Manager Hack: A Simple Weekly Email

Google, like most big companies, has frequent re-orgs. I’ve had 5 or 6 managers while I’ve been at Google. One of the things I’ve struggled with is how to get a new manager up to speed on my team and also how to help them have confidence in my abilities as a manager. After working with some mentors, I’ve settled on a simple weekly email that has been remarkably effective at onboarding a new manager and giving them confidence in my work as a manager.

Section One: Team Highlights

The first part of my email is team highlights. In this section, I include a single sentence about something good or interesting that each person on my team did in the last week or so. This section is the most important and it serves a bunch of different purposes.

First of all, it makes me focus on what is going well. I’m a worrier and sometimes I focus too much on the negative. I appreciate a weekly reminder to take a step back and look at all the good stuff that’s happening.

Second, it provides visibility upwards. Some of the folks I manage are good at self-promotion. Some are not. By writing this email I make sure that everyone gets some visibility with management every week. This also gives my boss enough information to offer congratulations, share career resources, or have useful skip level 1:1s with my team.

Third, it provides talking points. One of the most important things I can do as a manager is to ensure that my managers and stakeholders have a ready answer to “What is Aja’s team doing?” or “What are we doing with this product?” This email allows me to provide short, easy-to-remember, talking points for my management. This means that if they’re put on the spot there’s a reasonable chance they’ll have an answer ready. And if they don’t they’ll know which email to go look at for the answer.

Finally, this gives my reports a reason to do weekly status updates. One of the challenges of managing advocates is that often, everyone is working on something different and completely unrelated. For example, my team does advocacy for a few dozen products and communities. To keep track of everything that’s going on I rely on weekly status updates. But a lot of folks, including me, don’t like doing them. So I promise my team that if they do their status updates, I’ll include one item from their update as their “highlight” of the week in my email. I believe this gives a bit more incentive for keeping their status reports up to date.

Section Two: On My Mind

The other section of my weekly email is titled “On My Mind.” In this section, I include a few sentences about 2 - 5 top-of-mind items. It isn’t an exhaustive report on everything going on, but semi-strategically picked items from a few categories I’ve identified after years of writing this email.

Category 1 is “anything that might be an unpleasant surprise to my boss.” Multiple of my mentors have recommended having a “no surprises” rule with your boss. This weekly email provides me a good chance to give a heads up to my manager about anything brewing that they may not be aware of yet. I’m sure to make it clear if I need help with the issue or not. And when I have a plan I include a sentence about what I’m doing so that my boss can be confident things are being handled appropriately.

The second category is my career. Like many managers, I can get so focused on my team and the projects that I neglect my own career. As I’m writing this mail every week I quickly ask myself if there are any career issues I’m concerned about or specific things my manager can help me with. I also will include any of my career successes, including times I’ve successfully mentored others or delegated work.

Category 3 is hiring and team dynamics. If I’m actively hiring I always include a sentence or two about how it is going. If there are updates on my partner teams I’ll summarize those. And on the rare occasions that there are interpersonal issues or organization issues that are impacting my team I’ll ask any questions I have here.

Example

If it helps you understand better, here’s an example of the type of email I send. All the details are made up but the tone is very similar to what I write every week.

Aja’s Team Update - 11 Jan 2021

Team Highlights:
Nick: Gave a well-received talk at the XYZ conference last week.
David: Completed a friction log on the upcoming release of ABC product that resulted in 6 bugs.
Anna: Continued work with Partner X, challenges from last week have been resolved.

On My Mind:
Partner X: As mentioned above, there have been some issues with Partner X asking for more time and attention than we can give them right now. We’ve laid out in email what we can promise them and set a clear timeline. They’ve responded that this is okay, so I think we’ve addressed the issue.
Performance Reviews: I’m worried about the timing of reviews this year. It overlaps with our planning for the double super secret event. Can we start work on my review early my that I can work on it before I’ve got both the event and reviews for my team to work on?
Hiring: Got a couple of good candidates from the sourcers this week. The candidate who interviewed last week didn’t do well so I have to pass :-(. Hoping that the candidate going onsite next week will do better.
Time Off: Lots of folks on my team are approaching the PTO maximum. In our team meeting next week I’m going to encourage folks to take some time this quarter. Any issues with that?

Reception

I’ve used this technique with 6 different direct or skip managers and they’ve all responded to it differently, some respond to it. Some ask questions about the content in 1:1s. Others show they’ve read it through their behavior. After more than two years, I believe that no matter the response this is worth doing most weeks. Writing it helps me feel more on top of my job as a manager. And this email helps me reassure my manager(s) that I’m on top of my areas of responsibility and that my direct reports are doing well. That’s a heck of a return on investment for an email that takes me 10 minutes to write.