The Internal Coach Playbook
By Joseph R. Weintraub, PhD, Elaine Eisenman, PhD, and Sam Perkins
Carol, an excellent technical designer identified as having high management potential, was promoted to head up a new office. Unenthusiastic about the practical benefits of evening classes in management, her boss decided to ask for a coach from the Human Resources team to work with Carol as an internal coach. With substantial experience in and knowledge about the company’s culture and politics, the coach guided Carol through her initial months, greatly accelerating her transition to being a first-time manager and helping her navigate the potential pitfalls inherent in most organizations.
The coach continued to work with Carol as she built her group, and the high-impact, low-cost intervention attracted significant attention. Within a year, people were lined up requesting similar internal coaching, which now had gained a reputation as a desirable developmental opportunity.
Might your organization also benefit from an internal coaching initiative? And, if so, how? Below we discuss three approaches to inform your decision making: recognizing internal coaching as a distinct competency, understanding the keys to effectiveness, and anticipating challenges.
Recognizing Internal Coaching as a Distinct Competency from External Coaching
The use of executive coaches has been a staple of executive development for decades in corporate America. Historically, such coaches have been external professional consultants, hired by HR departments, who “parachute in” for assignments with defined objectives and/or set timetables, and, all too often, with a focus on remedial action to fix someone who is “broken.” While there is considerable evidence of the effectiveness of external executive coaching, there also has been growing interest in the use of internal “expert” coaches. These, typically, are trained employees functioning part-time as coaches, who are able to expand the beneficial dimensions of developmental coaching to a broader set of an organization’s work force.
In any organization, internal coaching may begin modestly, driven by the interest or motivation of one or a few individuals who acquire the skills to start coaching. If the fledgling initiative is successful and develops momentum and organizational support, it can evolve into a more formal internal coaching function. This can be defined as a planful, purposeful, and intentional program for delivering developmental coaching to managers using internal resources who have requisite organizational knowledge and coaching skills. Although internal coaches are often members of the Human Resources or Organizational Development groups, they may come from any line or staff function.
Deep knowledge, experience, and awareness about an organization’s strategy, its culture, and its political realities, enable internal coaches to accelerate the development and learning of managers when they are faced with expanded responsibilities, promoted to new areas, or asked to take on new duties. By using the developmental coaching model we espouse, which emphasizes individual growth aligned with organizational goals, a good coach can minimize the ambiguity often inherent in such situations, and can quickly move an individual up the learning curve toward success more rapidly than might otherwise be possible.
Effective internal coaching, however, requires more than long tenure and good interpersonal skills. Use of the appropriate coaching model, the relevant body of knowledge, and a particular skill set are all essential to capture and leverage experience and intuitive ability into effective coaching results. Additionally, purposeful coaching requires an articulated agreement to define its intended goals and parameters. Often this takes the form of a three-way contract between the coach, coachee, and the coachee’s manager. One important element of this contract is the nature of the “limited confidentiality” that typically pertains to such coaching. The coachee needs to understand clearly up front what information is confidential and what may be subject to disclosure.
Understanding the Keys to Effective Internal Coaching
Effective internal coaching requires appropriate systemic elements coupled with individual skills and attributes. In addition to a skilled coach, a successful program requires appropriate coachees, an engaged boss, and organizational support and recognition. Ideally, the coachee fits into the good-to-best performance category and possesses the willingness and openness to be coached—to be “coachable,” in coaching parlance. Internal coaching focused solely on remedial use is best avoided.
Organizational—and senior leadership—support also is crucial to ensure that bosses respect and see as worthwhile the time that coaches and coachees devote to the coaching effort. This is especially true in larger organizations when someone might be spending time coaching an individual in another department, and the benefit needs to be seen as accruing to the entire organization. Such organizational recognition helps ensure the engagement of the coachee’s boss in the coaching process, which is optimized at certain junctures with three-way (coach, coachee, boss) interaction.
