Leading Up

4 ways to coach your boss

When I started in the fire service I used to think that “coaching” was always from the top down. After all, in fire school the instructors coached us to build skill as an individual while also learning to work as a team. As a probie on the job, I was coached by my captain and other senior firefighters about our policies and procedures, and how to do the “real work” of a firefighter. And as I promoted through the ranks, I continued to be a student of the fire service where I was coached by many chief officers, including the fire chief.


There are many opportunities to coach and be coached. Photo by Billy Schmidt

We think that the only type of coaching in the fire service is from the top-down. However, I found many situations where I could actually coach my boss. And on several occasions, I was the boss who was being coached. But it only works well if it’s done right.

Having been in all positions from a firefighter, to company and chief officer, I have found opportunities to coach and be coached.

Coaching Up and Down

Once you’re a senior firefighter or an officer, you’re usually coaching somebody who is under you, somebody who reports to you somewhere in the chain of command. And most fire departments follow a strict, or at least somewhat orderly hierarchy. So it’s rare to think about coaching a senior firefighter or your officer. Or, even one of your peers.

But sometimes it has to be done. And if you’re going to be a leader, you have to learn how to do this, because there are going to be people who are above you that are hurting or inhibiting what you do. The things that you’re trying to accomplish. And if you don’t coach them for better behavior and relationships, it’s not good for anybody. Ultimately, it’s not good for the fire department.

I’ve been the officer who was doing things that sometimes clouded efficiency and weakened execution. On many occasions, if it hadn’t been for a company officer coming to me and saying, “Chief, are you aware that you’re doing such-and-such..?” I would have continued to harm our progress. I had no idea because my situation awareness was limited. I was too focused on either the demands of my boss or what “I” thought was important or how to do it.

I was grateful because it was good for me. I grew as a person and as a leader. It was good for my team and my fire department because I didn’t continue to do those “knuckle-head” things that hurt our ability to be safe and effectively execute in emergency situations.

4 Ways to Coach Your Boss

Not everyone can be coached. More importantly, there’s a special way to do this to increase the probability that it will work. How do you give this kind of input in the right way? Here are 4 considerations to help you coach your boss.

  1. Check the weather before going there. We’re all people; even our bosses. We all have good weather and bad weather days. You will increase your probability of success if you approach them when the weather is good. Make sure the situation is right for this kind of conversation. Avoid the thunderstorms and take advantage of the sunny days. Timing is everything.
  2. Be humble. Part of being a leader is being humble. What this means is, keep your mind open. Be open to ideas and reasons that you weren’t aware of. Your way may not really be the best way. Make it a two-way dialogue situation. We learn and grow from each other.
  3. Make sure it really matters. It has to matter. In other words, why is it important? What kind of impact will it have on the situation and the people involved?
  4. Just go for it. Yes, go ahead and take the risk. If the weather is right, your humble, and it’s something that really matters then just go for it. Leadership is about risk taking and there’s no better way to build strong relationships and grow your fire department than to be able to coach both up and down.

Leading up is not easy. And you’re not going to get it right every time, but these four considerations should give you a good framework for having those difficult conversations. Imagine what can be done if your fire department can get to the point where there is coaching both up and down the organization. It would make a difference.

Here’s a great resource for coaching all around your organization.

A Philosophy for Team Success

AP Photo/Darron Cummings Former UCLA head coach John Wooden talks to a group of students and college players in Indianapolis in 2005.

AP Photo/Darron Cummings
Former UCLA head coach John Wooden talks to a group of students and college players in Indianapolis in 2005.

The Company Officer as a Coach

Company officers alone cannot, and should not, handle the details that turn their crew’s objectives into reality. They must “coach for performance.” Company officers become coaches when they lead their crew (team) with a philosophy of encouragement and support.

Coach John Wooden, the exciting leader of the legendary UCLA Basketball dynasty, once said, “We may not control the outcome, but we can control the input — our effort.”

A capable and well-trained crew that embraces your philosophy of being prepared and ready to operate, at any time, during any intensity level, is safer and goes to the emergency scene ready to give its best effort. Your philosophy of encouragement and support is the leadership input that they need.

