How to be a successful manager

Rear view of a businesswoman addressing a meeting in office. Female manager having a meeting with her team in office boardroom.

Many thorny issues arising out of managing small teams can be handled professionally by remembering the core role of a manager, which is to help team members succeed, a Facebook leader told the HBR on Leadership podcast recently.

Julie Zhou, author of the book The Making of a Manager, appeared on a Harvard Business Review podcast recently to provide insights on difficult discussions managers must have with their employees. Among them, how to handle subordinates who boss around their team members and how to address employees’ weak points.

Zhuo was Facebook’s first intern and became a manager there when she was just 25. When she left Facebook in 2020, she was managing a team of hundreds as vice president of product design. Based on her experience, she shared a basic approach to management that may be applicable to the many young new leaders who are getting promoted to managerial positions within the property and casualty insurance industry these days.

On the podcast, Zhou often framed her advice for communicating with employees in difficult situations in terms of “success;” that is, helping both managers and their reports reach their full potential.

For example, a podcast listener, a manager in a small non-profit, asked Zhou how to deal with a subordinate who was bossing around other members of her small team. The manager had recently promoted the “bossy” employee to a new position.

Zhou suggested the manager have a conversation with her direct report, the newly promoted employee, to define a successful manager. She said many labour under the impression that successful managers need to project an air of authority.

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“I think it’s because we have this perception of what a manager or what a leader is supposed to be,” Zhou said. “And we have this perception from years of watching movies and TV shows, or maybe from our own experiences with bosses in the past.

“I know that for me, when I became a manager, my impression of what a manager was someone who was very confident. Someone who always knew what the right answers were. Someone who tells people what to do or say, ‘Hey, this is how it’s gonna be,’ because they had decision-making authority. And so in my mind, I felt like I had to do that, too. I would have to call the shots.”

But this actually wasn’t a successful way to manage people, Zhou found. And so she counselled the letter-writer to discuss the concept of “success” with the person she had just promoted.

“If the [bossy employee] believes the manager really cares about her, has her back, and vice versa, then it’s much easier to go into that conversation [with her] and to say, ‘Look, I really care about you, I want to see you be successful.

“I’m here to support and give you whatever feedback or advice you need, but I’ve got to let you know that this is a thing that I’m seeing, or that I’m hearing, that is making it harder for you to be successful.’

“A lot of times, if you lead with that, you’re doing this not to tell them bad news, or because you want to push them down, but you’re doing it because you want to see them succeed. Oftentimes, that’s a way to have people feel like they can let their walls down, and they can listen and internalize, versus getting into, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m being attacked. I need to push back on this.’”

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Similarly, when having conversations with underperforming employees, the emphasis should be on removing barriers to success.

Podcast hosts shared a letter about a situation in which an employee was hindered by her public speaking ability.

“One of my direct reports is super smart, thoughtful, and a very hard worker,” the letter-writer said. “She really knows her craft. But she’s struggling with what I would call something like owning the room or command presence. She’s slow to speak and quiet when she does. Sometimes she stumbles over her words trying to get out a full thought. People wait for her, then take over, because it can get awkward.”

Zhou said it was important for the senior leader writing the letter to clarify the intent of providing the feedback.

“In this case, the intent is really good,” she said. “The intent is, ‘I think you’re wonderful at these aspects of the job. I want to help you succeed and be even more impactful. Here’s something that I see that may be holding you back.’

“Always lead with the reason [for the feedback]. ‘I’m giving you this [advice] because I want to help you, and I want to see you be successful. I want you to achieve every one of your career aspirations, and that’s why we’re having this conversation.’”

Zhou also suggested playing to the employee’s strengths, in a way that people could better take advantage of her insights. For example, maybe the employee could write down her insights and circulate them in an email after the meeting.


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