Request a demo
Request a demo
Contact us
Internal or External? How to determine your coaching strategy

Written by Patricia Overland – Senior Coach – Ken Blanchard Companies
Coaching has hit the mainstream. It’s showing up in Dilbert cartoons, sitcoms, and well, even the Kardashians are using coaches. Being mainstream simply means that there are a lot more choices one has when considering coaching. It is no longer the secret weapon for C level executives. And it’s not about correcting performance. It’s about motivation, behavior change and ultimately ensuring that people are having the conversations that matter most. I’m a business coach. Fully trained and certified, and hard at work helping leaders develop and grow for the last 15 years. I have seen coaching at work in organizations, making a profound difference in how leaders lead, and how individual contributors put their best effort forward.

In recent years the debate has raged about when to use internal coaches and when to use external coaches. Everyone has weighed in, from the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology to the International Coach Federation. Companies are increasingly exploring how to design coaching programs that work for their organizations.

Here are three reasons why an organization should consider using internal coaches:

Financial constraints – Coaching can be expensive. A typical coaching relationship can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000. When a CEO gets the results she wants, it’s an expense well worth the cost. However, democratizing coaching in organizations at that price point may not be feasible. Having an internal staff of coaches (individuals within different business units who do coaching a percentage of their time) can increase access to coaching for everyone in the organization.

Organizational integration – Understanding the internal culture and the political landscape can be critical. The Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology suggest that internal coaches have faster access to information about the strengths and values of an organization. Internal coaches can potentially integrate and influence system level interventions more efficiently.

Consistency in process and methodology – Let’s face it. Coaching is not a fully regulated profession. Although the International Coach Federation has a rigorous certification process, and there are many coach training schools, there is no guarantee that a business card that reads “coach” attests to the needed skills. Added to that, hiring external coaches from many different boutique organizations increases the diversity of methodologies.

It sounds reasonable right? Keep it in house and you can save money, improve access, and ensure consistency. But there is a definite downside to using an internal coach approach.

Consider these three reasons for hiring external coaches:

Confidentiality and the client’s agenda – Successful coaching is grounded in these concepts. A slip up in one of these areas can tank a coaching program. There is, worst case, a fear by those being coached that an internal coach might discuss with others the content of a coaching session. Even when it is absolutely, never, ever going to happen, the perception of the possibility reduces the ability of the person being coached to be honest and open. That decreases the efficacy of coaching. Using an external coach increases the likelihood that the people being coached trust and believe that the content of the conversations is confidential and that the coach holds their best interests at heart.

Overcoming cultural blindness – An external coach, by definition, is not part of the organization. Social psychology theory shows that people who work or live together are influenced by each other towards conformity. An external coach sees things through a different lens, not a lens of conformity. An external coach can more readily identify obstacles and blind spots that arise as result of organizational conformation. An external coach can facilitate a change in perspective, beyond cultural norms, that can lead to innovative, creative behavior change.

Avoiding accountability and role clarification Issues – An external coach’s role can be clearly defined. Typically coaching is provided as a development methodology that helps people learn and grow. Coaching focuses on purposeful action designed to help the client achieve personal goals. Ideally these goals are linked to organizational strategy, after all getting a return on investment is important. External coaches do not replace the manager or leader in directing and measuring performance. An internal coach often fulfills other business unit or Human Resource functions, including performance management. Role clarification and boundaries around information management become more challenging with internal coaching. Since the external coach has one role, that of supporting and guiding the person being coached, accountability and role clarification are not at issue.

Ultimately organizations must choose the right strategy for themselves. There is no one right answer.

Here are four additional things to consider:

Readiness for coaching – What is the internal organizational readiness for coaching? Do people believe that coaching is a performance management tool? That only those in “trouble” will be coached? If so, this needs to be shifted to coaching with a focus on development and career goals. How open are people about learning? What causes people to seek out and trust the coaching process?

Ability to structure, manage and measure – Who will manage and measure the effectiveness of coaching? What return does the organization want and need to justify coaching? What tracking methods will be put in place? How many internal or external coaches does the organization need? What measures of success are necessary to influence the implementation and continuation of coaching in the organization?

The coach and coach methodology – How will the organization select the coach or coaches? What criteria are important to the organization? What coaching methodology fits best with the culture and the individual? What role will the manager of the person being coached play? How can the organization ensure quality and consistency, while making room for a variety of methods to meet individual needs?

Executive needs – How realistic is it to expect an executive to bare his soul, admit to imperfection, acknowledge the desire to continue developing or expose his deepest feelings to someone who is part of his organization? Can it be done?

Regardless of the decision an organization makes regarding internal or external coaching, or both, the method works. People are fundamentally changed by engaging in meaningful conversations with a coach who creates an environment of trust and learning. Making the decision to work with a coach or coaching organization, or to build internal coaching capacity, is as individual as buying a prom dress or a tuxedo. No one style fits every organization.


subpage_people_overlandPatricia Overland
Patricia Overland is a Senior Coach for the Ken Blanchard Companies. She consults with organizations and manages large scale global coaching initiatives.