When to Use Internal Versus External Coaches
Much has been written on the subject of executive coaching;
describing what it is, what benefits result from it, when to use it, and how to
measure its effectiveness. In most cases, these discussions focus on
executive coaching provided by external consultants. Increasingly,
however, organizations are turning to internal coaching. This unique form
of the coaching practice warrants special attention as a new business practice
with unique benefits and potential pitfalls.
The intent of this article is not to position either internal or external
coaching as superior to the other. In internal and external coaching, the
work as well as the background, credentials, and approach of the coaches can be
identical. Our objective, therefore, is to highlight some of the
situations that might warrant the use of one form over the other. We will also
point out some unique challenges faced by internal coaches and offer suggestions
for effectively overcoming them.
There are a number of situations in which external coaching
would be a more effective approach to supporting an executive. These
situations include supporting clients at the top of the organization, coaching
when there is a culture of low trust, or where there is a poor expectation of
success (i.e., when coaching is used as a last ditch effort to improve
performance or when the organization looks to provide evidence that it is making
a good-faith effort to address legal liabilities). In particular, external
coaches are most appropriate when political neutrality, maximum objectivity and
the highest levels of confidentiality are critical to the success of the
coaching engagement. From a practical standpoint, external coaches are
likely to provide a broader and deeper array of experience and other factors
that influence fit between the coach and coachee in terms of personality,
functional expertise, geography, or even age, gender or ethnic background for
the organization to match to individual coaching needs. They also can
provide filler to internal coaching capabilities, particularly when the need is
When to Use Internal Coaches
There are a number of situations, however, in which internal
coaching might be preferred, including:
Need for greater reliability and consistency in approach.
The title executive coach is not regulated, and as a result, training,
credentials, and approach can vary widely. If an organization has a
need for consistency and a need to ensure that the corporate mission,
vision, and values are routinely incorporated into executive coaching
programs, carefully selected internal coaches may be the preferred and
certainly more cost effective option.
Financial constraints. The unfortunate realities
of the current economy include an inability of organizations to invest in
many areas of the business (particularly development) and a need to maintain
extremely tight cost controls. When cost is a major consideration,
internal coaching can be an appealing option for executive development.
It is not uncommon for an external coaching arrangement for a company to
cost twice as much as an internal coaching option for the same situation.
Quicker, more efficient integration and system-level
interventions. Internal coaches have the opportunity to quickly
identify and address needs for improved alignment within a specific
management chain. Internal coaches are also uniquely equipped to help
organizations work across organizational lines and break down silos, as they
know many of the executive decision makers as well as their thinking and
strategies for succeeding in the marketplace. Finally, internal
coaches have a level of access to information about an organizations
culture, politics, challenges, strengths, and values that often take months
of research for an external coach to learn. Internal coaches,
therefore, are able to provide more real-time feedback and to understand the
complex contextual factors affecting the behavior of their executive
clients, their teams, and internal as well as external customers.
Challenges Associated with Internal Coaching
While internal coaching can certainly offer some potential
benefits to organizations, there are unique challenges that should also be
considered. These challenges include:
- Role clarity and differentiation. In the midst of the HR as
business partner trend, HR professionals have increasing interest in
playing a more active role in advising and coaching their internal clients.
They want a seat at the table in business discussions and they as well as
the organization often find it difficult to differentiate between their role
and the role of an internal coach. Similarly, an internal coach may
unwittingly provide counsel that normally should come from the HR business
partner. This situation may result in organizations where the HR
function does not have good credibility in the organization. It is
important that the internal coach observe the proper organizational protocol
in working with clients and not support actions of a client that undermine
another part of the organization. The solution to this problem is to
teach the client skills in confronting directly individuals who have
responsibility for providing needed services.
- Accountability issues. In some situations, executives are
referred to coaching to address performance problems that would more
appropriately be addressed by the executives immediate supervisor.
The supervisors are often in senior executive roles and believe that
performance management is something to be done only at lower levels of the
organization. While they may prefer shifting accountability for
performance problems to internal coach, it is essential that the supervising
managers, even senior executives, stay involved as parties to the coaching
- Maintaining confidentiality and information boundaries. A
natural challenge in executive coaching is to balance the needs of the
immediate client (i.e., the executive) and the overall business. Doing
so puts understandable pressures on any coach to carefully monitor what
information is or is not shared in each coaching program. Because of
their deep involvement in the organization and multiple client contacts,
monitoring those information boundaries becomes even more challenging.
Honesty and boundary setting are essential to contracting sessions with
potential internal clients.
In sum, when to use internal versus external coaches can be
best determined by a number of situations and constraints, including the
importance of political neutrality and objectivity in the coaching effort, the
importance of high confidentiality, internal integration with other
organizational programs, and cost constraints of the organization. In
reality, external coaches likely are most effective at higher levels in the
organization or when there is a culture of low trust whereas internal coaches
may be a viable and cost-effective option at the middle level as part of an
organizations management development program. For more information or
to find coaches that might be right for your needs, please look at the
Consultant Locator Service on this website: www.siop.org.