How do you coach upward? How do you get into the ring, when the manager who needs to be coached keeps staring at you like a crocodile, ready to pounce at the first wrong move?
Bengt walked into my office a late Friday afternoon. He was the HR manager at the high-tech company where I worked. “Do you mind if I come in?” he asked. I was puzzled.
“How do you feel about your new manager?”
“Well, she’s really focused on the business admin side of things…”
Bengt cut me off. “You don’t think very highly of her, do you? And maybe she’s out of her depth and a bad fit here. She certainly doesn’t understand the importance of market communications, right?”
I shook my head as he sat down at the small side table. He looked worn down and tired to the bone. I knew that he had a 5 hour commute every Monday morning and Friday afternoon.
Yet he still had this passion for people in business. He really cared about the Human Relations, making sure that things worked out inside the company.
“You have three options for dealing with your manager,” said he.
“First choice is for you to throw her under the bus. You can make her trip up, and look like a fool. But be aware that you she will lash back and may take you down too.”
“Second choice, that is to take a step back. Try to fly under the radar, and to avoid causing any waves. I doubt that you would be able to do that,” he chuckled.
“Third alternative is the real challenge. You figure out how to support and complement her. Try to make up for her weaknesses. Make her look more professional and knowledgeable.”
“She may not pay attention or listen to you, but that’s her choice. And don’t ever expect that you’ll get any recognition or credit from her. If you want to do this, you should do it because it’s the right thing.”
“I suggest that you spend the weekend thinking hard about this.” Bengt got up with a smile.
The next morning I walked down to the local book store to buy a large drawing book, crayons and pencils. I spent most of Saturday writing a very short shortlist of her strengths and a very long list of areas where improvement was urgently needed. Next, I wrote a shortlist of my strengths and an equally long list of improvement areas.
On Sunday I began matching my possible strengths to support her development. It was more difficult than I had anticipated. At nightfall I had identified a few areas where maybe I could help broaden and deepen her grasp of our business.
No matter what I said at the Monday morning meetings – she would be staring at me like a crocodile, waiting to pounce. It took me more than two months of pitching brilliant ideas, promoting possible actions, and softly suggesting different options before she even started to listen.
I really struggled to understand how she was thinking about things, until one day when she suddenly looked down. She didn’t agree or disagree with whatever I had just suggested. She just scribbled something in her note book. It was the very first ripple.
Another two months went by until the company president stepped into my office. He closed the door and turned on me.
“So how do you feel about your manager? She really doesn’t understand the importance of market communications, right?”
In the attic of my grandmother’s house I had once seen an old and rusty bear trap. This was it. I instantly recognized that once again I was given the same three options. Throw her under the bus. Fly under the radar. Or make her look good and become more successful.
“I think she’s done a great job introducing this new business management system. She’s really collaborating well with everyone on the team.”
The company president smiled at me. “I know what you’ve been doing to support her. I really appreciate that.”
That first conversation with Bengt became a lesson for life. Over the years I have shared his three alternatives with many colleagues. Only one figured out the fourth option – to leave the company.