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Internal coaches, embedded in an organization, are usually connected with HR in some capacity and usually provide other services as well as coaching. Sometimes they may be doing internal coaching
36 Executive Coaching
exclusively, even if it is on a part-time basis. The department within HR sponsoring internal coaching usually also contracts for and manages external coaches. That way, both types of professional coaching can be coordinated and complement each other. In fact, often the head of such activities spends some of his or her time as an internal coach.
Internal coaching is just now emerging as a valuable HR offering and will continue to “professionalize” as time goes on. It is similar to more traditional external coaching in some ways, but has important differences. It provides important value to employers and clients, and is a positive additional service, along with external coaching, in full-service human resource environments.
As organizations seek greater efficiency, accountability and cost effectiveness, there are some obvious benefits associated with an internal coaching capability. The per-assignment cost can be lower, when there is a large enough number of assignments to justify the start-up costs. An obvious advantage is that an internal coach brings considerable knowledge of the company and may have access to a great deal of “real-time” information about the client. Also, there can be greater flexibility in scheduling. Finally, continuity may be more possible over a period of months or years. Although internal coaching is not likely to totally replace external coaching, an appropriate mix of the two approaches seems to work well in many settings.
Some tradeoffs exist regarding the use of internal coaches. Organizational level is one of them in that sometimes the more senior-level clients want to receive their help from outside coaches. Confidentiality has to be considered differently when the coach is internal. Particularly complex or sensitive assignments will call for a coach with specialized experience that may not be available internally.
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Clearly, the internal coach should not be in the same chain of supervision as the client. The coach cannot be an agent of the boss. Still, there is a heavier obligation on the part of an internal coach to draw clear boundaries around what is to be shared and what is not. Internal coaches often have a burden of proving they are adequately independent. Certain clients may really prefer to have an external coach for this reason; most clients don’t seem to care one way or the other.
Another issue relates to credibility. Credibility comes with time and reputation, of course. Initial credibility can be artificially higher for outside consultants—not just for coaches, but for all kinds of consultants. The internal coach may need to pay some attention to positioning within the organization. For example, the coach may have to be “sponsored” by a top executive. On the other hand, the internal coach may need to avoid being tabbed as having the office where troubled employees hang out.
Only recently, and still in limited ways, training programs for internal coaches have appeared, mostly as an outgrowth of external coach training. At this point, however, there is little professional literature specifically targeted to internal coaches, and no professional meetings or “special interest groups” within larger associations. Internal coaches, who often have other HR duties as well, may spend virtually all of their time “on the inside” and may not have the time to acquire professional support for the coaching work that they do. This must be guarded against.
Guidelines for Addressing Key Challenges
Some guidelines can be offered to meet some of the key challenges for internal coaching. First, internal coach selection should be formalized. In some very large companies, there have been efforts to create rigorous selection processes to evaluate candidates against required competencies. At the very least, it will be beneficial to think carefully about these issues. Selection by “default” or done casually will be both ineffective and highly risky.
Second, there should be ongoing development for internal coaches. While some or all of such development could be waived based on professional training and experience, internal coaches— even more than external ones—must have a common philosophy and approach, as well as a forum to consider organizational challenges and opportunities. Companies should carefully think how to achieve commonality where it is needed without unduly constraining the flexibility of the coach. Organizations might well utilize the knowledge and expertise of psychologists who do executive coaching by enlisting them in the training and support of internal coaches.
Third, beyond the “who” of internal coaching is the “what.” Before an organization offers internal coaching, goals for the service should be defined. Where it is housed is often linked with goals (that is, human resource planning versus training and development), so that must be considered too. Aligned with goals, coaching programs themselves must be described and standardized. For example, organizations have carved out assimilation/new leader, development planning, and skill-focused coaching programs to be delivered by internal coaches. Tying together all of the three points above, a set of assessment tools and concepts should be selected, their use taught, and their application woven into the programs offered.