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[Book Review] The Making of a Manager, Julie Zhuo

Honest and vulnerable, Julie Zhuo's narration reads like a warm hug to new managers navigating the uncertain path to effective leadership.
[Book Review] The Making of a Manager, Julie Zhuo

by Mojan Benham

2 years ago

Two-line summary

5 minute read

It is rare to find a management book that is able to so accurately capture the confusion and fear of becoming a new leader in the way that Julie Zhuo does in The Making of a Manager. Zhuo's practical guide serves as a steadfast reference piece for topics ranging from giving feedback to structuring one-on-one meetings.

My rating: 4/5 stars

Table of contents


The tagline of the book summarizes it perfectly: what to do when everyone looks to you. Julie Zhuo, former VP of design at Facebook and once their first-ever engineering intern, wrote this book as a practical primer to managing yourself as you get promoted to management.

The chapters are written chronologically, beginning with basic definitions and entry points into leadership. It then covers the aspects of leading a small team, a growing team and finally managing at scale. Each chapter uses personal anecdotes to relay a set of valuable lessons surrounding themes of management at tech companies including: how to run meetings, give feedback, hire talent and nurture team culture.

Despite writing the book retrospectively, Zhuo is astonishingly talented at recalling the state of mind when first promoted into leadership with great detail. That, and the fact that the book covers ascending team sizes, makes it a fantastic read for those in their first three years in a management role.

I would also recommend this book to experienced managers yearning for a more human-driven, empathetic approach to leadership. Especially in tech, managers tend to be great at their craft but often struggle with the people aspect. For example, I find that some leads don't know the difference between a direct report who needs a solution versus someone that is just looking to vent. If this sounds like you, you would appreciate the perspective given in this book.

Although it's possible to generalize its contents to any industry, The Making of a Manager is best applied to modern tech companies.

Pros and cons

Based on my preconceived notion that management books are boring albeit necessary content, I was blown away by this author's writing style. The narration is not only engaging and well-written, but strikes an effortless balance between gentle encouragement, personal stories and profound one-liners. I jotted down my first impression in an early annotation as "feels like a warm hug from a wise, older sister".

I also appreciate that the author approaches management from a place of empathy and interpersonal connection. So often this genre of literature is filled with egomaniacal perspectives on how to influence direct reports or harness control, whereas Zhuo seeks to understand human nature. If you've ever read a success story that boils down to "wake up at 5AM and be born rich" - this book is the anthesis.

One of the most impressive aspects is that although the author was incredibly tenured and successful at the time of writing the book, she is skilled at capturing the emotions felt at the onset of her management experience with eerie relatability. She is able to zero in on familiar pain points and posit practical, specific recommendations.

For example, a common symptom of a struggling leader is perpetual burnout. What I learned from this book is that it is often caused by adopting a passive mindset on the type of work you do in your new role. If you fail to actively transition from the additive work you did as an individual contributor to the multiplicative work required from a manager, you will continue to burn out. At one point, she states firmly that just because you are the best at something does not mean you should be handling it personally (don't put out fires, make your team fireproof).

Finally, I appreciate that the advice is highly granular and not "hand-wavey" in the slightest. There are sections dedicated to structuring one-on-ones, specific sentence templates for giving feedback and questions to ask yourself at various stages in your career. One such lesson was to "approach feedback with curiosity." Meaning, once you deliver feedback, Zhuo recommends asking a question such as "did this feedback resonate with you?" in order to gauge the reception from the receiving party. I bookmarked several of these pages to revisit as references.

As for cons, I have the same criticism for this book as I have for almost all management material: it was unnecessarily long. My reading style is to place post-its with personal commentary on pages that I find particularly interesting or profound. Looking back, the first hundred pages of the book are filled while the rest only have a handful of notes. I found much of the latter half to be less practical, "filler" material.

Nonetheless, the overarching lessons are invaluable and the writing is fantastic so I would highly recommend this to any of my senior colleagues.

Most notable excerpts

  • "Feedback, at its best, transforms people in ways they're proud of." (Chapter 4: The Art of Feedback)
  • "Every major disappointment is a failure to set expectations." (Chapter 4: The Art of Feedback)
  • "Triggers occupy the space between your growth area and somebody else's - you could work on controlling your reactions, but the other person could also benefit from hearing your feedback." (Chapter 5: Managing Yourself)
  • "When people don't know you well and see that you're in a position of authority, they're less likely to tell you the ugly truth or challenge you when they think you're wrong, even if you'd like them to." (Chapter 9: Leading a Growing Team)
  • "Maybe [a manager] can put out fires but she's not helping the team become more fireproof." (Chapter 9: Leading a Growing Team)
  • "That was when I realized my mistake. I should have handed off that meeting a long time ago. I felt tied to it because it had become habitual, even a part of my identity." (Chapter 9: Leading a Growing Team)

As always, would love to hear your thoughts and feedback in the comments below.


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