Why invest in building internal coaching capacity? That’s a question my Cambria colleagues and I spend a great deal of time helping clients to answer. And it’s one I explored in early April as part of a panel of experts in the field at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) national conference just outside Washington, D.C. The SIOP conference is one of the most prestigious and popular annual forums focused on workplace issues affecting individuals, teams, and organizations.

Our panel, Developing Internal Coaching Capability as a Strategy Talent Lever, featured experts and practitioners with responsibility for leading internal coaching programs in their organizations – included Kira Barden, Global Senior Manager, Organization Development at PepsiCo, Aaron Less, VP Enterprise Leadership Development at Bank of America, and Josh Rogers, Enterprise Executive Coaching Practice Leader at Walmart. As a Principal at Cambria and one of the architects of Inside Edge, our internal coach development program, I was privileged to join this panel as a commentator with an outside perspective.

First, here was our central premise: Executive coaching is very effective at developing senior leaders. Many organizations – perhaps yours too – look to extend coaching’s benefits across the ranks and build a robust coaching culture in the process. That’s where internal coaching comes in – the idea that developing internal coaching capability is more cost effective and better for pushing coaching beyond the C Suite. Our charge as panelists was to explore the business case, benefits, and impacts of building an organization’s internal coaching capacity.

Here are some observations that surfaced as we addressed several critical questions in a lively session.

How Internal Coaching Deployed in Organizations

Internal coaching is being used in a variety of ways, including improving performance, productivity and engagement; developing key talent and preparing them for future leadership roles; helping new leaders onboard and build a network; enhancing abilities to influence and collaborate for greater impact; developing employee’s career paths; and complementing leadership development programs. We agreed unanimously that coaching at any level was not about correcting performance issues.

We also found that investing in and building talent using internal coaching has helped to overcome the labor shortage that most experts expect to deepen over the next decade and beyond. It has surfaced employees who have an interest in becoming coaches and who bring knowledge of the company and its culture that can help others grow. It’s also a way to gain the benefits of coaching at a lower cost than hiring coaches from outside.

We concluded that there are a number of valid approaches to building internal coach capacity, and the “right way” should be based on an organization’s talent objectives. Examples include:

  • A global food, snack, and beverage corporation created a strategy to certify HR business partners and select business leaders through a year-long developmental process. The intent was to create an internal coaching approach that mirrored executive coaching engagements similar to those occurring at more senior levels and targeted for emerging leaders and key talent.
  • A multinational investment bank and financial services company decided to build foundational coaching skills in a broad-based HR population to incorporate coaching more informally, on the spot, and in the moment with leaders and among their peers. This approach provided another consultative skill-set and tool beyond their advisory role, with the intent to encourage leaders to consider their own innate insights and solutions to issues and challenges.
  • A multinational retail operation identified a core set of internal coaches who have primary responsibility for internal coaching in the organization to support onboarding and transition of new leaders as well as a high-potential talent that could benefit from additional coaching support and development.
  • A global pharma company is currently moving from a performance-based to a feedback-based culture. In the process, it is piloting an approach to upskill line-of-business managers to conduct coaching and development support, as well as engage in coaching assignments across lines of business to help maintain confidentiality.

Critical elements to consider when building an internal coaching practice

Just as there should be a strategy for executive coaching at the top of the house, the same applies to scale coaching further down the organization. From a broader organizational context, these were among the most critical considerations:

  • Define internal coaching as strategic solution. It’s imperative to link internal coaching to key business and talent management objectives. Consider whether there is a solid business case for cascading coaching to help support and develop up-and-coming talent. Given the retirement of baby-boomers, organizations are faced with succession challenges and ensuring a strong pipeline of leaders ready to assume bigger roles. The questions then become: Would a broader, deeper coaching effort have a positive impact on the business? And would making internal coaching an organizational priority provide an additional talent development solution? Bottom line: If it doesn’t make an impact on the business, then it’s probably not worth doing.
  • Secure executive sponsorship and advocacy. Let’s be honest: clout and position-power go a long way in influencing organizational receptivity to any initiative, and internal coaching is no different. It could be your CHRO or other senior executives who can help garner the support and the resources necessary to build an internal coaching practice. They can also help by modeling the leadership behaviors important to the culture, publicly acknowledge the value of having engaged in coaching themselves. All these things message to the broader population that coaching is valued in the organization.
  • Be discerning in selecting internal coaches. The caliber, skill, and reputation of your first group of internal coaches establish the reputation of your program. Choose your coaches as wisely and deliberately as you choose and scrutinize the external executive coaches you bring into the organization. Consider such criteria as demonstrated formal and/or informal coaching skills, a record of solid business results, good people skills, and capacity and commitment to assume this added role. Also, look for people who are really excited about driving their own development and see coaching as an important part of their work.
  • Identify the most appropriate roles of people enrolled as internal coaches. Depending on the organization’s talent strategy, some of them have chosen to focus on the HR Business Partner population; others, Leadership & Development partners; still others, line-of-business managers. Regardless of the chosen group, it’s important to articulate the expectations and accountabilities for internal coaches as well as how they will continue to develop, practice, and apply their coaching skills.

Key Advice and Lessons Learned

The last part of the panel discussion focused on some takeaways that came from implementing an internal coaching practice as advice to those who want to do this in their own organization.

  • Ensure coaching is seen as an investment in talent. Confirm that internal coaching is being positioned as an investment in developing key talent in the organization, not as a remedy for poor performance which would stigmatize the process. This will require a very deliberate communication strategy to ensure that internal coaching is being positioned correctly. Underscore the