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How to Coach Your Manager

Coaching Your ManagerYou may think that coaching has a limited use and that it’s a tool only for professional coaches and for managers when guiding their teams. But have you ever considered that as a project manager you can also coach upwards and use it with your own manager?

As a tool coaching is used to create awareness and growth for someone else. In doing so we pick up on the attitudes and behaviours that we are observing. I’m not suggesting that it’s your job to formally coach your manager. What I am suggesting is that by making use of insightful coaching questions you can create more clarity between the two of you and thereby create a better working relationship.

From my own coaching experience, there are some common scenarios people often find frustrating about their manager.

Examples could be that you don’t feel your manager spends enough time with you. He doesn’t give you enough support and direction and doesn’t have your back in meetings.

Conversely you might feel that your manager is on top of you all the time and that she is too controlling.

It’s also possible that you have a manager who gives you assignments and direction but later changes her mind and gives you little notice to adjust your plans.

All of these situations are deeply frustrating and require a focused conversation where you choose your questions carefully.


Your Manager is too Vague and Unsupportive

Let’s first consider a situation where your manager is delegating a task to you. Your manager has a tendency to be vague when assigning work to you and to criticise you when you don’t deliver what he expected. You don’t feel that he is good at considering your workload or provide the help you need.  You often end up frustrated and unsure how to change the situation. I suggest you try to ask the following questions next time:


Manager: I would like you to run a requirements gathering workshop for client A next week.

You: OK. I’d like to ask a few questions about it if you don’t mind. What do you see as the main goal of the workshop?

Manager: It’s to draw out their requirements.

You: Yes I get that. But what does a successful outcome look like for you? I mean what would you like us to have achieved by the end and what specifically would you like me to deliver?

Manager: Oh I see. I expect you to uncover all their requirements for phase two at a high level and to prioritize them. If you capture them in a spreadsheet in a list form I think that’s a good starting point.

You: OK, that’s great. I can do that. As I’m also doing work for client B can you tell me if the report I’m due to produce next week is higher or lower priority?

Manager: Great question! I forgot about that. The report for client B is higher priority.

You: Cool. I’ll have a look in my diary. If I’m not able to find time until the week after next for client A would that be ok?

Manager. Yes, that’s fine.

You: Perfect. There’s one other thing I’d like your help with. Could you please talk to Angela and emphasize how important it is that she attends the workshop? She has a tendency to only show up if it comes from you.

Manager: Sure. Good idea.

You: That’s really good. Do you need me to remind you at the end of the day?

Manager: No that’s ok. I’ll make a note right now. Just let me know when you end up arranging the workshop for.


In the above dialogue you are asking lots of open and insightful questions that make your manager reflect and clarify what the goal of the assignment really is. Your questions also go into the reality of the situation by asking about priorities. Finally you talk about the assistance you need from him and you get him to commit to what he will do to support you.


Your Manager Doesn’t Take your Professional Development Seriously

The next situation we will look at is one where you discuss your performance and development needs with your manager. She has a tendency to be unprepared and too busy to have one-to-one’s with you. You need to take the initiative and set up a conversation with her where you talk about expectations and how you can keep developing.


You: I really appreciate that you’ve taken time out for this review. I’m keen to talk about how I can improve and develop in my role.

Manager: No problem. I agree that these conversations are important.

You: Great. I’ve come prepared with what I feel my strengths and development points are and how I would ideally like my career to progress with your support of course. I really hope we’ll get to discuss all of that today so I know what steps I need to take to move forward.

Manager: Yes that sounds good. Would you like to kick off with what you feel has gone well for you this year and perhaps not so well?

[Now that you’ve clarified the goal of the conversation you move into the next stage of the discussion where you explore the reality of the situation. You give an honest account of how you feel the year has progressed and which areas you would like to continue working on. After you’ve done that, you bounce the ball back to your manager.]

You: What is your view on how I’ve done this year?

Manager: I agree with your self-assessment. It’s very accurate. You’re a great project manager and I just let you run with it because I feel you’re very capable. I do agree that your facilitation skills need developing.

You: I’m pleased with that feedback. Could we look at some options for how I can acquire those skills and if there is any budget available for external training?

Manager: Yes good point. There may very well be some budget, but of course it depends how expensive the course is.

You: Sure. I’ve looked at different training options and the prices vary depending on length of the course. How much budget is available?

Manager: I believe the training budget it’s £1,000 per person per year.

You: Oh that’s great. Some of the facilitation courses I looked at definitely come in below that. What do I need to do to get this approved?

Manager: If you send me your preferred option that comes in under budget I’ll approve it.

You: Great thanks!

I noticed how you said that you “let me run with it” because you feel I’m a good project manager. I’m pleased you feel that way but I must say that I sometimes feel that a bit more support from you would be nice. Especially when I need to prepare for a steering committee meeting. These meetings are really outside of my comfort zone and it makes me doubt my abilities when you sometimes give me negative feedback afterwards.

Manager: Oh I didn’t realise. I’m sorry about that. In which ways can I better support you?

You: Perhaps we could have a short pre-meeting the day before so that you can have a look at my presentation and give me tips and feedback before the steering committee meeting.

Manager: No problem. Just put it in my diary as soon as we have the date for the steering committee.

You: Super. I’ll do that. Is there anything else you would like me to do differently?

Manager: Now that you ask, sometimes you set up meetings at very short notice, which makes it hard for me to come prepared. Could you give me at least one weeks notice and submit any documents you would like me to read?

You: Of course. I’m happy to give you more notice.

I found this conversation really useful. What’s your view on having a one-2 one on a more regular basis?

Manager: I think they are important and I apologise that we haven’t had any. I’ll put them in the diary for every six weeks.


In this dialogue you were really driving the performance review and brought up the topics that mattered to you. You touched upon four major elements of a coaching conversationsetting goals, exploring reality, discussing options and determining what action you will each take. Not every manager is perfect. If your manager isn’t taking the initiative to review your performance and discuss your development, you will have to take matters in your own hands.

You can read more about coaching here: How Coaching Can Help You as a Project Manager



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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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