A few weeks ago I sat down to check out an event hosted by Matt Greenberg for our Reforge members.
It was full of advice on how to become a better manager, lead a team effectively, and, unsurprisingly, manage up.
For those of you who don’t know Matt, he is currently the CTO of Reforge, an engineering legend, and an all-around great guy.
Throughout the event, he dropped a ton of actionable advice and knowledge on all of us.
Intertwined with those insightful pieces of advice, he also had a lot of Hot Takes on managing up and management in general.
So I decided to collect five of the best quotes and controversial takes from that event that you can see below:
But instead of just filing those away for a rainy day, I decided to poll our collection of Reforge experts across marking, product and engineering.
All I wanted to know was if they agreed with the statement and some reasons why.
Thankfully seven of them responded to all of these Hot Takes in great detail.
So let’s see what they had to say!
Meet Our Experts
- Louis Bennett is the former VP of Engineering at VSCO, a photo/video app and social network. Prior to VSCO, he was a Head of Engineering at Intercom and Senior Director of Engineering at Trulia.
- Jeff Dwyer is an Executive in Residence at Reforge and the former VP of Engineering at ezCater, where he led the engineering team that built the ezCater Marketplace & Relish.
- Adam Fishman is an Executive in Residence at Reforge. He was the Chief Product and Growth Officer at Imperfect Foods, VP Product and Growth at Patreon, and Head of Growth at Lyft.
- Doa Jafri is an Operator in Residence at Reforge and a Fractional CTO for early-stage startups. She most recently built and led teams at Glossier and Thrive Global.
- Stephanie Kwok is an Executive in Residence at Reforge. Previously, she was VP of Customer Marketing at FanDuel, where she also held VP roles in Strategy & Operations as well as Engagement & Retention.
- Patrick Moran is an Executive in Residence at Reforge and was previously the Head of Consumer Marketing at Houzz. He also held leadership roles at Spotify, YikYak, and was one of the earlier marketing leaders at Netflix during its transition to original content.
- Natalie Rothfels is an Operator in Residence at Reforge and runs a leadership coaching practice. She has held product leadership roles at Quizlet and Khan Academy and was a classroom teacher before that.
What Is Managing Up?
Before we jump into the Hot Takes, let's take a few moments to define managing up.
It has become a common phrase over the past few years, but a lot of people are confused about what it really means. Or, they use the term to talk about a collection of somewhat related tactics.
At its core,managing up includes the actions you take as an individual to help your manager bring out the best in you and help your team reach its goals.
I think many people forget about the second half of that statement when they talk about managing up. And they only manage up to get support for their own projects or ideas.
But according to our Reforge experts, managing up should put your organizational and team goals first, followed by your personal goals.
In other words, you shouldn’t manage up selfishly to get a project approved if it doesn’t actually impact your company or team goals.
Now that we have a better understanding of managing up, let's jump into our CTO’s Hot Takes!
1. A lot of top managers were just in the right place at the right time.
Context: A lot of people are in the right place at the right time, leading them to believe that their work made a massive impact on the product. Just because the outcome was positive, it doesn’t mean the decisions they made were sound or helpful.
Right off the bat, we have a statement that every expert agreed with. There was only one other Hot Take that this group was unanimously on board with.
So let’s take a look at why they think that this Hot Take rang so true, no matter what industry or niche they came from.
There are a ton of situations in the tech or the startup world where someone will become a manager. Even if they weren’t the best candidate.
Adam Fishman believes that there are plenty of managers that just got lucky by being at a growing company.
In that same vein, some people are just afforded more opportunities than others. This quote from Natalie Rothfels breaks down a key blind spot that many of us have.
“We don't live in a meritocracy. No success happens in isolation — even if no other humans were purportedly involved. Systems are at play all around us, despite how much we like to think individual meritocracy is the core of success.”
I bet you have been tricked into thinking that someone at a high-growth company was a superstar until you worked with them. And despite their misguided efforts, the company or team is still extremely successful.
This intersects with something that Doa Jafri said as well:
“The number of managers that fail up is amazing. When leaders at the very top don't have strong management skills, they struggle to recognize whether or not the people below them have management skills. Promotions are then based on likeability or the ability to "get things done." This conflation of IC skills and management skills leads to the normalization of poor management.”
But some experts think that it isn’t as simple as managers failing upwards.
