The flip side

Sara Hope swapped her role as internal coach at KPMG for the life of an independent, while Louise Buckle stepped into Sara’s shoes after seven years of successful independent practice. Six months on they share their insights and experiences

Wow I’m surprised,” said Louise Buckle’s supervisor as she announced she was moving into an internal coaching role at KPMG after many years of successful independent practice. “Congratulations, about time”, was the typical response to Sara Hope’s news that she was leaving the same organisation to go independent.

What did people’s responses to our news tell us about the journeys we were about to embark on?

One of the primary reasons for employing internal coaches is that they understand the business, environment and context in which their internal clients operate. One stated benefit of using an external coach is that in lacking context-specific knowledge they bring a fresh pair of eyes.”

In our post-credit crunch world there is increasing interest in the development of internal coaching capability to get more value from coaching spend. Yet there is also a sense that this is a second-best solution – an economic necessity.

Unlike in many organisations where internal coaches coach as an extra to their ‘day job’, at KPMG coaching is the day job. KPMG in the UK has employed full-time professionally qualified coaches in its coaching faculty for nine years. They are embedded in the business with a line to the talent function for professional support.

Our hope is that through the sharing of our personal stories, best practices can accumulate as the dialogue progresses.

Frisch1, 2 suggests that as internal coaching defines its practices more clearly, internal and external coaching will be viewed as “two sides of the same coaching coin, realising greater benefit for organisations committed to the development of their human resources”.

The art isunderstanding the reality of what it’s really like depending on whether you are heads or tails.

Louise’s story: Outside in…

The lead coach role at KPMG seemed an ideal opportunity to integrate my OD sensibilities and systems perspective with my love of coaching. It was the perfect job. Six months on it still is.

The implications for my practice are much clearer now. I am absorbed in organisational life and am truly seeing coaching focused on business as well as individual needs. The scale of activity is impressive and I am busier than ever. I have wondered though if this isn’t at the expense of some of my cherished beliefs about coaching and best practice.

One of the implicit expectations of an internal coach is that you should be able to work with pretty much anyone on anything. Internal coaches haven’t felt the same pressure to develop a ‘signature presence’ as externals facing a competitive market. At KPMG we are learning to value this individual coaching voice. As internal coaches we broker as well as deliver coaching. Understanding how to differentiate between coaches is an important skillset.

My clients clearly recognise my multiple roles. As an external my presence as a coach was clear. Now my coaching client or their sponsor may also be a stakeholder, co-worker or even in management. I am a manager and a coach. Clients have expectations about my organisational knowledge. I have authority to say yea or nay. Crucially, my performance ratings are now based on client and stakeholder feedback. All this makes supervision vital if I am to avoid colluding with prevailing thinking for political or personal expediency.

Being free at the point of delivery there is always more we can offer to support the business than we have the time or resources to deliver. So I have found myself challenged to own the coaching priorities and say no to clients. I hadn’t appreciated until recently what impact this would have on client behaviour. One was getting so much out of it that she didn’t tell me she was leaving the company until after our last session, for fear I would cancel it. It made for a surreal session.

Contracting needs to be even more explicit as an internal. Recently a client asked me what I am performance-managed on in order to understand my accountabilities. In a culture where targets so often drive behaviour it was an intelligent and fair question.

How can a coach be there for the client if they are targeted with a particular outcome, say, retention? Internal coach performance indicators need to balance the relationship with the need to measure business value.

The most interesting change for me has been to my internal clock which guided me through my two-hour sessions. I didn’t need to look at my watch. I am now learning what one hour and an hour and a half ‘feel’ like. I am a novice again, not sure of where I am in a session. Work expands to fit the time available. Two hours now feels too long. I realise I can do good work in shorter sessions.

My beliefs about what constitutes good coaching are being changed, not by a change in the client, my underpinning philosophy or new skills. My KPMG clients are similar to the clients I had as an independent. The change I am experiencing is driven by my context. The internal role provides different demands. I am enjoying taking responsibility for the impact of coaching in a strategic sense. It is the start of a whole new journey as a coach. It is very exciting.

Sara’s story: Inside out…

One of the most fascinating parts of my journey as a coach has been transitioning from being an internal coach to an external coach and, in particular, noticing the complexities surrounding both roles.

