Internal coaching is no longer the Cinderella figure of the coaching world. Large organisations in particular understand the important part it plays in helping employees deliver business-critical projects. And its popularity continues to grow. Georgina Fuller reports
Not so long ago, internal coaching was regarded as the Cinderella of the coaching industry, the poor relation to high-kudos, high-cost external executive coaching. But this perception and status has changed dramatically in recent years and is continuing to do so. Internal coaching is most definitely on the up.
While in some organisations internal coaching is carried out with limited skill to help cut costs and tick boxes, more and more companies are recognising the value of having highly trained internal coaches as a key mainstay of their learning and development (L&D) strategy.
Jeannette Marshall, vice chair and head of standards and accreditation at the Association for Coaching, UK, says: “The list of companies using internal coaches is growing and is reflected across all sectors: local councils, health authorities, housing associations, universities and business schools, finance and insurance, industry and manufacturing.”
Marshall continues: “Some notable organisations using internal coaches are: BBC, Canada Life, Everest Limited, Greater London Authority, London School of Economics, Loughborough University, Nationwide, Selfridges and Shell.”
Her comments are supported by a wealth of research. The latest Sherpa Coaching Survey, published in March 2016 and representing the coaching industry in 65 countries, showed that internal coaching is very much on the rise. The study indicated a 40 per cent increase in in-house coaching from four years ago. It also found the number of internal coaches, especially those from major companies, signing on to take the survey had doubled in recent years.
This is echoed by the 2015 Ridler Report, published in October of that year, which showed internal and external coaching are at level pegging. Almost 40 per cent of coaching hours are currently delivered through one-to-one internal coaching, compared with 42 per cent one-to-one external coaching. The Ridler Report also found that seven in ten organisations currently have an internal coaching capability and 20 per cent of organisations are planning to introduce internal coaching over the next two years.
Katharine St John-Brooks, founder of leadership consultancy Working Solutions and author of Internal Coaching: The Inside Story (Karnac Books, 2014) says: “I would describe the use of internal coaches as being on a continuing upward trend. I keep wondering if the popularity of internal coaching is going to plateau, but I’ve seen no signs of it.”
The outlook for in-house coaches is generally very positive, says St John-Brooks. “If you talk to the proponents of coaching in many large organisations (including the four big consultancies: EY, KPMG, PwC and Deloitte), you’ll find that they see it as an important plank of their strategy for supporting employees to deliver business-critical projects. The more that champions of internal coaching publicise the value they get from it, the quicker the Cinderella issue will fade away.”
Janet Wilson, president of the UK International Coach Federation (ICF), agrees that we’re seeing a significant rise in the number of organisations looking to expand their in-house coaching capabilities, an increase highlighted in ICF research.
From 2014 to 2015, the use of internal coach practitioners increased from 50 to 57 per cent, indicated the ICF and Human Capital Institute, Building a Coaching Culture for Increased Employee Engagement  report.
Ian Jenner, consultant with development consultancy Coach Mentoring, says the status and credence of internal coaches is partly to do with where they sit within an organisation. “Internal coaching and mentoring is evolving. For me, it all depends on how coaching and mentoring is introduced and positioned in the organisation. Whether it’s part of the strategic intent, a change agent, a key priority or enabler or an HR activity.”
Jenner is noticing that more organisations are now investing in good quality training for their coaches. “It seems that there is more coaching and mentoring training going on and the quality of that training is improving, especially in regards to the internal dynamics, power and politics. Some of this is being informed by new suppliers or providers who have moved from the corporate world.”
Benefits and obstacles
Marshall says internal coaches are increasingly seen as offering a highly cost-effective way of improving performance, creating cohesive teams and changing organisational culture. She points out, however, that there remains a clear distinction between those who do coaching as their sole job and organisations who teach basic coaching skills to their people/managers in one- or two-day courses.
“The difference in the level of skill, training and experience of internal coaches is vast. Those organisations that demonstrate best practice – rather than using individuals who have completed a short coaching skills course – ensure their coaches are trained to a high skill level and use a range of coaching methodologies, tools and techniques, supported through supervision.”
Marshall cites a number of other key benefits and advantages to using an internal coaching model. Namely, a consistent approach across the organisation and an in-depth understanding and knowledge of the internal systems, policies and culture.
“It’s also about developing long-term relationships with coaching clients and having the flexibility to support the organisation’s needs,” she says.
It can be an effective way of keeping costs down. An internal coach is usually easily contactable and available to the client. In addition, any development or training will benefit the coach as well as the organisation as a whole.
There are, however, some disadvantages. “There could be some potential blind spots about the organisational culture and the internal coach might take a slightly less objective view as they are immersed in it,” she explains. “They may also have a lack of time to coach, especially if they have to do this on top of their main role and the boundaries between the line manager and coach may be less clear.
“The actual logistics of making the coaching happen – who takes responsibility and drives it and the potential for breaching confidentiality – could also be thorny areas to navigate,” says Marshall.
St John-Brooks says that it can also sometimes take a while for internal coaches to build up credibility within their organisation, particularly when the move is cost-driven. “Cutting costs is still often a driver in organisations where a decision has been taken to train a pool of internal coaches – because internal coaching can offer excellent value for money,” she notes.
