Strength in vulnerability – using personal user manuals to work well with others

Personal user manuals are one of my favorite tools. At a low point in my management career, sharing personal user manuals within my team rescued my deteriorating relationship with a high performing PM. After we learned from each other how to better communicate, our relationship improved and we continued to work together happily. It was a tough near-miss and made the value of this radically transparent communication tool obvious to me.

I strive to live in the model of leadership that PUMs express – be authentically yourself, share your mistakes and areas for improvement, and continue to grow. Vulnerability, openness to change, and self-awareness are the bedrock traits of a growth mindset. As Dr. Brené Brown writes, “There is no innovation and creativity without failure.” (If you’re not yet familiar with Dr. Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability, her iconic TED talk is a great place to start.)

How and why to build a personal user manual

By sharing your expectations, preferences, and areas for development with your team, you massively accelerate your ability to work with other people. It is a marauder’s map for your personality. And by being honest and really sharing, you open yourself up to grow.

I first heard about personal user manuals from my husband Yanda Erlich while he was the CEO of his fourth venture-backed technology startup, Parsable. (He’s now running the early stage fund along with Matt Mazzeo at Coatue.) Yanda developed and published a template to help people build their own personal user manuals, and his template is what I recommend everyone build from.

A good personal user manual is a two-way street. No one should expect that others conform to their way of working. Just because you told people that you hate loud noises between 12n and 3pm doesn’t make tiptoeing around you their responsibility. Write your own manual and read others’ – the template is meant to be a shared document.

A good personal user manual is honest. You’ll likely list things that you’ve heard from managers and coworkers here as well as anything you’ve noticed about yourself. If at least one item on the list doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you didn’t dig deeply enough. Your list can be long and may include the following (this bit is lifted directly from Yanda’s template):

  • How you communicate with others (tone, language, level of curt-ness, etc…) — to minimize others misunderstanding you
  • How you like to be communicated with — to help other help minimize your misunderstanding them
  • Things that make you happy at work
  • Pet peeves: things others do that drive you bonkers
  • Your self-perceived flaws — so others know you’re introspective & working on it
  • A couple things you’d like others to help you get better at

Oh h*ck here’s mine 🙈

I can’t very well quote Brené Brown in this blogpost and then hold back, can I? Here’s my personal user manual.

  1. I’m a direct person with a confident presence. My tone of voice will often sound assured even when the thought or opinion I’m expressing isn’t set in stone in my mind. I relish having my mind changed and operate very much with strong opinions, weakly held. I do not mean to bulldoze, but I sometimes do.
  2. Once I’ve gotten to know someone in person, I’m happy to communicate by text for most things. I use emojis to convey tone and am also fine with Slack. I don’t love email and am less responsive there than on text. That said, I value in person time and will fly long distances for it, especially to collaborate with people.
  3. I love and value feedback. I want to learn and improve myself in all realms of my life. I try to always have a growth mindset and value that in others. I have a therapist, an executive coach, a weightlifting coach, and I read a lot of psychology and self-improvement books/articles. I would love your cool productivity tip, book recommendation, or candid feedback.
  4. I trust people by default and assume the best intentions. I’m trying to be less trusting and more circumspect given that technology (and leadership in most industries) is heavily populated by sociopaths.
  5. I’m a very honest person — sometimes too honest. Friends and coworkers can rely on me to be transparent, even when it may disadvantage me. I have thought a lot about whether to change this and have decided not to. Instead I focus on being kind and have learned the difference between my truth and the truth.
  6. I strongly dislike dishonesty and hidden agendas. Once I learn that that is a core mode for how someone operates, I will not trust them again.
  7. I’m quick to make decisions — sometimes too quick. This is something I continue to work on. I have strong opinions and (from years of building 0-to-1 software) am very oriented to make a decision and move on. I’m improving here but would love feedback if you think I’m moving too quickly.
  8. There’s nothing that makes me happier at work than watching people I believe in surpass their own expectations.

If you’d like to get started with your own personal user manual, start with this template.

Written by

Investor at Lightspeed Venture Partners. Former Director of Product @SlackHQ. Founder of Women in Product.

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