Queen's University IRC

Internal Coaching: An Organizational Perspective


Grant Armstrong
Director, Organizational Development, Brock University

July 11, 2013

Internal Coaching: An Organizational PerspectiveA number of years ago, I proposed the idea to the organization I worked for that we should consider having an internal coach. There were a number of reasons why I thought this would be a good idea, not only for the organization, but also the individuals, and taxpayers (as we were public sector), and finally for me. From an organizational standpoint, we had been using external coaches for a few years and in some cases had realized some value. The problem with external coaching was that it is:

  1. Expensive
  2. Harder to access, and
  3. External coaches in many cases did not understand our business.

There has been a substantial amount of discussion about the third point. Some external coach training organizations, and consulting companies that offer external coaches, have suggested that having specific institutional knowledge is not required. However, in my 35 years of coaching employees both from an informal (part of my managerial accountabilities) and formal (providing internal professional coaching services) capacity, it has been my experience that they want to know that you understand their business or at the very least, their industry.

From a corporate perspective, there has been a willingness to invest money in individual coaching if they believe it will generate more revenue, help develop a high potential candidate, or redirect someone they value as a contributor. From an individual perspective, we understand that a great many people are very focused on the task at hand, getting the work done, getting promoted to the next position, or starting to shop for the next external opportunity. The feedback from my clients has included a number of different comments about coaching such as, ‘it has been a time for me to step back and examine my role as a leader’, ‘coaching has put a more deliberate focus on my career’, ‘coaching has demonstrated that someone in the organization is actually concerned about me’, and ‘coaching was helpful because it gave me access to an objective third party that I could bounce ideas off of’. One client also suggested that in my capacity as their coach, I was able to remind them when they were heading in the wrong direction – although at the time their wording was more metaphoric, and made reference to a “slap in the side of the head”.

From a taxpayer or shareholder standpoint, anytime you can reduce the voluntary turnover of high potential employees and help guide employees to strengthen their contribution, then it is only reasonable to assume there is a huge cost savings in recruitment, training costs, and a reduction in lost productivity.

From a personal perspective, anytime you can match individual, professional, and organizational goals, the willingness or “discretionary effort” component increases. Based on my experience, the internal coach can add significant value to the organization. These benefits include significant cost savings, availability and accessibility, and business knowledge to name a few.

If you find someone in your organization that has already been doing a wonderful job at coaching people in their immediate work area, then there may be an opportunity to build on this natural expertise with some professional coach’s training. You could also choose to hire someone that already has the required credentials, coaching certification, knowledge of the business, and relationship skills.

Regardless of the approach you take there are certain things to consider. Over the last few years, I have identified some of the areas that are important to discuss when deciding whether or not the internal coaching process is the right model for your organization. The following eight points should assist you.

  1. Be able to explain what coaching is and what it will be used for:
    People are sometimes confused in the early stages as to what coaching is and how it is used. You will need to be able to explain these fully. (See Figure 1)
  2. Know what is within the realm and what is out of bounds:
    You need to be clear about what coaching means in your organization. It doesn’t mean marriage counseling, addiction counseling or therapy. You will need to be able to explain what is in scope and what is not. As well, you will need to be able to determine when you should be referring employees to your employee assistance program or for a medical consultation.
  3. Don’t expect a coach to fix a problem employee and/ or don’t use a coach to do what the manager should be doing:
    Sometimes coaching is viewed as a way of fixing the person. For example, the employee does not treat their co-workers with respect, or they are always moody, or the employee does not meet project deadlines, etc. It is important to clearly articulate what a coach can do and what needs to be addressed by the employee’s immediate manager.
  4. Establish a very definitive set of rules on how the coach will handle confidentiality:
    It will be important to set out the confidentiality criteria before the coaching process starts, so both parties understand the boundaries. There has to be enough comfort so there can be open and honest dialogue, but there also needs to be an understanding that if information being shared has dangerous consequences, the coach is required to contact the appropriate parties. My first session always includes my boundaries, which are that the conversations will remain confidential unless I believe the organization, client or someone else is in danger. If any of those three circumstances exist then I will no longer feel bound by confidentiality.
  5. Establish a very definitive set of outcomes:
    It is critical to determine what the outcomes from the sessions will be. My belief is that all good coaching has meaningful homework between the sessions. This homework should be designed to get the client to a certain place by a certain time.
  6. Know when to go outside:
    There will be times when coaching is the right decision, but not internal coaching. Sometimes it may be best to use the services of an external coach, and there can be a variety of reasons why this might apply. For instance, the person may be more senior than the coach. The coach may have worked with or for the potential client, and it might not be a very good match. It has been my experience that you don’t click with every client so sometimes it is best to use the external coach.
  7. Coaching credentials:
    If you choose an external coach, don’t assume that because a person has a coaching credential that they are the right person for your organization. Coach’s training schools are pumping people out at unprecedented rates, and one needs to consider a number of factors in conjunction with the coaching credential. For example:

    1. Past experience – if industry or organizational knowledge is important to you then you will need to find people that meet your requirements.
    2. Level reached in the organization – lately, everyone I meet who wants to provide coaching claims to be an executive coach. Make sure you find out at what level this person has worked in the organization; senior people tend to want to be coached by people that have similar experience.
    3. What is their experience in coaching, how long have they been coaching, and what are their success rates?
  8. Coach the Coach:
    Over the years that I have been acting in this capacity, I have found that being an internal coach can be an extremely exhilarating, yet draining experience. I believe that it is critical to do self-maintenance. I would strongly recommend that if you are doing internal coaching, that you have your own coach that will allow you to decompress and then move forward.

There has been debate over the years as to what coaching is and what the coach should provide. In current times it has been suggested that coaches ask questions to help guide employees to some form of self-discovery so that they can uncover what needs to be done. Some of the following questions demonstrate this:

What could you have done differently?
What did you learn from this experience?
What would you do differently in the future?
What’s important to you in the future?

I think all of these questions have merit when you are asking your client to identify the solutions, and as you will notice they all use the word “you”. I have found, however, that when doing organizational coaching there are times when different coaching styles are required. As a result, I have developed a three pronged coaching methodology that a coach can move in and out of, depending on what the client needs. The model identifies three distinct but fluid perspectives 1. Advise, 2. Guide, or 3. Collaborate. (See figure below.) The ability to move within this model allows the coach to provide the right guidance at the right time.

Figure 1 – The Balanced Coaching Relationship Trilogy

The Balanced Coaching Relationship Trilogy - Figure 1

In summary, over the last few years organizational coaching has become more readily accepted by organizations as another tool that can help improve productivity, support high potentials, help in the career planning process, and reduce turnover of the critical few. The coaching process needs to be viewed as a support mechanism for employees and managers, not from a clinical perspective, but rather from a business perspective for improving, changing or sustaining productivity. But it should be reiterated that this process does not replace the important role the direct manager plays in operational day-to-day coaching and communication.

About the Author

Grant ArmstrongDr. Grant Armstrong, EdD, CPCC, CHRP, has over 30 years’ experience in private and public organizations. Dr. Armstrong has held senior positions in the manufacturing, financial and public sectors. He is currently the Director of Organizational Development at Brock University. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in business and educational disciplines from Brock University and the University of Toronto. His primary focus over the last 15 years has been in the field of Organizational and Leadership Development and he has done extensive research, facilitation, and consulting in this area. He is also a certified professional coach and specializes in Leadership and Executive coaching. Dr. Armstrong is a recipient of the 2012 ASAC Laurier School of Business & Economics Best Case Award. In addition, he has held a number of volunteer Board positions and is currently the President of the Human Resource Professional Association Niagara Chapter.

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