When the direct manager wants the coachee to succeed and is willing to participate in ways she might not have done independent of coaching, the impact of the coaching can be magnified and broadened. Through our work during the last five years at Babson Executive Education creating and delivering a certification program for developing internal coaches in a number of organizations, we have had the opportunity to study internal coaches and to delineate the nine skills, attributes, and qualities required for success:
Credibility is the sine qua non of coaching; it is the first, second, and third most important qualities. An external coach often brings credibility simply by virtue of being hired from outside the organization. (Interestingly there are examples of individuals who have lost some of that expert credibility when switching after years of work from outside consultant to inside employee.) For an internal coach, credibility typically is conferred on someone who has demonstrated functional, organizational, and/or business knowledge, coupled with high job performance. Acting from a position of competence and knowledge, a credible coach has the authority to ask questions and offer advice that is perceived as valid and valuable. Credibility accrues with tenure and coaching experience, which build a coach’s reputation for seasoned judgment and walking the talk. As such, it can be a challenge to get started—especially for junior people. A key coaching management role is to ensure that new coaches ease into their role, allowing them to gain confidence and build credibility by starting with junior, “coachable” clients. Although there are no shortcuts to building credibility, a new coach can benefit from reflected credibility derived from the established reputation of the leaders of the coaching function, especially if the function has requisite organizational support and executive sponsorship.
The internal coach must be viewed as trustworthy: imparting a strong sense that the best interests of both the client and the organization are a clear priority. Trust is the foundation on which an enduring coaching relationship is built, and it is essential for the articulation of the “limited confidentiality” imperative to a successful engagement. A coachee must trust that a coach will not divulge information to undermine his position, derail promotion opportunities, or embarrass him. (There are some exceptions inherent in “limited confidentiality” as discussed later.) As with credibility, a reputation for integrity often takes time to earn through demonstration of actions, decisions, and words that convey high ethical standards.
Coaches must possess basic knowledge about human and organizational behavior and development as well as a thorough understanding of coaching theory and its appropriate application. They need to know what it takes to make people change and how adults learn. Such knowledge is not intuitive; it is often acquired through a course of study typical of that undertaken by Human Resources professionals. Line managers who want to become coaches usually have some content and process gaps to fill, though HR staff also might need a framing of business issues in order to be conversant in core strategic issues to optimize coaching line executives.
While a reputation for credibility and integrity are, to a large degree, established “a priori” and confirmed as a coaching relationship develops, engagement is a quality that even a novice coach can achieve by virtue of attention and caring—showing commitment to the client in words, tone, actions, and follow-up. Engagement requires making an emotional and psychological connection that is manifested in empathy for the challenges a client confronts and an understanding of and appreciation for what a client is thinking, feeling, and experiencing.
Presence is the ability to command attention and convey confidence that the coach can help: that she possesses the experience, competence, and understanding to produce a positive outcome for the coachee. Confidence is one of the key qualities that helps to support credibility and integrity and allows the coach to connect authentically with the hearts and minds of clients.
Internal coaches are not likely to be psychologists or therapists and are not expected to attempt to discern the intentions or motivations of clients; they focus on behavior. Nevertheless, coaches do need to possess a measure of insight into the underpinnings of human behavior in order to help nurture self-reflection and change. Insight shows where developmental focus is most likely to attain results and allows a coach to make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information gleaned from coachee input. Such “sense-making” can reveal the bigger picture and its impact on the client’s situation.
Understanding the political landscape is a critical quality and is one of the key benefits and requirements of an internal coaching function. Its importance is magnified by that fact that political savviness is often a weakness of many coachees. In fact, it might be a core coaching need by virtue of short tenure in the organization, lack of an innate political “ear,” or because the client is moving or expanding her sphere to a different or larger political arena. Political savviness is where a coach’s role as a “native guide” is most valuable: helping the client understand the implications of his behaviors in a given context, and understand how to “tune in” to the political realities of the organization, including which battles are worth fighting and which are better avoided.
A coach must be able to see and discuss issues with the client in an unbiased way, being careful to observe the distinction between observation of behavior and inference. Without an objective perspective, a coach risks becoming sucked into a client’s view of the world and losing the capacity to offer direction and advice uncolored by the client’s personal biases. While a coach can be empathic to a coachee’s difficult situation, she must always be able to step back and make a dispassionate assessment. More than simply having and projecting objectivity, a coach should attempt to lead a client to see situations and events through an objective lens himself. The organizational knowledge that makes an internal coach a valuable native guide also can make it more challenging, but not impossible, to remain objective.
