Molly Graham's Counterintuitive Rules for Being a Better Manager
Startup Codex

Molly Graham has considerable management experience in the world of start-ups. After starting her career at Google, she experienced the first years of growth at Facebook where she helped build the HR department before taking over as head of Mobile. She became COO of Lambda School in 2020.

In this interview, she offers six solid (and conterintuitive) rules for startup managers.

Here are some verbatim to give you a taste of the tone of the interview. Graham really goes into detail on each of these points, and the full interview really deserves the attention of any manager, regardless of their level of experience.

Management is not Leadership

"Management isn’t telling people what to do. It isn’t setting a vision and aligning the work around it. That’s leadership"

"True management is the act of making the people around you better. Management is about investing in people, figuring out who they are, what they're good at, what motivates them, and then aligning the work a company has to do with their role and their growth areas."

"Management is one of the hardest jobs in the world. Only people who have certain characteristics and certain ‘loves’ should be managers"

Don't try to create robots. Focus on managing the what, not the how.

"You often see people trying to direct their team in terms of exactly how they would have done it."

"Some of the best management relationships are the ones with the person who goes about it in a totally different way than you would’ve, but they still get there in the end."

Good managers never create a second patient.

Prendre soin de soi pour pouvoir prendre soin de son équipe.

"As a manager, one of the hardest management skills is learning to take care of yourself first."

"it’s almost impossible to help anyone as a manager if you're drained and burnt out. As managers, we often think we come second, that we have to make sure the team is okay first"

"But in doing so, you only end up draining your own energy" [...] "not realizing that you're doing a disservice to your team members by making yourself into a patient. You need to be your best self for them"

Spend more time than you think you need to with your high performers.

"You should be spending the majority of your time with the people who are moving the needle — the folks who are your highest performers and have the potential to change the company"

"It's really easy to think, ‘That person is so strong, they just take care of themselves. I'll go focus on the rest of my team"

"To me, as a manager you’re looking to bring out the maximal optimized version of each person. So when you have someone who’s doing really well, the question should be, ‘How can they do even better? How can you make their growth explode?"

Set expectations, but know that you're not always the one who needs to bring the clarity.

"When I was managing a team [...] I first started with: Do people's roles make sense? Do they know how they fit in? How they align to the business? Then the second piece is, do they know what's expected of them? Do they know what success looks like? 80% of the time when I go into a team that's struggling, the answers to those questions is no."

"Once you define it, you’ll usually find that someone who’s in that role isn’t actually a fit for what the business needs"

The difficulty is that at the beginning of a startup you don't have all the answers. Graham takes from one of her experiences where the sales team needed more structure than she could provide. This led to some difficult conclusions:

"I'm not going to be able to provide you with clarity. I actually need people who bring their own clarity and structure. And that’s because I don't have a lot of the answers right now. You seem like someone who actually wants a playbook, and I'm not going to be able to give it to you because that's just not where we are as a business. And I don't want you to spend two years inside of an organization where you're constantly feeling unsuccessful.’"

Direct is kind. Have the hard conversation - earlier than you think you need to.

"People can grow and change at any point in their career. But I believe most people haven’t been given the chance to do so because they haven't gotten honest feedback."

"Humans don't like having hard conversations. [...] One of the biggest management skills to work on is being direct with people."

Graham’s advice is to start on these communication skills as early as possible.

"Have a foundational check-in conversation about how things are going with new hires. If you can talk about the five things that are going amazing, and the three things aren't working, it makes it so much easier three months later to say, ‘Here’s a bunch more stuff that's not working.’ If you start that habit early, it gets a lot easier to have direct conversations with people. But if you wait until something's really not working, then you end up surprising your direct reports and having worse conversations that are much more stressful."

"I always write down the number one message that a person needs to hear and understand. Then I try to make sure I say it a couple times in the conversation. The following week, I’ll actually have that person repeat it back to me to make sure we’re on the same page. ‘What did you hear last week? What’s your articulation of what’s going on?’"

The job of a manager is to bring out the best in people. And that’s not something that many get joy out of.