Being a full-time internal coach at KPMG was a hugely enriching and rewarding experience, but I was becoming increasingly aware of the importance I attach to my own growth and learning, both as a coach and a human being. I was hungry for more, and gaining further experience in a variety of organisations appeared to be a natural next step.

Towards the end of my time as an employee, I began to notice some of the beliefs and assumptions I held about what it would be like to be an external coach. My purpose here is to share some of the realities of that journey and the insights that have emerged.

The biggest change is the importance of my appreciation of the context in which my clients operate. On reflection, perhaps I began to take for granted the value of knowing the KPMG environment, the way the business worked and the politics, which my clients found beneficial.

I also recognised that with the right support and supervision, this could be well managed. In contrast, my growing experience in a variety of businesses is also enabling me to appreciate the value of breadth and the need for a coach to be aware of the considerations of coaching in a business.

As an external coach, I have been reflecting on how I demonstrate the impact of my coaching on the wider system. For example, I may be working with one or two clients in an organisation and am keen to explore what a good outcome will look like from the perspectives of each of the stakeholders, and how the coaching is integrated into the system as a whole. This has reinforced my belief about the importance of excellence in contracting so these kinds of questions are explored upfront.

While many of the issues clients come to me with are similar to those as an internal coach, I concur with Louise’s experience that the client values the time to think, whether this is with an internal or external coach. There appears to be an appetite in organisations for good quality coaching and I think the challenge becomes how to enhance the development of that capability internally when someone may only be coaching as a small part of their role.

I acknowledge that even where a highly experienced internal coaching function exists, there will always be managers and executives for whom external coaching is the most appropriate choice. Having experienced being a professional internal coach and now an external coach, my curiosity has been drawn to noticing how much our beliefs about external coaches compared with internal coaches may be based around perceptions. As Kampa and White(3), cited in Feldman and Lankau(4), point out, there have been no empirical tests to determine if specific skills or backgrounds make any actual difference in the effectiveness of coaches. The experiences of Louise and myself suggest that for the client to gain value from the coaching relationship, they want a coach who is experienced, skilled, who will listen, challenge and give them space to think. Does it matter whether this is an internal or external coach?

In my own experience, I am still the same coach, albeit with increasing breadth and a greater appreciation of the need to flex my coaching style so that it becomes meaningful in the context in which my clients operate. Working in a variety of sectors and industries has enabled me to recognise that one size doesn’t fit all – at a macro level it’s about choosing a model of coaching that is aligned to enhancing organisational performance, and at a micro level, selecting the most appropriate coach for the job. What is best practice in one context may not be best practice in another.

Learning points

  • Internal coaches may deliver more hours than external coaches or significantly less depending on the way coaching is set up. They may have a coaching brokering role too.
  • Internal coaches have strengths and philosophies that underpin their work and guide their practice, just like externals.
  • How an internal coach is performance-managed will inform their behaviour (and their clients) just as business interests will for an external.
  • Contracting has different challenges in different contexts. As an internal, how do you ensure the client understands your place in the system? As an external how do you connect with their system to meet organisational as well as individual needs? Internal and external coaches are two sides of the same coaching coin. But the world can look very different depending on whether you are heads or tails.
  • The unique complexities and dilemmas of being an internal coach need to be addressed and explored during CPD/training interventions. One size doesn’t fit all. What is best practice in one context may not be best practice in another.

Sara Hope was an internal coach at KPMG for eight years before she left to become an external coach last year.

Louise Buckle was an external coach for seven years and joined KPMG as a lead internal coach last year.


  1. M Frisch, “The emerging role of the internal coach”, in Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 53 (4), pp240-250, autumn 2001.
  2. M Frisch, “Extending the reach of executive coaching”, in The Internal Coach Human Resource Planning, 28 (1), March 2005.
  3. S Kampa and R P White, “The effectiveness of executive coaching: what we know and what we still need to know”, in R Lowman (ed), Handbook of Organisational Consulting Psychology: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory, Skills, and Techniques: pp139-158, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.
  4. D C Feldman and M Lankau, “Executive coaching: a review and agenda for future research”, in Journal of Management, 31 (829), 2005.

Coaching at Work, Volume 5, Issue 5

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