In addition to the qualities described above, specific coaching skills include an array of listening, questioning, restating, assessing, and facilitating skills. These skills (listed in Exhibit 1) are the foundation of our internal coach certificate program.
Exhibit 1: Top 15 Coaching Skills
1.Focusing on and understanding what is being said in individual or group situations
2.Clarifying, restating, and summarizing important points or issues
3.Following up on what the coaching client has said as opposed to abruptly changing topic
4.Reflecting on what others have said
5.Demonstrating an awareness of cultural diversity when coaching others
6.Building and maintaining coaching relationships
10.Planning coachee development
11.Facilitating development and change
12.Evaluating cases and programs
13.Building and maintaining coaching relationships
14.Working with equal credibility at all levels of the organization
15.Ending formal coaching, and transitioning to ongoing development
Anticipating the Challenges for Internal Coaches and the Coaching Organization
The major challenges or roadblocks for internal coaches often derive from political pressures, which manifest sometimes as well-intentioned but misguided notions on the part of executives about the appropriate role of a coach. Such pressure can take a variety of forms: from insistence on using internal coaches for remedial purposes only (perhaps as justification/support for termination) to asking a coach to provide input related to a proposed promotion or firing decision. It can be difficult for an internal coach to turn down an opportunity that ends up being remedial, and one can get stuck between the “rock” of the uncoachable poor performer and the “hard place” of the organization’s need to “do something” with that employee.
It might be useful in such cases to have a process, such as using a personality inventory, 360 feedback results, or other data to establish lack of coachability and use that as suppport in turning down the assignment. Given the potential risks to the coach and to the reputation of the coaching function (i.e., “it deals with losers’), this challenge speaks to the importance of the appropriate marketing of the internal coaching program. It needs to maintain the appeal of a true developmental opportunity and not be seen as a program to “fix” people. Coaching is not the current day equivalent of charm school; rather, it is a vehicle to give good performers the time and attention they deserve in their development.
Executive requests that coaches supply information or opinions about their coachees for personnel decisions is a nuanced and potentially divisive issue. Ideally, such requests would be covered under the limited confidentially component of the coaching contract discussed above. If that is not the case, then the reputation of the confidentially and credibility of the coach (and perhaps the coaching function) may have to be weighed against the legitimate needs of the organization. For example, if a manager is slated for promotion and a coach has gained insight that he thinks would provide valuable input to the decision, the internal coach needs to have the political savvy to recognize when his input does not violate the confidentiality contract set up at the outset of the engagement. It is these types of situations that highlight the importance of developing a contract between coach, coachee, boss, and HR to establish credibility for the function.
The political power inherent in most hierarchical organizations poses a challenge to internal coaches faced with the need to give tough news to senior level people. The ability to speak truth to power comes from confidence and experience. The ability to deliver feedback requires courage and a clear understanding within the organization about what internal coaching is truly about. Clear expectations about the role are critical for success of the internal coaching function and the coach himself/herself.
An additional challenge that can be difficult to deal with but also can be a positive sign is that of coaching taking up more time than expected for the internal coach. The authors have experienced occasions where internal coaches have become so accomplished and earned a reputation for such successful development that employees clamor for their coaching, as we described in the opening case. As the adage goes: Be careful what you wish for. Success can bring an overflow of coaching clients, which could become a burden on your coaching resources if you are not prepared for that success. The internal coaching potential has been largely untapped in most organizations. Our experience has shown that formalizing and building the internal coaching function can be a powerful, cost-effective strategy to develop your top talent.
Hunt J., & Weintraub, J. (2007). The Coaching Organization: A Strategy for Developing Leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA Sage Publications.
Hunt J., & Weintraub, J. (2011). The Coaching Manager: Developing Top Talent in Business (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA Sage Publications.
Ennis, S., Otto, J., Stern, L., Goodman, R., Hodgetts, W., & Hunt, J., (2008) The Executive Coaching Handbook: Principles and Guidelines for a Successful Coaching Partnership (4th ed.). Boston: The Executive Coaching Forum. (See The Executive Coaching Forum website for more information)
1.The authors acknowledge the work of Associate Professor James Hunt of Babson College whose ideas and frameworks have significantly shaped our thinking and the content of this article.