If you’ve been around my work for a while, you might have heard me talk about vertical coaching (I reference it in this recent blog post). It grew out of my work with law enforcement and their hierarchy of rank and came from one of the chief deputies I’ve worked with in the Portland area. I use this particular approach a lot..

(You can read more about my work with law enforcement here.)

What makes vertical coaching unique is how it cuts across the hierarchy of an organization.

Most team coaching is done horizontally. Traditionally, you’d coach all the sergeants in an agency. Or all the commanders. Or lieutenants. And you’d meet with each level of command separately. 

Or in the private sector, you might coach the managers, supervisors, and foremen separately. You’d do the same for executive teams. 

For team building, it makes sense to coach horizontally; that’s totally appropriate. A majority of team coaching is done this way.

But the real world is more complex than a horizontal team coaching session. Life is more of a matrix than that. There’s a dynamic interaction between levels that most coaching fails to address.

Vertical coaching attempts to take the same horizontal coaching dynamic and turn it on its ear. Whereas many organizations are accustomed to a hierarchical structure where no one sits around the table as equals, vertical coaching puts everyone on the same playing field and asks them to think and play well together. With law enforcement teams, in particular, the goal is to “leave rank at the door.”

But you might be asking why? What’s the point?

Consider the classic joke about middle management: they have all of the responsibility but none of the authority (or credit). They aren’t generally asked for their opinions, yet they’re responsible for carrying out the orders and decisions and properly executing the instructions of the higher-ups.

Now, picture the construction of an arch, like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. At the very top of the arch is a stone called the keystone (fun fact: the Gateway Arch keystone weighs 10 tons). It’s designed to lock all the other stones into position and distribute an equal force on the arch that allows it to bear weight and remain standing.

Those middle managers? Yep. They’re the keystones. They’re the crucial link between those above and below. They’re the glue that holds it all together. Without them, organizations would crumble.

However, as is sometimes the case with humans, communication — and worse, trust — between ranks in hierarchical organizations is often poor. The folks in the middle, despite being integral to your organization, might feel completely left out of the conversation. In a worst case scenario, it undermines the leadership authority of that middle rank as those they lead don’t see them as in-the-know or having any real power or influence. Vertical coaching can help.

Let’s take the concept of leaving rank at the door and take it to the next level. Vertical coaching allows you to have conversations from top to bottom and bottom to top. This is critical. After all, you can’t make decisions — or good ones, at least — at the top without having a real understanding of what’s going on at the bottom.

And even if you started out in those lower-level positions and worked your way up to a high-level leadership position, it simply isn’t the same at the lower level today as it was three or five or 15 or 20 years ago when you were there. 

To have a relevant, current understanding of the experiences of those working at that level, we turn to vertical coaching. We ask, What conversations need to be had up the chain of command and back down? What does the top need to see that the bottom sees? And vice versa.

Doing this work and asking these questions will help you to see your organization in a whole new light, regardless of where you fall in the hierarchy. Understanding, buy-in, team morale, and collaboration all improve as a result of vertical coaching.

Vertical coaching, for me, was borne out of H.U.M.A.N. Strategies™, my dynamic approach to personal and professional leadership, communication, and effective decision-making skills. 

The five core principles of H.U.M.A.N. Strategies are:

  • Honor the person
  • Understand perspectives
  • Manage reactions
  • Attract desired results
  • Negotiate solutions

How does an organization create a culture informed by H.U.M.A.N. Strategies™ where everyone feels seen, validated, and respected — and confident their contributions matter? Vertical coaching can help you get there.

Because vertical coaching brings teams together from the bottom to the top, individuals at every level feel honored and respected. This approach helps leadership understand varying perspectives along all the levels of an organization without the burden of having to have all the answers. When understanding and respect are clearly in play for all parties, managing reactions becomes much easier because they have nothing to protect and nothing to defend, the conversations are truly collaborative, and they seek genuine understanding. And with that comes the ability to attract desired results, like increased accountability, deeper trust, and more effective communication. And when your team works collaboratively through the framework of vertical coaching, you’re able to negotiate solutions that honor the integrity, values, and priorities of everyone in the room — not just those at the top — and you make better, more informed decisions for the organization that are more easily accepted and understood up and down the chain of command.

Needless to say, vertical coaching is a real game-changer.

If your organization is struggling with poor communication, a lack of trust, and accountability issues across all levels of your organization, vertical coaching may be the solution you’re looking for.

The people you lead deserve better, and so does your organization. I can help. To get started, contact me today.


Photo by Håkon Sataøen on Unsplash