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Staying in or going out?


Internal and external coaches both have their place, says Alan Ward. However, they serve a different purpose and which to use depends on the situation.

The economic downturn has blurred the distinction between internal and external coaches. So much so, that many organisations are beginning to question why they should pay for an external coach if an internal coach is available.

There are definite advantages to using internal coaches. They are closer to the business, so they should know the industry, the corporate culture and the issues that people are dealing with in the organisation. Plus, they are on the payroll, so there’s less of a need to justify the expense.

However, there are also some disadvantages to using internal coaches. A coachee is unlikely to tell an internal coach about a problem with his/her boss if that boss is a drinking buddy of the coach. They’re also unlikely to openly admit their weaknesses, if they know the coach is coaching others in the organisation. Some may be unwilling to open up to an internal coach because of concerns that the coach might divulge their secrets to HR and scupper their chances of promotion. Of course, these concerns can be resolved but it takes a considerable level of trust.

The inside job
The effectiveness of the role undertaken by internal coaches is often determined by what type of coach they are.

Firstly, there are ‘gifted amateurs’. Typically, these are highly personable individuals with a high level of interpersonal skills. They may have been working in HR for a while or they may be regarded as ‘natural coaches’. The organisation may choose to send them on coach training courses to give them a better indication of what’s involved in coaching.

Secondly there are those who have fallen into the role of a coach. Sometimes coaching becomes part of the job. A manager or team leader who has particularly strong leadership or communications skills may be ‘spotted’ after receiving good feedback from their team. They may then be asked to use some of these skills to help other individuals, or other teams, in addition to their main job. Often they’re coerced through flattery to take on the role. Again, the organisation may invest by providing them with coach training.

Conflict can, of course, arise if the coaching role starts to impact on the ‘day job’. Often the expectation is that the day job comes first and the coaching role should be fitted in around it. But this creates a compromising position for the internal coach, the result being that either the coaching or their performance starts to slide. The reality of doing two jobs is very difficult.

The real problem for both of these types of coaches is that they will often try to solve problems and provide answers, rather than encouraging their coachees to come up with their own solutions. This is, after all, what they have often been rewarded for in the past - and with their experience, they may feel they can sort out the ‘issues’ very quickly. In other words, they’ll provide coaching as a ‘good manager’, rather than coaching as a ‘good coach’.

A third type of internal coach is the individual who has been specifically appointed to the role. This may be someone with past experience as an external coach. Normally, because there are specific competencies required for the role, this person will receive formal training rather than a simple introduction to coaching. An appointed internal coach has the potential to be highly effective but these individuals may still be compromised if they come up against obstacles of confidentiality and perceived lack of impartiality.

All of these types of internal coaches can be very successful in helping people to navigate through the organisational structure or processes and they can also help people to acquire specific skills or knowledge that will enable them to deal with a particular client or win a promotion. This is often closer to a mentoring role and involves drawing on their expertise of ‘this is how things work around here’.

Calling in an outsider
Despite the obvious budget implications, there are times when having an external viewpoint is actually a very attractive option. It’s often easier for a senior manager to open up to an external coach. That’s why the more senior a person is, the more an external coach is likely to be used, as it can be very difficult for an internal coach to work with somebody who is senior to them.

External coaches are often used for behavioural issues (X is good at his job but is difficult to work with) or if the coachee’s issue is tied up with the culture of the organisation. Being an outsider, they can be unbiased. For example, if an internal coach is considered to be an excellent manager in the corporate culture, he/she may struggle to coach someone who may be having a problem working in that culture.

So the internal vs. external coaching dilemma should not be a simple ‘either/or’. There’s a value in having both. It’s just a case of choosing the right horse for the right course.

Alan Ward is a director of Performance Consultants, the coaching and leadership development specialist which runs coaching programmes catering for all levels from a two-day introduction to coaching, to a full master practitioner programme, awarded by the University of Portsmouth and accredited by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council

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