I knew the task would be challenging when I was asked to write a series of book reviews focused on management. In my daily work of managing a large team, finding time for reflection is necessary, yet rare. Writing this series was a forcing function to not only read about the topic but allocate time for a different type of introspection. Thank you for this opportunity. I hope you enjoy reading this series as much as I enjoyed working on it.
The Manager’s Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth & Change
If you’re looking for a book that guides you through the levels of management starting with technical (tech) lead and progressing to VP, The Manager’s Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth & Change is for you. As the title suggests, Fournier assumes her reader is an engineering manager with an engineering background. I found the material applicable, although the engineering assumption was mildly irritating. She did not need to scope her audience so narrowly.
The book begins with a definition of the manager role along with a section on mentoring. Managers are responsible for the following items:
- One-on-one meetings (p. 2)
- Feedback and workplace guidance (p. 3)
There is also some responsibility for training and career growth, although that responsibility varies by company (p. 5).
Mentoring is a management aspect that has a separate chapter which explains the responsibilities of mentor and mentee. In this section, I read some of my favorite sentences: “Listening is the first and most basic skill of managing people. Listening is a precursor to empathy, which is one of the core skills of a quality manager” (p. 13).
The chapter after mentoring, tech lead, might seem like a curious chapter to include. I found this section a worthy inclusion, because tech leads often must decide if they’re going to stay in a technical individual contributor role or if they’re going to take on people management responsibilities. Fournier writes about this decision, so people have some thoughtful insights into whether the change to people management makes sense for their situation (pp. 40–44).
For the tech leads who transition to management, the next two chapters talk about how to manage individual contributors. The “Managing People” chapter does a great job of explaining the different types of one-on-ones (pp. 54–57). If you’re new to management, I expect you’ll find these pages some of the most useful. The “Managing a Team” chapter has some clichés, but there’s one topic included that is worth highlighting: “Don’t turn a blind eye to simmering issues” (p. 87).
Think twice before going into management if you find yourself avoiding conflict. You will manage people, and conflict is going to be unavoidable. If you don’t have the skills and inclination to deal with it, you’re not going to be an effective manager. Fournier’s treatment of this topic is applicable, so I recommend reading it.
Although the guidance at the start of Chapter 7, Managing Managers, is less applicable, it’s comforting to read. Fournier writes, “You’ll get a whole new sense of your strengths and weaknesses as you work at this level” (p. 126). The chapter is not “the must read” I find some other sections to be, but the description of what it’s like to manage managers for the first time is on point.
One last must-read section: a description of cultivating trust and what happens when you don’t have it on page 179. As you can tell, I’m a fan of this book and recommend you add it to your to-read list.
Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity
I love Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. I have become the biggest Kim Scott fan girl after reading it and have listened to every episode of her podcast, also titled Radical Candor. When I first read the book, I let myself get distracted by references to Google and Apple. My mind wandered as I thought about how Scott is not like me; she worked with Larry Page. I cannot relate. Thankfully, I kept reading and refocused.
The book is partitioned into two parts. Part 1 is a definition of Scott’s philosophy and includes several frameworks that she finds useful for structuring the discussion. Part 2 includes the tools and techniques she finds essential for success.
In Part 1, the first two chapters define “radical candor.” Challenging directly while caring personally is the quick definition (p. 23). The “care personally” part is an aspect that Scott describes in detail and it’s worth reading in her words. I re-read these chapters whenever I have a conversation that I want to land and know it could be tricky. The material is written for managers and is applicable to anyone who cares about having honest, if sometimes difficult, conversations.
Radical candor for managers is most impactful when it comes to evaluating and communicating feedback about employee performance. In Chapter 3, “Understand what motivates each person on your team,” Scott explains how we can employ radical candor when assessing employees. Included is an explanation of how to have constructive conversations about our assessments.
Now that we know how to communicate and have a solid team motivated to work, Scott spends Chapter 4 explaining how to drive results. In a seven-step iterative model that includes listen, clarify, debate, decide, persuade, execute, and learn, we walk through different ways managers can facilitate collaboration. This model, like the other frameworks Scott defines in Chapters 2 and 3, are referenced in the remainder of the book.
When you look at the titles of Chapters 5–8, you might be underwhelmed: Relationships, Guidance, Team, and Results. These topics are not new, but Scott’s approach is effective, and I found these chapters must-read pages.
In the Guidance chapter, Scott talks about gender and how “gender politics” (p. 153) can impact work. With all the emphasis on diversity and inclusion, I appreciate that she spends several pages on the topic.
The direct approach continues in the Results chapter. Scott explains that as a manager, “One of your most important responsibilities to keep everything moving smoothly is to decide who needs to communicate with whom and how frequently” (p. 200). She walks through the ten things related to communication that managers need to do with specific examples of how to apply her philosophy.
Enthusiasm aside, you might not be in the right place to embrace the guidance I found so perfect when I read it. Buy a copy anyway. At some point, when you want a refresher on giving feedback or are strengthening your performance review muscles, you’ll pick up Radical Candor and it will be exactly what you need.
Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior
Not an obvious book to include in a series on management, I decided to include Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior because managers exert influence. We also need to motivate. I wanted to learn from Berger’s research to understand how I can leverage the latest findings in my workplace for optimal results.
In the Introduction, Berger assures me that I have chosen well: “This book is about the simple, subtle, and often surprising ways that others affect our behavior” (p. 14). Chapter 1 is a discussion of how people rely on others when feeling uncertain (p. 21). By looking at psychology studies, Berger guides us through an understanding of how conformity can be a powerful motivator. In technical communication, we think about conformity when we conduct competitive analysis.
