Book Review: “The Manager’s Path” by Camille Fournier

The Manager's Path book cover

I wish I had read The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier twenty years ago when I started down the path of being a manager. I could have avoided a lot of pain, confusion, and conflict for myself and those I was managing. I agree with much of what is in the book about what works mainly because I learned the hard way about what doesn’t work.

Better late than never, I suppose. To all of those people I worked with along the way who were on the receiving end of my management screw-ups, I’m really sorry.

With that apology out of the way, it was encouraging to see a lot of what we do at Excella aligns well to what is in the book. It means we’re probably doing something right.

The book basics.
The Manager’s Path covers the progression of someone moving out of a technical individual contributor role and into a role responsible for people. This progression includes mentoring of interns all the way to senior technology executive. The book accurately describes these as different jobs — jobs requiring different skills, perspectives, responsibilities, and accountabilities — and jobs certainly different than being an individual contributor.

The kind of manager we deserve.
It’s hard for me to come up with a better description of the qualities of a great manager than the one in the book, so here you go:

“Managers who care about you as a person, and who actively work to help you grow in your career. Managers who teach you important skills and give you valuable feedback. Managers who help you navigate difficult situations, who help you figure out what you need to learn. Managers who want you to take their job someday. And most importantly, managers who help you understand what is important to focus on, and enable you to have that focus.”

Yeah, that.

Being a manager is hard work.
Just try living up to that earlier definition of the manager we deserve. It’s tough. I thought this quote from the book captured the difficulty of being a manager quite nicely.

“Managing teams is a series of complex black boxes interacting with other complex black boxes.”

As a developing manager (still after twenty years), I’m just trying to get it right more than I get it wrong. And when I get it wrong, I hope I can learn from history so I’m not doomed to repeat it. The consequences of those mistakes land on others so take the role seriously and put in the work to get better.

A great perspective on being managed.
The book also provides a great perspective on how to be better as someone who is managed. It has a healthy dose of perspective on how the real world works — often contrary to how we think the world should work and definitely contrary to any sort of “me-centric” world view. For example, the book states bluntly, “Her job [as a manager] is to do the best thing for the company and the team. It is not to do whatever it takes to make you happy all the time.” It also delivers practical advice like seeking out feedback if you feel you aren’t getting enough of it, and bringing solutions to your manager, not problems.

“C” words.
The next thoughts are brought to you by the letter “C”.

  • Clarity. Make sure your team is clear about what they’re working on, why it’s important, and what is expected of them.
  • Conflict. It happens. Any time two or more people are in the same place at the same time, conflict is inevitable. As a manager, you need to manage conflict effectively. Conflict can even be a good thing if handled well.
  • Communication. The book makes the point that communication is the one trait that sets great managers apart from the merely good. Yes — and be prepared to do a lot of it.
  • Context. As a manager, you are the translation layer between your team and the rest of the organization. You need to share context about what’s going on with the rest of the organization with your team, and share what’s going on with your team with the rest of the organization.
  • Curiosity. The book states, “Get curious. When you disagree with something, stop to ask why.” Also, when it comes to the people who report to you, find out what makes them tick, what they like, and what they don’t like. Ask lots of questions. Don’t assume. You know what they say about assuming…
  • Caring. Part of what makes a great manager is caring about the individuals on the team — as human beings, not just workers. Care and concern for the well-being of others builds trust and connection, which makes work and life better.
  • Collaboration. You need to work with people up, down, and across to be effective. You and your team can’t go it alone.
  • Culture. Culture is a thing and it’s important. As a manager, you shape the culture by what you say, what you do, and what you reward. For my take on culture, you can check out my talk from DevOpsDays Baltimore.

After reading the book, I realize I still have a lot of learning to do and areas of improvement as a manager (just ask my team if you want confirmation). I found myself making lots of notes in the book like, “I need to do this,” “I need to do more of this,” or “I need to get better at this.” I guess that’s a good indication reading the book was a valuable use of time.

Another indication of the value of the book is changed behavior — mine, specifically. I started a couple of new practices with my team following my read.

RQOTW (“Random Question of the Week”).
Every Monday, I send out a random question to the team and invite them to share their answers. These questions are intended to help us get to know each other a little better as people and they aren’t related to work. Some of the questions I’ve asked are, “If you could have any job (other than the one you currently have) purely for the joy of doing it, what would it be?” and “If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?” We’ve gotten some valuable insights about each other through the answers to those questions. Once we get through some of the softballs, maybe I’ll start asking more probing questions like, “What makes you grumpy?” and “How can someone tell you’re frustrated?” (Note to my team: those questions are coming at some point.)

POTW (“Praise of the Week”).
This practice is based on a specific recommendation in the book.

“Even better, look for something to recognize weekly for everyone who reports to you.”

So I’m doing that. Every Friday, I send a note to my whole team mentioning something specific each person did that week that was praiseworthy. I feel terrific after sending it (I have a terrific team!) and I hope they do, too. At least I hope they feel appreciated and valued. I’m also trying to get better at delivering praise and reinforcement in the moment and not just waiting till the end of the week.

There are so many other valuable nuggets in the book. If I were to write about all of them, it would probably turn into a book about the book. Do yourself a favor. If you’re anywhere along the manager’s path, contemplating starting down the manager’s path, or have no interest in being a manager but just want to understand how to be managed better, read the book.

You’ll be a better manager, you’ll be better for the people you manage, and you’ll be better for the people who manage you. Everybody wins.