PwC internal executive coaches Dee Cullen and Sarah Edwards share and reflect on the business’ approach to internal and external coach supervision

Between us, we have 40 years’ coaching experience; we founded PwC’s executive coaching offer and last June (2014), at the
4th International Conference in Coaching Supervision in the UK, we presented a case study exploring our experience of supervision. Building on that, in this article we share more on our approach and reflections with the aim of stimulating fresh thinking about supervision in organisations.


Early doors

PwC has a long history of internal executive coaching, and was a very early adopter of coaching supervision. It did so in 1998 after the merger of Coopers & Lybrand and Price Waterhouse. Joining from different legacy firms, from the start our vision was to offer an ethical, professional executive coaching service to senior people in the firm.

The scale of coaching has grown since those early days. Per annum, our core coaching team coaches around 250 directors and partners; the coaching network (which has coaches with other roles) works with around 86; and around 60 are coached by our partners who act as coaches. The firm also has an internal career coaching service and we use a small number of external coaches.

With that has come a need for a pragmatic approach to supervision. We are both accredited supervisors. Between us, we supervise five groups and 25 individuals. Another colleague supervises five coaches. These coaches comprise fellow coaches, OD consultants, partners who coach partners, career coaches and coaches from the firm’s coaching network.


Why explore this?

The prompt to explore the topic came from our experience of using a blend of internal and external supervisors. We’re aware of the tendency to polarise (and we include ourselves in this).

One polarity we began to notice among the professional coaching bodies and in the coaching community is the apparently widely held assumption that external supervisors (and coaches) must be more experienced, and therefore better, than internal ones. We wondered whether there needed to be a binary construct of internal vs. external.

We’re in a good position to explore this as we are both users of external supervisors, and are ourselves supervisors of coaches internally.

We began to wonder if any myths exist, for example, does being external necessarily make for supervision that is more independent and unbiased, or do external supervisors just belong to a different ‘tribe’, such as the Oxford Brookes or Coaching Supervision Academy (CSA) ‘tribes’ in the UK? The supervision world is small and, after all, supervision is about the business of relationships which are ‘messy’. We wanted to test the reality of these assumptions and explore the value of the blended model we operate.

We have tacit knowledge and experience that we’ve built up over the years and wanted to unpick that and explore its value.

As coaches in the organisation ourselves we’ve often ‘ lived’ the dilemmas that our supervisees are experiencing. This could be both advantageous and disadvantageous in coaching. Operating internally, we tread a tightrope at times. However, the closeness to and knowledge of the business can give us real credibility and empathy with our supervisees, while at the same time we remain outside the business end of things and can be objective. We describe it as ‘one foot in, one foot out’.


PwC’s model of supervision

We have a relational model, encouraging responsibility and ownership in coaches. We’ve evolved our approach, incorporating the Seven-eyed Model of Supervision (Hawkins & Shohet, 1989) and the Full Spectrum Model (developed by CSA). Both provide a highly relevant systemic lens. We also refer to supervision as Normative, Formative and Restorative (Proctor, 2001).

Ours is a blended offering using internal and external supervisors. This has grown organically and is not something that we and our colleagues sat down and dreamed up 16 years ago. Instead, it has evolved as we’ve grown as coaches and supervisors, influenced by our experience, training and in no small way by the firm’s focus on relationships. We see it as
being about learning, risk management and the wellbeing and self-awareness of the coach so that they can be their best when coaching. There’s a strong thread of pragmatism there too, finding the best way for coaches to access good quality supervision, which fits in with the time-pressured environment of the firm, and that delivers value for money.

Here’s a flavour of the range of issues supervisees bring:

How do I stick with exploration with this client?

I want to talk about my relationship with PwC

I’m concerned my client might be depressed.


PwC places a strong emphasis on relationships, driven primarily by the nature of the work it does with its clients. Building trusted relationships is fundamental to operating in a market in which many compete for business. Added to that, the firm is a partnership, the essence of which is about supporting others, and being collegiate. If you analyse what gets discussed in the coaching sessions that we and our fellow coaches engage in, much of the focus is on relationships with others – be they clients or partners and staff in the firm.

Technical excellence tends to be a given once people get to senior levels in PwC. The differentiator becomes about their ability to influence and relate to others.

The coaching and supervision relationships can offer a mirror for people about how they relate, and a great learning environment in which to unpick those relationships.


External supervision

Over the past 16 years, the core group of internal executive coaches have had group supervision with various external supervisors. We’ve purposely changed supervisors regularly as a means of learning new approaches and keeping fresh.

Supervisors have come from Gestalt, Psychodynamic, Centaur model (Bioenergetics) and Integrative backgrounds.

The benefits of having a regular ongoing group are manifold. Themes emerge that we can explore and, where appropriate, feed back to the business.

Coaching can be a lonely activity at times, so it’s valuable to be able to share openly knowing that there will be support and challenge available. The group also offers a valuable means of tapping into systemic issues that may be at play; what’s happening in the group may indicate something is happening in the system.

We also have external individual supervision. This is valuable as a means of supplementing group supervision when boundaries are difficult to manage. It is also helpful for supervision on our supervision where some of the individuals we are supervising are known to others.


Internal supervision

Taking a look at the roles we play and those our supervisees play (see Figure 1, p38), it’s clear they abound with role conflict. This makes for an interesting time when supervising internally.

Paradoxically, the fact that we ourselves juggle daily with these conflicts makes us highly sensitised to them and allows us credibility and empathy with our supervisees. In supervision, the work is often about checking what has been contracted for.

As we both supervise externally we can also report that our external supervisees often stumble on the same role conflicts, for example, working with a group and then being asked by an individual in that group to be their coach. The nature of our roles means that it is highly likely we will come across our supervisees in other contexts.

For us to be able to operate as supervisors internally in an ethical and professional way takes effort and constant checking. This is helped by our strong reputation within the firm.



None of the situations described in this article will seem unusual to an external supervisor, we’d imagine. So what’s the difference between internal and external?

The intensity of the connection, so that boundary issues are magnified

The added potential for blind spots.

We’d caution against assuming that using an external will mean you avoid pitfalls and boundary complications.

We believe that by paying enough attention to keeping a healthy distance, our internal supervision offering has more similarities than differences to external supervisors.

We believe that if we continue to: work thoughtfully, use ongoing contracting explicitly around role conflicts and use supervision to confront difficult issues and to stay curious, then we can work with these challenges and that we and our supervisees will learn from working at this edge. n


Dee Cullen is an APECS accredited executive coach and CSA accredited supervisor. Sarah Edwards is an APECS accredited executive coach and CSA, APECS accredited supervisor. Both have been executive coaches for 20 years and supervisors for 10 years.