Coaching upwards? Pair-blog #3


In case you haven’t read about my pair-blogging idea before, a short summary from the first post:

A while back I asked on Twitter for people who would be up for pair-blogging. The idea was that we agree on a topic and a date and then we each write a post about that topic. We publish on the same date and promote each other’s posts. 

I happened to see a conversation on Twitter between Anne-Marie Charrett and Lisa Crispin about topics for blogging so of course I took the opportunity to ask Anne-Marie if she wanted to pair. And she did!

The absolute best part of this experiment has been that I have been forced to dig deep and apply my experience from different parts of my background to find a way to approach different topics suggested. Anne-Marie is a very good coach and chose a very interesting topic in that area: ”How do you coach upwards?”, originating from a question she got at the Testbash coaching panel. This was a very interesting challenge for me and I had to think pretty hard to figure out how to attack it. I hope you like it!

You can find Anne-Marie’s post here.

Coaching upwards?

In order to make sure you as a reader understand my viewpoint, let me define how I see the separation between teaching, mentoring and coaching.

  • When teaching I take the role of the expert with the goal to make someone else learn a particular skill. I probably use a pretty fixed set of exercises and I am usually very active in steering the work.
  • When I mentor, I still have a goal to make someone learn a skill that I happen to be better at. But I take a step back and I guide more than steer. Personally, in mentoring, I still have some sort of ”truth” that I guide us towards and I give advice (when asked or when I deem it needed to proceed).
  • Coaching, to me, is more about guiding someone to find the answers themselves. Not only because it’s more fulfilling to solve it for yourself but also because it is probably answers I don’t even have. Coaching does not require me to be an expert regarding the topic. To be honest, sometimes I find it a lot harder to coach when it is an area of my expertise. I don’t have the answer. You have the answer and hopefully I can help you find it.

In reality, it is rarely that black and white. Most of the time I sway between the three different roles. Even when coaching I have found that I come across situations where it does not make sense to not give a direct answer to something.

I have always have a preference to mentoring. I find it comes the most natural to me and it is something I tend to fall back into unless I actively try not to. With increased experience with developing people it has also become easier to stick to coaching but especially when I know ”the answer” (or one answer at least), I need to bite my lip to stick with coaching.

Long winded introduction. This post was about coaching upwards.

My initial thought was: I never do that. I inform ”upwards” and coach/mentor ”downwards”.

But. I don’t think that is true either. I just use a very situational leadership take to things and I’ve often assumed people ”upwards” needed more of a direct approach. When I think ”upwards” I tend to think either at least 2 levels ”directly above me” or potentially someone who has no knowledge whatsoever about the thing I want done. One of my favourite managers ever told me: ”The higher up the communication is aimed, the less information you can use. Highest management? Draw a huvudfoting*”.

Picture of a kids drawing of human as a head with legs on

A ”Huvudfoting” is usually the first figures children draw of a human. It is a head with legs directly connected to the head, making the head the entire body. This is an important step in learning to depict reality

And I guess that has stuck with me. I was never very good at subtle. I always fought for stuff and never understood why it sometimes got me places and sometimes got me nowhere. I really should think about coaching upwards more. I most definitely default to old traditional management styles when ”talking to power”. And even if I can Alpha as well as the next manager, maybe I should try the coaching approach more often? I guess upper management is people too?

However: If I think about people like my direct manager, I use a mix of telling my opinion, mentoring (if I know more about the subject) and coaching. And I guess it helps that most of my managers have been people who openly trust my opinion and are comfortable with feedback. In those cases, I coach upwards just as I coach anyone else. If I don’t trust my manager, or when they are not open to being coached (because coaching without consent is just not ok with me), I fall quiet and I leave. Which I didn’t think of until I was writing this: how trust and allowing someone else to help make you better is such an important part of me being happy in a workplace.

I also think maybe my reality is way different to the person who asked. I am in a management position. That position comes with expectations to be ”the expert” but also with privileges, such as people expecting you to take charge and make decisions. And before I was a manager I didn’t know how to shut up about things that mattered to me (I still struggle with that. It is better though) so I would never have been able to coach upwards. It took a lot of training to be able to shut up about my own opinions!

If someone asked me how they should go about making their manager, or someone else in any type of position of power, I am sure I would suggest coaching and/or making a very clear business case. And I ask my reports for feedback over and over and over again until they give me something to work on. So it is really weird that I don’t do it myself!

From my experience, influencing people is all about trust. . That trust can come in a variety of flavours, among those: 

  • They trust YOU and therefore by default be positive to things you suggest.
    This is your preferred position but rarely enough. If you are here however, people will default to wanting to help you.    
  • They trust YOUR STORY, meaning you have proposed a good business case  (how will they/the company gain from your suggestion).
    For most of us, this is where we need to focus. This is where we can lean on facts, numbers and a solid why.
  • Or possibly they trust YOUR POSITION, meaning you are in a position where they agree you have the mandate to do what it is you want to do.
    But this only works if you are indeed in a position of power.

From my leadership training, one of the things that resonated the most with me was that influencing requires work. Start working on building trust, move on to collaboration and then you can start influencing. If you build a solid base of trust – your job will be ever so much easier! For this, I really like the 30 principles for how to win trust and influence people from Dale Carnegie. They are divided into three main parts that sums it up well:

  1. Enhance relationships & build trust
  2. Gain cooperation & Win people to your way of thinking
  3. Be a leader


I really should begin consciously coaching upwards more. I lean way too much on trusting that my position and/or my reputation will get me results. My mother always told me I should ”make people believe it was what they wanted” (as in Dad. Who never did respond well to being pushed).

Maybe, just maybe, I finally get it.
Thanks Ann-Marie!

Again: make sure to read Anne-Marie’s post, it takes a different angle to it and is a lot more directly actionable 🙂