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Coaching Upwards

I struggle to complete blog posts. Lena Wiberg suggested we do pair-blogging on a same topic. It’s a great idea. Here’s my version. Lena’s angle is more personal and I love it. You can read it here. Thanks Lena for the suggestion. This topic has been on my mind for a while!

TL;DR

If you want to influence your seniors on software testing try this approach based on the Elephant and Rider analogy.

  • Appeal to their motivation by placing your position in terms of achieving their success
  • Make the path ahead easy for them to accept, think about obstacles and how they can be removed
  • Backup with as much data and research as you can

Interested to know more? Read on.

As part of the TestBash Coaching and Management panel, one question put forward was this: How do you coach upwards? We ended up talking more about managing upwards (pro membership required) and while I liked my answer (see 29 minute mark, but listen to the lot, great nuggets from Pradeep and Aaron in there), it got me thinking about the importance of being able to influence those senior to you.

Influencing Upwards

Being able to influence upwards is always a critical leadership skill, and a quick search on Duck Duck Go shows many articles on how to do that. But influencing upwards to someone who understands your context and your experience is one thing though, influencing seniors on topics they’re not experienced in can be different.

And lets face it, when it comes to software testing, many of us now report to someone who doesn’t have a testing or quality focused background. It becomes essential to be able to put forward your point of view and explain in a way that’s digestible for your leaders.

And of course, it’s easier to put forward an idea or concept that our tech industry supports. More test automation? Moving to cloud based services? Reducing the number of software testers or buying a new tool? These ideas are less controversial than for example, increasing the number of software testers, or wanting to perform more exploratory testing in the process. These less accepted ideas require sensitive and careful handling if you are going to achieve the outcome you desire. It’s this context I’m going to focus on in this blog post.

Successful conversations (don’t call it coaching) like this are not performed off-the-cuff. They need careful thought and preparation. And you need allies.

Allies

By allies I mean people who will support your idea. Look around in your organisation and target people who work well and are respected with your leader. Explain that you want to propose an idea and ask them for some ideas on how to present it and approach making your case.

Research is key

You also need to do some legwork. Research the person you want to engage with, your company vision and the idea/strategy you want to propose.

Areas to consider and explore might be:

  • What is this person’s management style? Are they hands off or a bit of a micro manager?
  • What is their communication style? Are they a details person, or a TLDR type of person?
  • What are this person’s aspirations from an organisational perspective and also personally?
  • What are their ideologies about tech? About Software Testing? What philosophies do they hold? Is it automate all the things? Culture is King? Quality is a team responsibility?
  • What vision do they have for your organisation? Where do they hope to take your team?
  • What KPI’s are they accountable for?
  • Where are their challenges?

The goal at this point is to explore without judgement or attempting to influence. This is purely a fact finding mission. Once you have some of this information, you can begin to think about how this information may frame your conversation.For example, this means using their language instead of yours, reframing your ideas so they align with their motivations and aspirations.

Reframe your idea

Here’s the same list as above with added questions to help reframe your ideas.

  • What is this person’s management style? Are they hands off or a bit of a micro manager? How might this affect your approach?
  • What is their communication style? Are they a details person, or a TLDR type of person? How might this impact how you provide supporting information and how you follow up?
  • What are this person’s aspirations from an organisational perspective and also personally? Where do your ideas strategy support these goals?
  • What are their ideologies about tech? About Software Testing? What philosophies do they hold? Is it automate all the things? Culture is King? Quality is a team responsibility? How are these ideas similar to yours, how do they differ? How will this impact your idea/strategy?
  • What vision do they have for your organisation? Where do they hope to take your team? How can your idea complement this?
  • What KPI’s are they accountable for? How can you help them achieve their KPI’s?
  • Where are their challenges? How can I help them overcome their challenges?

Dealing with Resistance

You now have done research, and you’ve tapped into their motivation. Done right? Well not quite because you’re not working inside a bubble. You are probably going to get a response, and how you deal with that response matters too. If the response is positive one and you simply get a “Make it so”, fantastic. High Five ! But most likely you are going to face some sort of response, be it out of curiosity, or due to resistance.

Collecting Objections

How do you deal with resistance and rejection? Again it goes back to being prepared. Think ahead about how your ideas may be rejected? What might they say? How might you respond? Having some idea of how to respond will help you feel more ready to have the conversation. And be prepared for your mind going blank in the heat of the moment. If this happens, try ‘collecting objections’. Collecting Objections means you enter in to the conversation with an open mind of enquiry, instead of a mindset of attempting to persuade. So, when objections arise, instead of attempting to counter argue, you mentally collect them. For instance you could say something like. “Those are good points, would you mind if I have a think about them in our context and get back to you about my thoughts on that?”

Another approach is what I call, ‘giving them enough rope’. I do this by letting them speak for as long as they like. I question from a place of curiosity. At some point they’re going to say something I can respond to. And if not, I’ve probably gone some way to to build some rapport. So its all a win.

Should I Counter Argue?

There’s nothing to stop you counter arguing of course. Personally, I find presenting ideas and engaging in dialogue a big confidence booster. But this comes with a big warning label. Safety for both of you is essential. Having a trusting relationship helps, but there’s a reason why many people hire consultants to do this type of work and that is the risk of failure is less. There are still organisations which discourage upward interaction. In these places, putting an idea forward can come at a cost to your standing within the organisation. Fortunately these cultures are in the minority but they still do exist, so if you work in one of these and need your job, please tread with caution.

Dealing with Rejection

If you do put a strategy forward that gets ignored or dismissed try not to take it to heart. It’s not you they’ve rejected, it’s the ideas you put forward. And while both may feel the same, they are different. Instead, try playing the long game. Remember there could be a number of reasons why your idea is turned down and not related to your idea. Go back, ask for an explanation on the grounds you want to improve and understand better. That’s always worked a treat for me.

Backup with Data

Finally, you want to use all that data you have researched to back up your ideas. Some senior people find it risky to take on new or controversial ideas unless they know another organisation has taken this on. See if a similar company to yours has tried this out. Even anecdotal stories help. And if all this feels a little overwhelming, try speaking first at meetups and brown bag sessions. Test out your ideas, encourage Q&A. These are great confidence boosters and will help you be ready for that day you win over people with your fabulous ideas and strategies.

Good look, and may the force be with you!

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By Anne-Marie Charrett

Anne-Marie Charrett is an internationally recognized expert in software testing and quality engineering.
She keynotes at international conferences on the topic of Quality, Coaching, and Leadership.
Ex-Head of Engineering at Tyro Payments where she transitioned testers to a quality coaching model
Consultant on Quality Engineering, developer of the quality operating model. Invented and rolled out a consulting model for quality engineering.
Consulting across FinTech, Media, Government, Insurance, Banking & Telco Sectors
Creator and Lecturer of Enterprise Software Testing course at UTS Australia. Co-developed a coaching model aiming to transfer testing skill and know-how using the Socratic method.
B.Eng (Hons) Electronic Engineering (I really am a quality engineer!)
Based in Sydney, Australia works – internationally.

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