Top employees might have ended up in a management position because a company didn’t know how to reward their hard work. Or have yet to adopt more realistic career paths for their employees.
Successful independent contributors are commonly pushed into those management positions as well. Especially if a company wants to promote from within.
Patrick Moran has also experienced this phenomenon at previous companies. “A lot of top managers I've worked with have also been promoted from within, mostly because they knew how to scale their impact way past their domain expertise.”
However, there’s commonly a skill mismatch between what helped those people successfully run a project and what helps them become great senior managers.
Jeff Dwyer broke this idea down well by stating that companies usually stack the deck on high-impact projects with high performers. If they are successful on that project they end up with increased visibility, experience, and trust which leads to promotion, whether or not their skills are really right for the next level.
At one of my previous companies, a lot of the managers and directors were in those positions because they had been with the company for the longest. And the skills that they used as a great designer or engineer didn’t translate well to a managerial position.
At Reforge, we have a saying that goes something like “What got you here, won’t get you there.” And I see that idea being ignored constantly when companies try to fill management positions with their top independent contributors.
That said, I want to highlight one more thing before we move on to the next section. This Hot Take is likely going to be viewed through the lens of bad managers, but it also can apply to managers that rise to the occasion.
Stephanie Kwok summarizes this idea exceptionally well:
“I was able to rise really rapidly at FanDuel, and a lot of that is because of how much the company grew and evolved while I was there. I had a lot of opportunities to take on more responsibility - and also had to be prepared for those opportunities when they came up.”
Sometimes being in the right place can bring out the best parts of a manager, and lead to long-term success.
Most of my career has been built on the idea of being in the right place at the right time but also being able to rise to that challenge.
Check Out The Full Clip:
2. You can’t change a bad manager.
Context: You were dealt a hand, play it as best you can. When stuck between a rock and a hard place, you can’t change the rock.
With this simple quote, I think Matt Greenberg outlined a key frustration many of us have felt throughout our careers.
This feeling of helplessness can quickly motivate employees to find another company that values their contributions. It has happened to me more than a few times throughout my career.
And no matter how well you manage up, they still are going to be a bad manager.
Unlike our previous Hot Take, the experts were split on how they felt about this statement. Only 4 agreed with this slightly inflammatory claim.
However, the main through-line was that you can’t change a bad manager by yourself.
According to Natalie Rothfels, change cannot happen unless the manager wants to change and improve.
“We can plant the seeds of change, but we also have to nurture it to turn into sustained growth.”
Adam Fishman goes on to explain that if someone can get over themselves and their ego, real change can happen.
Both of them agree that if a manager is willing to take feedback and motivated to improve, then real change can happen. If not, then it might be time to look for a new position!
Although you do have to give them time to become better managers. You can’t expect this change to happen overnight.
Doa Jafri echoes this sentiment, “Everyone starts out as a bad manager, so you have to work to become a good manager.”
The first step in improving outcomes with an unideal manager is actually managing up. As a direct report, you must communicate with your manager about preferences, problems, and roadblocks.
Otherwise, they are never going to know that something needs to change.
I get how anxiety-inducing this can be, but at the end of the day all of us are human and they will likely appreciate you bringing a problem to their attention.
Many professionals already know that empathy is extremely important when managing down; however, they seem to forget this lesson when it comes to managing up.
- How To Manage Up
Even if you can’t directly change your manager, you can still make other changes to improve your day-to-day work.
Stephanie Kwok says, “It's hard to change other people, but you can change yourself and how you react to the situation you're in.”
Start by talking to other people on your team to get some insights into their managerial style.
You might find that they treat everyone poorly, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Or uncover some amazing strategies to help you deal with their negative attitude or massive ego.
And finally, Stephanie recommends thinking about if you can tolerate working with a bad manager for a long period. Some people can, and still do great work.
But if you’re like me, and strive to have positive relationships with your coworkers, your tolerance for toxic behavior might be pretty low.
One thing that I have appreciated in my time at Reforge is the openness and respect that every manager has for their reports.
Just a few weeks ago, my manager sat me down and asked very specific questions like:
- How do you like to receive feedback?
- What can I do to support your career development?
- How do you like to be recognized for your work?
- How have you communicated with past managers successfully?
By establishing those guidelines, a lot of future problems and misunderstandings can be avoided. And all it took was a quick chat on a sunny Wednesday morning.
