What is “Coaching Up”? How To Coach Your Boss


Do you ever feel like you could perform better, learn faster, or realize your potential more successfully…if you only had a little more from your manager or leader? As brilliant as they may be at their jobs, leaders are (also) humans and not necessarily great at everything. 

Maybe your boss could follow through more often, offer greater clarity about specific tasks, or coach you more effectively in general. Whatever it is, you’ve noticed they could use a helping hand to up their game but don’t know how to step in and be of value. You’re not even sure it’s your job!

Coaching is a two-way street. As an employee, you certainly can help your leader develop new skills and improve their performance—you just need the right approach.

This article will show you how.

What Is Coaching Up?

Coaching your leader is called “coaching up,” and it works on the same principles as “coaching down,” or when a manager guides and supports a colleague to achieve specific goals, strengthen new skills, and fulfill their potential. While it might involve a more delicate approach to timing, framing, and gaining your leader’s permission, coaching essentially comes down to offering your manager the help, support, and advice they need to develop.

Imagine that you need your manager’s feedback on a new product prototype in order to start planning the final design. The deadline for your product launch is fast approaching, and you’ve heard nothing back, despite asking her for input several times. This isn’t the first time you’ve been in a similar situation…

Coaching up can help you avoid this for the benefit of you, your manager, and the organization as a whole. Here are two key steps to “coaching your boss” successfully—preparing for the conversation that lies ahead and seeking their permission to discuss the issue.


The first step to any coaching conversation is preparation. To make a positive impact and give your discussion the best possible chance of going well, it’s essential to plan ahead regarding two topics:

  • What you want to say, and 
  • How you’ll say it.

Returning to your manager’s lack of feedback, for example, preparing for the conversation might involve highlighting your goal of a mutually beneficial outcome. Emphasize how more timely feedback can be an advantage to both you and them: Will it help you go to market sooner? Will it allow your team to make stronger decisions on the final product design?

The idea of coaching your leader can (quite understandably) be intimidating. But with some forethought about the conversation, there’s no reason it shouldn’t go well. 

The following tips can help you prepare for “coaching up” conversations with your boss:

  • Try to understand your manager’s situation as well as you possibly can. Learn what they have already done with regard to your concern (e.g., your boss may have drafted a feedback document) and find out what they need before you give your advice. This will save you both time and ensure you give the most useful guidance for their challenge. 
  • Clarify your topic before you go into the meeting. Give yourself enough time to practice what you want to say and how.
  • Take time to calm down if you’re still upset or angry about the issue. Do what you need to relax, whether it’s deep breathing, walking in nature, or talking it over with a friend.

Ask For Permission

Advance planning also means setting a time aside for your coaching up conversation. Schedule your meeting in advance and avoid springing the discussion unexpectedly on your leader! 

If you’re still feeling nervous about offering your support and advice, remember it can take practice—sometimes weeks or months—before you feel comfortable doing so. It is also worth noting that not all bosses are created equal. You might be lucky and have a manager who is receptive to frank advice, but others might need more time before they start to welcome your assistance.

Keep the following in mind when you are offering advice:

  • Avoid giving solutions: Your role as a coach is to ask questions and offer options, not give answers. Frame your discussion as a chance to brainstorm potential outcomes with your leader and see what they find useful and acceptable.
  • Don’t overwhelm your manager: Limit your contribution to a few options, and be specific—e.g., could they provide a first draft within X days and meet with you a week later to discuss the final design?
  • Be unbiased: Try not to get hung up on your boss’ past behavior (e.g., how they kept you waiting for feedback). Instead, talk about what they might do from now on (e.g., create a 2-week reminder for themself to provide their input).
  • Offer assistance: Try to spot opportunities for you to help them change their behavior. You can use the following sentence-starters for help, e.g., “Can I…(call you after X days for your draft?),” “Would you like me to…(schedule our meetings in advance?),” or “I’ll…(tell the team they can expect your feedback within two weeks)”

Nicolien Dellensen

Nicolien Dellensen, Senior Consultant and behavioral specialist and creator and owner of the ’Sphere of Influence 360º’ a comprehensive concept and (360) online tool about interactive dynamics.

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