I appreciate how Berger doesn’t rush the discussion. He considers the role of privacy and how people, at least in some cultures, value independence. By the end of the first chapter, it’s evident that influence is more complicated than you might imagine.
Chapters 2 and 3 continue the discussion started in Chapter 1. In “A Horse of a Different Color” (Chapter 2), how people distinguish themselves is the topic. This idea is communicated by a discussion of birth order and siblings (p. 69). In terms of management, as you get to know people on your teams, pay attention to everything that they feel comfortable sharing. Knowing a detail like, oldest of three kids, is helpful. In this example, the employee understands how odd-numbered teams might leave someone out. You never know when this information is something you can use to drive better collaboration.
Things get interesting in Chapter 4 when we think about the familiar and distinct play together to influence people. Berger uses names, like Emily and Apple (p. 153), to explain that we have different reactions to names, even when the words are familiar. For some people, the ordinary is boring and the unique is esoteric. As managers, we must think about how to leverage what’s familiar and distinct when managing change. Berger doesn’t talk about change management by name in this chapter, but it was on my mind as I thought about how people handle new names, alphabets, and technologies.
Change is a topic called out in chapter 5 as Berger discusses climate change, energy conservation, and how to motivate people to care about these global threats (p. 197). The discussion on motivation is extremely relevant to managers. For example, the idea that “people get more motivated as they get closer to their goal” (p. 214) might explain why a team likes to “come from behind” to achieve a deadline that seems slightly out of reach. For a goal that is extremely unattainable, team morale is likely lower.
Although I find Invisible Influence helpful in terms of management, it has the least amount of directly applicable advice. It’s a book that I found helping me in unexpected ways and that’s because I was paying attention for ways to extrapolate what I was learning. For a more directly applicable book, read Radical Candor or The Manager’s Path.
Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t
How Great Leaders Inspire Action, by Simon Sinek, is the third most popular TED Talk. You could watch this 18-minute video and have most of the same information shared in Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. The title refers to a tradition in the military described in the Forward, written by Retired Lieutenant General (U.S. Marine Corps) George Flynn. Flynn recounts the practice of the most senior leaders in the military eating after all the less senior people. Why? To ensure that the team has plenty as a demonstration of leadership. As Sinek and Flynn share, a leader demonstrates more care about team than self (p. xiii).
This story is a touching, if not overly sentimental, way to kick off the book. For managers, Sinek’s goal is to inspire you to lead teams. Management and leadership are two different things. Managers set expectations and find ways to drive accountability. Great managers understand that they are viewed as the de facto leader and that the needs for leadership vary by situation.
Sinek doesn’t get specific regarding his guidance regarding leadership. His book includes 27 chapters, divided into 8 parts. For the first 272 pages, it seems that Sinek is making a case for leadership. By the time I read, “It would seem that in the dire scenario, we are our own best hope” (p. 271), I am feeling the lack of leadership. The final 16 pages are the motivational speech of a locker room coach working his team up to go out and have a great second half. Closing the book with the same sentimentality that started it, Sinek writes, “If this book inspired you, please pass it on to someone you want to inspire” (p. 288).
In the intervening chapters, you will find some sentences that throw a few leadership principles: “The only thing our leaders ever need to do is remember whom they serve, and it will be our honor and pleasure to serve them back” (p. 83), and “So goes the leadership, so goes the culture” (p. 168). The lack of depth is disheartening.
Given Sinek is a popular figure and can work with different groups, I anticipated a book full of practical ideas that I could apply at work. I was disappointed. Although I found Leaders Eat Last a quick read, there are better books about leadership; for example, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown has some excellent guidance about leadership.
Newer editions of Leaders Eat Last, including the copy I was provided for this review, include an appendix about leading millennials (p. 289). As someone who has managed and led people of various ages, I found this section trite. When we stereotype the people we’re leading, we undermine our ability to lead. If you read the book, skip this section.
There is an extensive section of notes backing up the stories included in Leaders Eat Last. Great to know he cares enough to include the notes, but I don’t care for this book enough to recommend it.
Berger, J. (2016). Invisible influence: The hidden forces that shape behavior. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. [ISBN 978-1-4767-5969-2. 264 pages, including index. USD$26.99.]
Fournier, C. (2017). The manager’s path: A guide for tech leaders navigating growth & change. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media. [ISBN 978-1-491-97389-9. 226 pages, including index. USD$34.99 (softcover).]
Scott, K. (2017). Radical candor: Be a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press. [ISBN 978-1-250-10350-5. 246 pages, including index. USD$26.99.]
Sinek, S. (2017). Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t. New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin. [ISBN 978-1-59184-801-1. 350 pages. USD$17.00 (softcover).]
About the Author
Angela Robertson is a senior manager at Microsoft and has written book reviews for Technical Communication since 1998. Before working at Microsoft, she worked at IBM and Red Hat. She writes about management and leadership as an Open Organization Ambassador for opensource.com.
Table 1. Books on management compared
|The Manager’s Path||Radical Candor||Invisible Influence||Leaders Eat Last|
|Audience||Beginner to advanced||Intermediate to advanced||Beginner to advanced||Beginner|
|Comments||Trustworthy, detailed guide for leaders and managers in the tech industry. Good value.||Excellent value. Recommended for anyone who wants to be a more effective communicator.||Although not directly related to management, the information is relevant, and it’s a great read.||Skip this book. Watch his TED Talk.|
|Rating (5-star scale)||****||*****||***||*|