So You Think You Want to Manage?

A perspective on what management is and isn’t.

Julie Zhuo
Apr 8, 2014 · 4 min read

About a year ago, I wrote a piece called A Manager’s Manifesto, which became one of my most popular articles.

While it offers a few nuggets of management values, it didn’t really answer the question of what is management? and why would you be (or not be) interested in it?

So, here’s a take on just that.

Management is the practice of constantly identifying what a team needs in order to be successful and then delivering on those needs.

This is another way of saying that what you do as a manager is variable because every team needs something different. Sometimes, the current and most important thing the team needs is a vision. Or a series of technical decisions to achieve a robust architecture. Or a week-by-week roadmap. Or a clear design.

If you’re the best person to provide those things right now, and it simply cannot wait, then that’s what the team needs, and that’s what you need to do.

However, more often than not, what the team needs isn’t you to do those things. It needs someone who can do them, but probably better and more scalably than you. You may need to find and recruit those people onto the team. Or you may already have the right raw talent, but the team needs a shining charter or a bit of organization or a gentle nudge to tackle the problem at hand.

What you quickly realize as a manager is that the single most effective way to set up a team for success in the long run is to focus on the people—ensuring that you have the right people on the team, and that the team can function well together.

From this, it naturally follows that you’ll probably enjoy managing if the thing that gives you the most satisfaction is helping people reach a common goal. Which means you generally like (or at least don’t mind):

  1. Listening and learning about people’s aspirations and frustrations.
  2. Mentoring and advising, generally in the form of providing frameworks rather than here’s-what-you-should-be-doing’s (which is a whole topic for another time).
  3. Designing better and more efficient ways for people to communicate, work, or learn.
  4. Context-switching often in your day-to-day.
  5. Playing a key role in the flow of communication (writing, sharing, meeting, presenting).
  6. Owning the outcome of the team’s successes and failures, even if you won’t make all the decisions yourself.

You probably won’t enjoy management if the thing that gives you the most satisfaction is getting deep into a certain part of the building or doing process. Which means you should probably remain an individual contributor if you prefer the following to the things listed above:

  1. Having a strong sense of control in shaping the work such that it bears your mark.
  2. Learning and investing in the craft of building.
  3. Focusing almost single-mindedly on the problem at hand for hours at a time, going for both breadth and depth in exploring the solution space.
  4. Getting deep into the details of what you are building, even if few others will appreciate or notice it.

Of course, the expectations of managers may be different everywhere. Sometimes, the differences noted above are blurry, and you end up dipping into the requirements of both lists no matter whether you are a people manager or a senior individual contributor.

But sometimes, the differences are keen. I’ve seen incredible designers become people managers and realize they don’t love it and aren’t great at it. I’ve seen the opposite as well—designers who realize management is what they prefer and where they can make the most valuable contributions.

I’m lucky to work in a space where one doesn’t need to manage people in order to advance her career. One can be a visionary, an architect, a domain expert, a builder of the highest order. There are a thousand ways to lead and influence in the morass of making something meaningful.

If you’re a similar situation, then your career path becomes a personal choice. Which are you better suited to? Which will you enjoy more and therefore do better?

As with all things, make sure it’s an intentional decision.

Looking for more? My book THE MAKING OF A MANAGER comes out March 19th, 2019. It’s a field guide on everything you need to know to be the manager you wish you had. Get it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Indiebound. Or, sign up for my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer readers’ questions.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building…

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Julie Zhuo

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Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.