Can Coaching “Up” Really Work?

How does one coach “up” to a boss, manager, or even a CEO? I have the pleasure of not only working as an executive coach, but also teaching the Coaching Certificate program from ATD (formally ASTD). In almost every class, the same statement is made: “This is such great information. How can I get my manager to act more like a coach?”

My answer is through you—you can use the skills you have acquired in coaching as a means of changing the conversation up the chain. Your change in behavior will begin to change the environment in which you operate. I might also point out that changing the way you have conversations with your boss can also lead to increased trust and collaboration between the two of you.

Many of my coaching clients at the executive level seek out my services, because they want a trusted advisor and confidant to work through decisions and challenges facing their organization. While the need for executive coaches is key for professional development, having other internal coaching conversations with direct reports creates more openness and transparency, and can often allow for quicker decision making or course corrections.

So, what is the best way to coach up? I mentioned changing the conversation earlier. By changing your intent and tone to incorporate global listening, as well as using dialogue techniques, you can strengthen your conversations. Let’s look at a situation and incorporate some examples.

Let’s say that your boss has just learned that he will take over a product group that has been struggling to make revenue numbers. He has called you into his office to discuss the situation and you can see that he is visibly stressed.

He starts the conversation off by saying, “Our team has been doing great. The addition of this new group is going to bring extra work and risk to our numbers. I am thinking the best solution is to fire the director of that group and have Tim from our team take over.”

At this point, instead of simply agreeing with his solution (even though you can see he is agitated) come back to him with empathy and clarifying questions: “I can see where this situation puts more pressure on you, can you help me better understand how this would play out by painting me a picture of the new operating environment?”

This approach allows you to demonstrate empathy for your boss without agreeing with what he said. You have acknowledged his stress, and as a way of helping him calm down to walk through his thinking you have asked “laddering questions,” which build on what your boss is saying.

“What might be another approach? We should get all the options in the open.” Asking this question is another way to keep the dialogue going. You are also walking through the decision making process with your boss rather than hearing about it after his decision has already been made.

Be sure to thank your boss for bringing you into the conversation, and let him know that the next time he has decisions to work through and would like to bounce ideas around, you will make yourself available. This is a great way to elevate your value and become a partner to your boss.

Establishing a supportive and trusting environment is only one way to improve coaching in the workplace. Learn more about promoting open, flexible, and confident relationships through ATD’s Coaching Certificate program.


As an organizational development, leadership, human capital and project management expert with 20 years of experience in high end consulting, Jennifer loves to work with organizations that want more, are willing to take risks and even step on the ledge a bit in order to push change and innovation that align strategy with  performance to produce positive business results.  As CEO of Emergent Performance Solutions, she brings her entrepreneurial spirit balanced with years of practical experience; in order to provide opportunities that are fun, exciting and highly productive.  She coaches, teaches and consults with government and industry leaders to create high performance environments that directly impact the mission of the change culture and the bottom line.  She shares in the thought leadership community through speaking at conferences, publishing works and engaging the community.  She has a notable reputation for innovation, creativity and reliability as well as her dynamic ability to fully engage her audiences through competence and humor.

This article was first published in on www.td.org/publications.