will earn respect if you are clear about your values, transparent about your decision-making process, and follow through on your commitments. You will earn trust if you seek to understand your reports and create a safe space for them to tell you their hopes, dreams, and fears while giving them the same in return.
B+C: What are the challenges/benefits of being a female manager?
JW: Early in my career, I was afraid to admit I didn’t know everything. I also thought that a manager needed to wear a suit of armor at all times. I was hesitant to lean on others for support. I’ve spoken with dozens of female managers at different companies, and I know there’s a common concern around being perceived as “weak” at work. But once I understood that the best managers were the ones who acknowledge their own strengths and weaknesses, it became so much easier to reach out for help.
A few years ago, I formed a support group with a dozen other women at the company. Tears were not uncommon because some of the challenges were truly hard. But I will never forget the warmth and camaraderie and how much that support meant to us. I think female managers have a much easier time convening and building support systems within organizations or across industries.
B+C: Can you ever repair a bad manager/direct report relationship?
JW: It’s hard, but it can be done, and it takes the same as repairing any other important personal relationship — a lot of listening and a lot of seeking to understand rather than to be right. Keep in mind that because you have more power than your report, it’s more your responsibility to work on building trust in the relationship than it is theirs. “Repairing a relationship” in my mind is about re-establishing trust. This doesn’t always mean that your report who was underperforming suddenly starts excelling — sometimes, someone just isn’t a fit for a particular role, and that’s okay. You can still respect and care for them, and caring about people means seeing them as more than just their job performance. Just because your report didn’t work out on your team, it doesn’t mean that they won’t be successful somewhere else.
B+C: What are things that you personally do to continue growing professionally?
JW: It’s really important to me to be seen as someone who people feel is approachable and open to feedback. Management is an ongoing journey — one of continuous growth — and I look for feedback in as many places as I can. I’ve also kept my blog active throughout the process of writing my book. Writing has been hugely helpful for me to sort through my thoughts and reflect on my learnings, and the conversation and feedback from my writing also helps me grow.
(Photo via Jeff Singer)
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