As the company officer, or the coach of your team, you need to lead rather than pull hose, raise ladders, or do any of the other detailed work. As their coach, develop a plan to guide your team to better performance. Here’s a simple plan that you can do:

Support your team

Without the right skills and resources to perform their job, no amount of direction from the company officer will accomplish the job. Officers acting as coaches will support their teams by making sure that they have the proper knowledge, skills and abilities to safely and effectively complete their tasks. It all begins before the event through sustained training, together as a team.

Know when to push your team

Just like when the coach of a sports team knows when to yell, company officers need to know when to “push” their team when they need it. Observant coaches know when team performance is lagging and when to apply pressure. And knowing how to apply that pressure, or how take the team to the next level, is just as important.

Bring out the best in your team

People are different; people are alike. An open-minded coach knows the individual capabilities of each team member. They see the strengths and weaknesses of the team. This allows them to bring out the best in the team by taking advantage of their strengths and improving their weaknesses. Good coaches know how to make the team the best they can be.

Monitor your team’s performance

Keeping track of the individual abilities of each team member is another characteristic of a good coach. The goals you set through your philosophy and practices will identify an action plan to follow, and a clear path toward achieving it. Talk with them often about the status of the team’s goals, replaying any improvement needed, and complementing all improvement achieved. Be ready to coach the team during difficult times and good times.

Encourage your team

Everyone needs to feel that they’re doing good work and to feel appreciated. A compliment is a great motivator, while public criticism or embarrassment is not. As the coach, your comments, whether made directly to your team or talking to some else about your team, can make all the difference.

Successful firefighting crews (teams) perform best when their company officers (coaches) lead them rather than get involved in the details. Successful company officers build their firefighting crews to perform to their potential, any where, at any time and under any intensity level, by preparing and training them with a personal philosophy that encourages and supports them. Make an effort to build your potential as a coach and pass it on to your team. This is a philosophy that will lead to team success.

How do you influence the inputs, or efforts of your team?

This article was published first at FireRescue1.com on December 5, 2007.

Read these books for more leadership lessons from Coach Wooden:

How Leaders Build Winning Teams

In his book Winning, Jack Welch says he found that some ways of leading always seem to work in creating a winning team. Her they are:

  1. Leaders relentlessly upgrade their team, using every encounter as an opportunity to evaluate, coach, and build self confidence.
  2. Leaders make sure people not only see the vision, they live it and breathe it.
  3. Leaders get into everyone’s skin, exuding positive energy and optimism.
  4. Leaders establish trust with candor, transparency, and credit.
  5. Leaders have the courage to make unpopular decisions and gut calls.
  6. Leaders probe and push with a curiosity that borders on skepticism, making sure their questions are answered with action.
  7. Leaders inspire risk taking and learning by setting the example.
  8. Leaders celebrate.

How do you build a winning team? What can you do today to build a better team?

What Questions Should We Ask After Going To Training?

What was learned at training and how will it be applied to real incidents?

What was learned at training and how will it be applied to real incidents?

Your firefighters just completed scheduled training delivered by your training division. Field supervisors (company and chief officers), for a variety of reasons, may not be able to attend every training session with their firefighters. You were not at this one to observe how they were trained and what they learned. Someone else (your training division or maybe even contract instructors) was teaching and coaching your firefighters.

If you are a front line supervisor (company or chief officer) and you send firefighters to training, you are responsible for working with them to determine what was learned, who needs remediation, and how best to apply what they learned on a real incident. A critical role of the officer is coaching their firefighters to ensure that their work is safe and effective.

Whether you were at training with them or not, here are a few questions supervisors can ask (or you can ask yourself) after firefighters have completed training:

  • The purpose of this training was to ________________ ; HOW was _______________ accomplished?
  • WHAT have you learned?
  • HOW will you apply the training to your specific role/area? To your team’s role/area?
  • WHAT other lessons did you pick up?
  • Do you need more training? WHAT kind and HOW much?
  • (Supervisor) HOW can I support you in doing and applying what you learned?
  • HOW can we measure the impact of the training on our current work?

How do you get feedback on your firefighters’ training performance? How do you expand and improve on what they learned at training for better performance at a real incident with you?