Unintuitive Things I’ve Learned about Management

Unintuitive Things I’ve Learned about Management – Julie Zhuo

Julie’s writings are almost always well worth the read, and this has been my favorite piece so far. In this piece, she offers four great lessons from her experience as a manager:

1. You must like dealing with people to be great at management

If the idea of talking to people for 8 hours straight sounds awful, then you will probably not enjoy the day-to-day of management … you can’t gloss over the fact that the pulsing lifeblood of management is people. If listening to and talking with people is not your cup of tea, then management will probably be an uphill slog.

I’ve seen many people choose to become managers for the wrong reasons. Perhaps the most sad of them all (as Julie acknowledges in her piece as well) is that their organizations did not offer them any other way to advance their careers other than becoming managers.

2. Having all the answers is not the goal. Motivating the team to find the answers is the goal

As a manager, you don’t need to know it all. You don’t even need to pretend to know it all. The best coaches aren’t the best athletes. The best teachers aren’t the best executors. Your job is to get better work out of the team then they could have gotten without you.

If you take Laszlo Bock’s advice and “only hire people who are smarter than you” then you’ll never be the smartest person in the room. Being a good managers is not about having all the right answers, it’s about knowing to ask the right questions.

3. To evaluate the strength of a manager, look at the strength of their team

At the most basic level, it means all the day-to-day things that you — yes YOU — personally accomplish don’t matter much in of themselves.

Your work as a manager should be focused less on efforts than have an intrinsic value and more on efforts that have an impact on theirs. Your ability to amplify their work matters more than your individual contributions.

4. The most significant advantage a senior manager has over a junior manager is an expanded perspective

These days, however, if I’m to be totally honest, I don’t think a lot of management is learnable without actually experiencing it. That is to say, I believe that it takes at least 3 years (and in most cases longer than that) to become a truly confident senior manager.

Out of the four lessons, this is the one worth spending the most time on. Julie’s making a strong argument that there’s very little you can do to proactively become a better manager, beyond the natural growth that happens over time with additional reps of dealing with tough managerial situations. While a rather accurate description of today’s reality, it’s more of a testament of the still untapped upside of turning modern management into a true craft. Consider a few meaningful caveats:

  • Theory – management is all about dealing with people, and there’s a growing body of real (rigorous) research on people. What motivates people? How would they react in a certain type of interaction? What enables groups (teams) of people to effectively collaborate together? These are just a few examples that you can maybe figure out on your own, through trial-and-error. But you start further up the learning curve by knowing  what all the managers before you have already figured out compared to starting from scratch.
  • Beyond “doing” – it is true you can learn the most by doing. But it’s not the only way to learn. Professional athletes can teach us a few other ways to learn:
    • Practice – The best athletes spend far more time practicing than actually competing. And yes, it’s much harder to practice/simulate managerial skills than physical skills. But it’s also far from impossible and it’s an area that we all under-invest in.
    • Observation – The best athletes, particularly in team sports (like management) spend a lot of time watching others compete. Ask good managers what are some of the things that helped them become good managers and one of the most common answers you’ll hear is that they were fortunate enough to have a good manager themselves. Just like other craftsmen, we can start the path to becoming good managers through apprenticeship. Shadowing and learning from people who’ve already mastered the craft.
  • Experience != Learn – while experience enables learning, it does not guarantee it. Learning requires feedback and reflection.  You can choose to just naturally absorb a certain experience, or proactively set up the situation in a way that will enable you to learn more from it. You can proactively seek feedback. You can choose to set time aside to reflect. Or you can choose not to.



Unintuitive Things I’ve Learned about Management

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