Check Out The Full Clip:
3. Director roles are the worst at any company.
Context: Director is the worst role, you have to manage up and down extremely well. You are in a communications meat grinder at this point in your career, and you have to manage up to the C-level people.
Let’s be honest here, this was probably the most controversial Hot Take that I pulled from Matt. Unlike the others, this one provokes a quick and visceral reaction.
Or just a hearty laugh, which is exactly how Doa Jafri responded when I first sent her the statement.
Because it was such a provocative statement, most of our experts actually disagreed with the Hot Take. Only three of them agreed with it.
Let’s start by taking a look at why some believe that director roles are so terrible.
After Doa was done laughing at the statement, she pointed out that director roles are almost like purgatory.
“It's a particularly difficult position at a mature organization because you don't have the direct influence to make things happen like an EM or IC. But you also don't have the autonomy and authority to make meaningful decisions like you would as a VP or CTO either.”
As you can see, our experts are fond of very colorful metaphors to get their point across.
Who wouldn’t want to become a director if your colleagues are describing it as both a meat grinder and purgatory? Sign me up!
Louis Bennett added that it was “middle management at its hardest.” And getting out of a director role requires being in the right place at the right time.
One thing that everyone could agree with was that you learn a lot when in a director role. Stephanie Kwok explained that it can be both a fantastic or terrible position depending on what you like working on each day.
But I think the best response to this Hot Take comes from our resident OIR, Natalie Rothfels.
“The worst role at any company is the one that isn't valued, respected, aligned with strategy or well-suited for the individual filling it.”
That great advice could apply to directors, independent contributors, or new hires.
Just remember that you don’t have to stick around in a role that isn’t appreciated. So if you feel like you are stuck in purgatory or a metaphorical meat grinder, take some time to reevaluate your position.
And find a place where you are appreciated, like Reforge.
Check Out The Full Clip:
4. Time is the biggest opportunity cost in your career.
Context: Time is the biggest opportunity cost in your career and low-value projects/products can pull you down. When you spend time building something no one wants, that negativity compounds and can drag down your career.
Trust me, getting assigned to one bad project can really throw off your career progression, and the longer you stick around the more impact it will have.
Sometimes it can feel like a punishment, other times your manager just doesn’t know what you enjoy working on.
Whatever the reason, being stuck on a project that is going nowhere fast can be extremely discouraging.
Even if you are putting in great work each and every day, not many people will see it. And you can never get that time back.
That’s likely why all of our experts agreed, but for slightly different reasons, with this statement.
Doa Jafri stated that your first few jobs have a much bigger impact on your career than most people want to admit.
“The industries you learn about, the culture you're immersed in, the people you network with-- all of these things have an outsized impact on your career.”
Most people are so happy to have their first job, or get a promotion, that they don’t think about how it's going to change their career path. Or if it is going to help them achieve their goals in a few years.
Once you’re headed down a path, it’s really hard to get off that track. And even if you do, you have lost a ton of time and effort in the process.
She recommends being extremely careful about just taking any position without making sure it’s going to have a positive impact.
Obviously, that is easier said than done.
You won’t know whether a position is going to be a positive experience or not for a while. It might take you a year or so to start to see the warning signs.
Natalie Rothfels says that it's crucial to take a look at your current situation every so often and see if it's trending in a positive or negative direction.
To avoid the sunk cost fallacy, she advises taking time throughout the year to objectively answer that question.
If you see it trending in a negative direction after a few of those sessions, you might want to make a change. You can ask your manager or team to participate in a similar exercise as well.
As we have seen in a few of the other sections of this article, Stephanie Kwok has approached this Hot Take in a very positive light.
“Don't put unnecessary pressure on yourself for every single project you work on, but at the same time don't stay somewhere where you're not growing.”
In my experience, that pressure can actually cause you to not get the most out of your opportunity.
I think the final thing that you should remember when thinking about your career is that you’re in the driver's seat.
Jeff Dwyer states that people who can quickly learn and level up their business acumen skills can actually accelerate growth because they can push to be assigned to projects with higher potential.
He calls this a “super differentiator” that will lead to career advancement.
Patrick Moran has a very similar viewpoint, “People who can leverage what they've learned from the initiatives they've led or have been a part of is the biggest lever for career advancement.
