Recently, I had a conversation with an organization where one of the managers felt like there would be greater traction with their end of the year engagement study results if upper level management participated in coaching and mentoring. He presented a true fear of having such a conversation as it was filled with political potholes and risk. What is a manager to do?
The key to coaching upward is never to solely disseminate advice or your perspective of frustration. Rather, the goal of coaching upward is to provide visibility and protection, while addressing the issue at hand. For example, approaching an upper level manager, where there is potential risk, should include the use of a permission question and the sword. For example, "Bob, I wanted to share some perspective with you, of course, with your permission, because I do not want to assume where you're coming from and/or what you know, which I think would be horribly unfair to you". This type of approach creates an ownership of the question on your behalf and puts a less defensive position on the upper level manager that you're approaching. After being granted permission, the key is to use words carefully, such as "visibility," "insight," or "perspective." Here's an example. "Bob, thanks for allowing me to do this. We were recently in a meeting talking about the end of the year engagement study and one of the things that came out was a lack of engagement related to our coaching and mentoring program from upper management. One of the comments that was made was that a few managers felt if upper level management participated we would have a lot more traction. We would be able to decrease our turnover and have a better opportunity of recruiting top talent. I wanted to share this perspective and insight with you, not just to give you the information, but also to insulate you from that feedback or of it potentially blindsiding you, which again, I think would be very unfair to you." After approaching it this way, that manager or upper level manager has a choice. They can receive it or not receive it, but the fact of the matter is a seed has been planted. They will ultimately choose if it will grow.
Coaching upward is about protecting upper level management. It's not about agreeing with upper level management. Coaching is about using questions, and providing perspective, and ultimately, choices. When coaching upward, if you feel like there is political risk, or hardship potentially gained by approaching an upper level manager, ask for advice. Ask an upper level manager, "What would you advise me to do if I feel like I have some perspective that would protect the executive team from being potentially blindsided or scrutinized unfairly?" If an upper level manager provides you that advice and insight, you can certainly ask them for permission to use their name in terms of approaching the issue. These two high level strategies will position you successfully.
We are all stewards of the organizational culture but if there is fear of having these conversations have we really earned the right to complain about upper level management and their decisions if we do not provide them insight or information that could assist them?
Here's a podcast overview that hopefully will provide some greater insight.