The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You
In May of 2006, when I first started my job, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
On the one hand, given that Facebook was a social network for college and high school students at the time, I thought that in some ways I was the perfect candidate. I mean, who knew Facebook’s audience better than a recent grad like myself? I was hungry to make my mark on the world, and there was nothing to weigh me down. I had no institutionalized doctrines, no tragic failures to speak of. And after four years of cramming for exams, writing countless papers, and pulling all-nighter coding marathons, hard work and I got along just fine.
But I faced some major disadvantages as well, the biggest being that I had very little experience under my belt. Like in most start-ups, our team was focused primarily on getting things done, not on organizational hierarchy. I didn’t have a formal manager until about a year in, when one of the senior designers on our team, Rebekah, took on that role. Before that, we were operating as a loose collective, everyone just helping out where they were needed. Two years later, suddenly I was a manager.
I had a lot to learn. But when I look back now, what surprises me the most is how little I understood of what management was all about.
Oh, we’re all familiar with good and bad managers, from James Bond’s M to A Christmas Carol’s Ebenezer Scrooge, from Katharine Graham in The Post to Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. It’s not as if managers are some sort of rare, exotic species. Most people have one. At the dinner table growing up, I remember my parents—an IT specialist and a stockbroker—talking about what their bosses did or said that day. I had managers who’d shown me the ropes during my high school and college teaching jobs.
But if you had asked me what I thought a manager’s job was before I started, here’s what I would have said.
A MANAGER’S JOB IS TO . . .
have meetings with reports to help them solve their problems,
share feedback about what is or isn’t going well, and
figure out who should be promoted and who should be fired.
Fast-forward three years. Having done the job now, I’m a bit wiser. My revised answer would look like the following.
A MANAGER’S JOB IS TO . . .
build a team that works well together,
support members in reaching their career goals, and
create processes to get work done smoothly and efficiently.
As you can see, my answers evolved from basic, day-to-day activities (having meetings and giving feedback) to longer-term goals (building teams and supporting career growth). The new answers sound smarter and more grown-up. Go, me!
Except . . . they’re still not quite right. You might be thinking, Well, what’s wrong with these answers? Great managers certainly do all the things on both lists.
True, but the problem is that these answers are still an assortment of activities. If I asked you, “What is the job of a soccer player?” would you say that it’s to attend practices, pass the ball to their teammates, and attempt to score goals?
No, of course not. You’d tell me why those activities matter in the first place. You’d say, “The job of a soccer player is to win games.”
So what is the job of a manager? Without understanding this deeply, it’s hard to know how to be good at it.
That’s what this first chapter is about.
THE ONE-LINE DEFINITION OF A MANAGER’S JOB
Imagine that you decide to set up a lemonade stand because you love lemonade and think it could be a great business.
In the beginning, what you need to do seems pretty clear. You go to the store and get yourself a knapsack full of lemons. You juice those lemons, dump in a generous helping of sugar, and add water. You get a folding table and a lounge chair, a pitcher, a cooler, and some cups. You decorate a lovely chalk sign announcing your delicious offering (and competitive pricing!), and then, near a busy intersection, you set up shop and cheerfully ask if any passersby are thirsty.
It’s simple when it’s just you. It’s your hands that squeezed the lemons, your feet that trudged from the store to the kitchen to your stand, your arms that lugged the pitcher and cooler. If the chalkboard handwriting looks sloppy, that’s on you. If your lemonade is too sweet or sour, you have only yourself to blame. Nothing will get done unless you choose to do it.
But great news! Beyoncé drops an album and suddenly everyone is obsessed with lemonade! As soon as you sell a glass, ten other people are crowded around your stand, eager for a gulp of that refreshing, nostalgic beverage. You can’t keep up with demand, so you decide to enlist the help of your neighbors Henry and Eliza. You’ll pay them each a fair wage, and in exchange, they’ll come work for you.
Congrats! You are now a manager!
“Duh,” you say. “I hired them and I’m paying them money. I’m the CEO, the head honcho, the boss. Of course I’m a manager.”
Actually, you’d be a manager even if you didn’t hire them or pay them. The management aspect has nothing to do with employment status and everything to do with the fact that you are no longer trying to get something done by yourself.
