How to Be a Good Manager: An Interview With Julie Zhuo

how to be a good manager

Most of us have had managers since long before our careers began, including teachers and coaches when we were kids; professors in college; and supervisors during our first internships. Despite this, it can be hard to pinpoint the skills that make someone great at management.

Julie Zhuo is vice president of design at Facebook; she’s also a CNBC expert, blogger and author of “The Making of a Manager: What to do When Everyone Looks to You.” We spoke with Zhuo to learn the secrets behind being a great manager — and the answer might surprise you.

Management skills are more than being ‘boss’

Zhuo started her career in a now-coveted spot: as an intern at Facebook. In fact, she was Facebook’s first intern. She became a manager at age 25 — but most of the leadership books she turned to for guidance were written by people at the peaks of their careers, such as CEOs and industry leaders, lacking granular advice for someone just starting out. 

“Frankly, I also thought there weren’t enough management books written by women, especially women of color,” Zhuo adds.

“The Making of a Manager” is the book Zhuo wished she had during that first big opportunity, she says: “a book that would be really accessible, really friendly and actually just very practical for someone in that zone.” 

Some of her most practical advice? Management is more than just being a “boss” or landing a promotion — and not everyone is cut out for it. But this is fine, Zhuo says, encouraging readers to take a big-picture approach, examining the daily realities of management and whether these are a good fit.

Great managers enjoy success, but are willing to cede the spotlight

If you think you want to be a manager, Zhuo says, begin with a simple question: “Do you get a lot of satisfaction out of reaching a particular outcome, or from the particular role that you’re playing in getting to the outcome?” 

Good managers genuinely enjoy working with people; it’s not about the title, it’s about helping the team reach their goals. This involves facilitating collaborations, delegating tasks and minding your boundaries.

“The answer’s generally not ‘go and do the work yourself,’” Zhuo cautions. “It’s about nurturing the team. It’s about coaching people.”

Good managers are also willing to step aside and let the team shine, leaving their egos at the door.

“It’s not really about being in the spotlight or doing the most exciting or sexy thing,” Zhuo says. “It’s about doing what needs to be done, and then feeling a lot of satisfaction in working for others or [with] a team.”

Like a coach, Zhuo says, good managers help team members increase performance, building on their talents while strengthening their weak spots. They also create a welcoming environment where employees can be open if they’re struggling to master a skill or solve a problem.

Flexibility is another crucial attribute, and good managers are willing to take on work they might not feel is their passion. Zhuo gives the example of hiring, which can be time-consuming and pull managers away from other responsibilities — but is often a necessary task.

“If you’re down five members of your team, then it’s going to be impossible for you to reach the outcome that you want unless you are focusing 70% of your time on hiring,” she explains. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all manager

“I don’t think there’s one type … of person that can’t be a great leader or a great manager,” says Zhuo. So how do you identify potential in yourself and others?

While those who enjoy mentoring or teaching might gravitate toward leadership roles, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” type. For instance, both introverts and extroverts can excel as managers, as can people from different professional backgrounds. The key is the person’s passion for the work, the mission and their team.

Contrary to popular belief, a good manager doesn’t need to have all the answers. Part of building trusting relationships with colleagues — another key attribute — involves admitting when they don’t know something. 

“By pretending like I knew everything, I had a period of time where I think I just closed myself off to better ideas, better collaboration and better brainstorming,” recalls Zhuo of her first managerial position. 

Acting like everything’s perfect only encourages the same behavior in others, she notes, “especially if that person reports to you, because you’re in a greater position of power, and they’re looking to you for cues [as to] how they should behave or what the norms are.” 

By turning the team for help, she adds, “I’ll get way more great ideas that I’d never thought of, because I’ll be leveraging the knowledge of the entire group.” 

Know yourself to plan your future

For professionals at any stage, Zhuo encourages them to think broadly about what they want: now, next year, five years from now and into the next decade. 

“If we don’t even know where we want to go, what matters or what would make us feel excited, … then it’s going to be hard to pick the right choices,” says Zhuo.

Zhuo recommends that anyone considering management test the waters first. This might include mentoring the next new hire or intern; running team meetings; or launching and managing a new initiative. 

You may discover through this process that you’d rather just work on your own, honing your craft and developing your skills. Zhuo stresses that there’s nothing wrong with continuing as an individual contributor. 

“That’s still you taking control of your own career,” she explains. “We don’t always get to pick the hand we’re dealt, but the thing we can control is our reaction, what we put our minds to do and our attitude towards things.”

How to hire good managers

When interviewing managerial candidates, Zhuo begins by asking questions about their philosophy; for example, “What matters to you most as a manager?” or “What signals do you look for that allow you to get a sense of how well you’re doing?”

While there is no right answer, Zhuo says the responses help her assess whether the candidate’s worldview is a good fit for the team. 

Since every job has its ups and downs, she also asks for an example of how candidates have dealt with conflict at work. The best managers, she notes, view such hardships as learning opportunities.

“Do they come across as aware?” she asks. “Are they being a victim, or are they also looking at hard challenges as growth? How did this event contribute to their learning, and how would they have done things differently knowing what they know now?”

Finally, Zhuo has candidates speak about a time when they fought for the greater good of the team, even if it made them uncomfortable. 

“I want to know that this person stands up for their principles in particular situations and managed to rally a group of people,” says Zhuo. She adds that leadership is a quality, not a role, “and you know you have it if other people are willing to follow you and … do something they wouldn’t have otherwise done.”

Management is both an art and a science

Zhuo’s insights illuminate what sets great managers apart: They are self-reflective, put their reports first and are willing to step out of the spotlight to let the team shine. They have a clear management philosophy and approach challenges as growth opportunities. Most importantly, great managers genuinely enjoy working with people.

Being a manager isn’t right for everyone, but Zhuo’s expertise provides important tools to help you identify the qualities for success, whether in yourself or someone else.

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