You are the only one that can make a change to improve your situation, make sure you don’t put it off for too long.
Last year I found an insightful quote about gardening and it said that you only get so many harvests in your lifetime. So try to make the most of each one.
Getting back time that was spent on something that didn’t bear fruit or reach its full growth potential is impossible.
Just like it would be if you wasted time on a project or position that was going nowhere.
Adam Fishman would likely agree with this quote as well. According to him, you want to maximize your shots on goal and avoid being stuck doing things that no one else wants to do.
Check Out The Full Clip:
5. People don’t have bad ideas, but instead the best ideas for their context.
Context: Always start from the idea that someone else has the best idea for their context. And you may have the best idea for your context. The missing context will place people on different levels and cause disagreements.
This final Hot Take actually came from Adam Grenier, who was speaking at the same event. But I liked it so much I wanted to include it!
Out of all the Hot Takes in this article, this one resonated with me the most. And it has been bouncing around in my head ever since I heard it a few weeks ago.
As someone that is swimming in content ideas at all times, it's essential to remember that not everyone has the same context. Especially when you pitch it to a manager or team member the first time.
That’s why I think it is so important to bring someone up to speed before sending them a new idea or process.
Stephanie Kwok says that it's essential to remember that everyone has a unique point of view that has been shaped by their past experiences and knowledge.
Taking the time to make sure your manager has all the context when making a decision is an essential part of managing up. Otherwise, you’re setting them up for failure.
Our experts were split on this Hot Take, with only four agreeing. I found this rather surprising because it seems like a rather simple statement. But once I took a deep dive into their answers, everything made sense.
The experts that disagreed with the statement all fell into a similar camp. Patrick Moran, Doa Jafri, and Jeff Dywer said that people just have bad ideas sometimes, even with all the important information at their fingertips.
Doa takes this one step further by pointing out that people think their ideas are amazing because they thought of them in the first place.
There’s a lot of bias and emotion that get wrapped up in sharing new ideas, especially with managers or executives. And when emotions run high, simple miscommunication can escalate quickly to a big disagreement.
Adam Fishman makes a fantastic point about this by saying, “Executives have all the strategic context; team members don't have important strategic context.”
Leaders end up dismissing the ideas without realizing that their team members only have a limited amount of information.
Sometimes they will even chastise people for those “bad” ideas that were just missing context.
Natalie Rothfels believes that context is much more important than any of us realize.
“It’s very easy to obsess with the idea that there's a single right answer to every problem. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: many of us were raised in educational settings that incentivized and rewarded this mentality to find the one correct solution and pencil it in on your scantron.”
She goes on to say that when we have the impulse to call something a good or bad idea, “We tend to be more concerned with how others perceive us than how well the problem, solution, and goals match up.”
We then end up ignoring lots of context, detail, and nuance in order to reinforce our existing views. All of that information is very important when looking at a problem critically.
There are many different ideas that can be used to solve a problem. But when we start looking for the perfect one, we can get lost in the process and never actually solve it.
In contrast, Louis Bennett thinks that lack of context is actually a superpower.
“Sometimes the lack of context is what makes for the best ideas. For example, people without context often come up with better ideas – precisely because they don't know about or care about the “why” behind the current system’s implementation.”
Think about all the times you talk to someone outside of your company or team and they come up with a radically different but valuable idea.
The lack of context helps you take a step back and think about it in a new way. Some of my best ideas have surfaced in an exercise like this.
After all of these interesting responses, I think I agree with this Hot Take.
Most people are honestly giving their best to come up with solid ideas. I don’t think anyone is truly suggesting bad ideas at a meeting, they might just not have the full context.
Your job as a coworker or manager should be to help them improve their ideas, not shoot them down.
At the end of the day, we all have a ton of bad ideas.
Check Out The Full Clip:
Do you know what wasn’t a bad idea?
Talking to all of our experts and seeing if they agreed with the Managing Up Hot Takes!
All of the experts brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to each statement.
Now, did any of them change your mind about any Hot Takes?
Here they are again if you forgot:
I know that I feel a little more strongly about the first Hot Take, and had my mind blown by the last one. And I will use a lot of the managing up tips that our experts outlined too.
If you want to learn more about managing up, I recommend checking out this guide from other Reforge experts like Matt Greenberg, Valerie Wagoner, Dor Levi, and Anne Lewandowski.