Wilson, from the ICF, agrees that credibility can be an issue. “In 2014, we asked organisational decision-makers (primarily in HR and talent development) what they perceived as the chief advantages and disadvantages of internal coach practitioners. The perceived advantages included a knowledge of company culture, accessibility to the organisation and the ability to support the growth of an organisational coaching culture and cost,” says Wilson. “However, the survey results showed that internal coach practitioners were perceived as having less formal coach training than external coach practitioners and less time to devote to coaching, while still having the same blind spots as their external counterparts.”
Sara Hope, a former coach at KPMG and founder of The Conversation Space consultancy, says it’s important for internal coaches to look to their peer-to-peer networks to see what other organisations are doing. “It’s very easy to take a one-size-fits-all approach and think only about your organisation, but you can really add value if you look at what is and isn’t working for other people in different networks,” she notes.
It’s also important for in-house coaches to continue to develop themselves and their skills in order to keep delivering to a high standard. Marshall says they should, ideally, be working towards individual accreditation with a professional body as an external coach would do.
“This is a key factor in not only increasing the confidence and skill level of the coach, but also in giving them credibility within the organisation while also demonstrating a firm commitment to their ongoing professional development,” she notes.
“Ongoing continuous professional development [CPD] – and supervision – is key to the effectiveness of an internal coach. It is integral to ensuring the credibility of the coaching intervention, and the safeguarding of the coachee and the stakeholders. Furthermore, continued supervision is essential for accreditation purposes.”
St John-Brooks points out, however, that it’s still often the case that in-house coaches are coaching on top of their day jobs. This can, she says, throw up a number of challenges.
“They are unlikely to coach more than two to three clients at any one time, which means their experience builds up comparatively slowly. Work pressures can also mean their time can get squeezed, making it hard to fit in the demands of reflective time, supervision and CPD.”
Being part of the same ‘system’ as their client can also lead to a number of issues and the network the coach has within the organisation can lead to ethical dilemmas around role conflicts, boundaries and confidentiality.
Good training is, therefore, essential. “Training internal coaches offers the organisation a ‘double whammy’, ie, both the internal client and the internal coach benefit from the personal and professional development provided by the coach training,” says St John-Brooks.
“Another benefit lies in having a pool of coaches really familiar with the values and the strategic priorities of the organisation – external coaches are rarely adequately briefed.”
Jenner says in-house coaches have got to have support from the top of the organisation to be effective and to maintain momentum. “Senior sponsorship is key, along with a tenacious coach sponsor who encourages the community of practitioners to have conversations of accountability for continuing development of practice.”
St John-Brooks says there can also be an issue around maintaining momentum. “Coaching pools can kick off with a surge of enthusiasm only to run out of steam a couple of years later. Also, coaches may fall foul of restructures and either be made redundant or have too much work to carry on coaching. So the coaching resource can wither on the vine if it is not refreshed,” she notes.
To keep the coach engaged there must be a clear job for them to do and it should be articulated to them (ideally around an organisational priority), says St John-Brooks, and they need a consistent flow of clients. “Sometimes organisations fail to balance supply and demand. If a coach doesn’t have any (or enough) clients they can feel deskilled and lose confidence.”
Wilson says access to ongoing training is essential. “Providing ongoing opportunities for internal coach practitioners’ training and professional development (including mentor coaching, coaching supervision and communities of practice) keeps the coaches energised and engaged in the day-to-day work of coaching and the bigger-picture work of building a strong coaching culture,” she notes.
- Knowledge of company culture
- Accessibility to coaching as a resource
- Knowledge of company personnel and operations
- Alignment with company agenda
- Limited coach training and experience
- Possible lack of role clarity and confidentiality
- Blind spots within the organisation
Case study: Imperial College London
Imperial College London has been running its own in-house coaching academy since 2009, offering coaching as an additional, confidential support to development for College staff. Imperial now has around 40 coaches who have all taken part in a rigorous six-day training programme, most recently the Level 5 in Coaching and Mentoring run by the Institute of Leadership and Management.
The College has around 8,000 academic, support and research staff in science, technology, engineering and medicine. Its main campus is based in South Kensington, London, but it has a number of sites across the city.
Each coach is carefully matched to the client and they have up to four meetings over six months. All coaches go through an application process for the coaching course and all carry out the coaching sessions on top of their usual jobs.
Judy Barnett, talent development manager and head of the coaching academy, says it has evolved from an executive-level scheme using external coaches to a coaching offer available to all. “Around 35-40 per cent of our coachees request coaching on career development, and other coachees focus on issues such as leadership and enhancing impact,” she says. “It gives our coachees a sense of empowerment, a fresh perspective and strategies to deal with challenges they are facing.”
More recently, managers have been offered shorter ‘Leader as Coach’ training. “We want to make coaching the bedrock of our culture and equip line managers with a coaching mindset and skills they can use in their day-to-day interactions.”
Imperial also offers the coaches continuing professional development (CPD) training two or three times a year and ongoing coaching supervision. “A lot of coaches say that being a coach has made them better managers of their own staff. They’ve integrated the same approach to listening and this non-directive way of dealing with their own staff. That’s a powerful benefit,” says Barnett.