Building Internal Coaching: Insights from the Front Lines

NOTE: This is another in a series of Cambria blog posts exploring the issues involved in building an internal coaching practice in your organization.

I thought I’d take a minute to reflect on what we’re seeing across many organizations that are active in developing internal coaching capacity as a strategic and cost-effective option for making coaching more widely available at all leader levels. Think of this blog post as a quick update from the front lines – exploring key advantages to internal coaching – and a few cautions – if your organization is weighing whether to start or build an internal coaching capability.

As a quick side note, our blog series features several other pieces exploring internal coaching – including this post from my colleague Colleen Gentry on key business case considerations to explore around internal coaching. Additionally, I have written about the rise of internal coaching and steps for selecting the right coaches.

If you’re new to internal coaching or are considering internal coaching as an important element in your talent development mix, here are some insights gleaned from the many companies we’ve had the honor of helping to pioneer this emerging trend:

Four Advantages of Internal Coaching

Cost Efficiency – The economic efficiency of building a cadre of internal coaches vs. engaging external coaches is an obvious benefit fueling the rise of internal coaching programs. After the upfront cost of providing internal coaches with necessary training and skill development, those capabilities become embedded in the organization and can typically be utilized numerous times per year in a variety of coaching assignments.

Everyday Value – An additional benefit of training is its daily use in more informal conversations and interactions with leaders and others. Many of our clients have told us that the financial savings to building coaching talent internally is significant and well worth the up-front investment.

Consistency – A common requirement for internal coaches is attendance at either an external coaching program or an internal coach development program that offers a specific coaching model and methodology. The process, language, and competencies can then become a common vernacular among those involved, including the coach, coachee, and stakeholders and/or sponsors.

Cultural and Organizational Context – Internal coaches have essential knowledge and understanding of their business and political landscape. Often, they also have a basic knowledge of the coachee’s job function, which makes the coach more credible and provides a level of important context when coaching. Internal coaches who have an understanding of the organization’s culture and nuances among different lines of business can help high-potential employees and others learn to work and operate more effectively within that environment to achieve desired results.

Three “Watch-Outs” around Internal Coaching:

Confidentiality – From the coachee’s perspective, an intertwining of relationships could impede the development of a coaching-friendly context. Imagine sharing serious concerns about your weaknesses with someone who may be consulting with your business unit leader about whether or not you should be promoted. The potential for role conflicts is obvious and a delicate situation for an internal coach. It can be tough to provide high-quality feedback to someone with whom you have a complicated set of interdependent relationships.

Cambria often recommends arranging coaching assignments so that no internal coach ever works with someone from their own business unit. In our experience, this offers the best of both worlds for coach and coachee. While coaches still have familiarity with the culture and from the coachee’s perspective, a sense of safety is bolstered by the understanding that the coach will not be engaged in making decisions about the coachee’s future, at least in the near term.

Bandwidth and Boundaries – For most internal coaches, the role of internal coach is an “add-on” while they still have their often demanding “day job”. This can create a risk factor that needs to be closely monitored.

When a coaching request or need emerges, the coach has to respond quickly. Therefore, a best practice is to discuss the coach’s ability to handle this request to ensure that there is adequate time to take on the assignment. Otherwise, if coaches are too busy with other activities, their ability to respond may be compromised and service to the client may suffer – which can critically impact the brand and reputation of internal coaching. Thus, it is important for the internal coaching sponsor to keep this on their radar and understand of the fact that some coaches may occasionally have to opt out of an assignment.

Credibility – Despite their expertise and seniority, internal coaches are not always given the same level of credibility as external coaches. Credibility is also an important success factor in coaching effectiveness, and so it is an important factor in who is designated to be an internal coach. The selection process must be rigorous, with a well-defined and deliberate set of selection criteria and standards.

Factors such as a person’s current and potential coaching competency, level of respect and reputation in current and prior roles, passion and appreciation for the value of coaching, demonstrated coaching style and attributes, albeit informally, are factors to consider.

Building a successful, sustainable and “scalable” internal coaching strategy is an ongoing endeavor that will evolve as the needs of the organization change and as new coaches are initiated and current members move on. The big wins that justify the effort of developing internal coaches include the potential for significant increases in talent retention, engagement, productivity; a stronger leadership pipeline; and higher levels of organizational performance. Our clients have concluded that these outcomes are worth the investment.

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