With three pairs of hands and feet, you can make and sell lemonade so much faster. One of you can mix the drink while another collects payment. You can rotate shifts and keep the stand open for more hours. You might even have time to shop around for cheaper ingredients.
At the same time, you’re giving up some level of control. You won’t get to make every decision anymore. When things go badly, it might not be because of anything you did. If Eliza forgets to add the sugar, you’ll get a lot of puckered, unhappy customers. If Henry’s scowl intimidates others, you’ll get fewer people stopping for a drink.
You felt the trade-offs were worth it. Why? Because your goal is the same as when you started: You love lemonade and think it could be a great business. You believe more people should experience the wonders of your favorite drink, and with Eliza and Henry on board, you feel you’re more likely to succeed.
This is the crux of management: It is the belief that a team of people can achieve more than a single person going it alone. It is the realization that you don’t have to do everything yourself, be the best at everything yourself, or even know how to do everything yourself.
Your job, as a manager, is to get better outcomes from a group of people working together.
It’s from this simple definition that everything else flows.
HOW DO YOU TELL A GREAT MANAGER FROM AN AVERAGE MANAGER?
I used to think judging whether a manager was great was like judging whether a fifteen-year-old was qualified to drive. There would be a series of tests, and each successful demonstration would earn a satisfying check. Are they well regarded by other people? Can they solve big, strategic problems? Do they give killer presentations? Can they knock out twenty important tasks in a day? Reply to emails while waiting in line for coffee? Defuse a tense situation? Always be closing? Etc., etc.
These are all wonderful qualities to have in a manager, to be sure, and we’ll discuss many of them later on, but the litmus test of whether or not a manager is excelling doesn’t need to be so complex.
If the job is defined as getting better outcomes from a group of people working together, then a great manager’s team will consistently achieve great outcomes.
If the outcome you care about is building a thriving lemonade business, then a great manager’s team will turn a higher profit than a mediocre manager’s team. A bad manager’s team loses money.
If the outcome you care about is educating children, then a great manager’s team will better prepare students for the future than an average manager’s team. A bad manager’s team fails to give kids the skills and knowledge they need to thrive.
If the outcome you care about is getting amazing design, then a great manager’s team will consistently deliver concepts that wow. A mediocre manager’s team will produce work that gets the job done but doesn’t stand out. A bad manager’s team will regularly suggest proposals that make you think, Surely we can do better than this.
Andy Grove, founder and CEO of Intel and a legendary manager of his time, wrote that when it comes to evaluations, one should look at “the output of the work unit and not simply the activity involved. Obviously, you measure a salesman by the orders he gets (output), not by the calls he makes (activity).”
You can be the smartest, most well-liked, most hardworking manager in the world, but if your team has a long-standing reputation for mediocre outcomes, then unfortunately you can’t objectively be considered a “great” manager.
That said, at any given point in time, it can be hard to accurately judge. A great manager might be asked to lead a new team, and because it takes her time to ramp up, her results might be unimpressive at the beginning. On the flip side, a bad manager might achieve a few quarters of amazing results because she inherited a talented team or set high-pressure ultimatums that had people burning the midnight oil.
Time, however, always reveals the truth. The best employees don’t tend to stick around for years and years under a boss who treats them poorly or whom they don’t respect. And talented managers can typically turn around poor-performing teams if they are empowered to make changes.
Six years ago, I switched my reporting to a different manager, Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer. One of the earliest conversations I remember us having is when I asked him how he evaluates the job of a manager. He smiled and said, “My framework is quite simple.” Half of what he looked at was my team’s results—did we achieve our aspirations in creating valuable, easy-to-use, and well-crafted design work? The other half was based on the strength and satisfaction of my team—did I do a good job hiring and developing individuals, and was my team happy and working well together?
The first criterion looks at our team’s present outcomes; the second criterion asks whether we’re set up for great outcomes in the future.
I’ve gone on to adopt this framework for assessing managers on my own team. Being awesome at the job means playing the long game and building a reputation for excellence. Through thick or thin, in spite of the hundreds of things calling for your attention every day, never forget what you’re ultimately here to do: help your team achieve great outcomes.
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