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How Internal Coaches Can Help Organizations

Coaching is no longer just about fixing performance issues. More companies are using it to create a pipeline of leaders and to develop managers who can coach their own teams and develop employees’ career paths, according to findings from The Conference Board’s Global Executive Coaching Survey 2016 released earlier this fall. And many companies are using coaches from within the organization rather than contracting with external consultants. 

For example, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston uses internal coaches to lead a yearlong group coaching program for midlevel managers. 

Executive coaching was still a novelty a decade ago when The Conference Board conducted its first survey, says Amy Lui Abel, managing director of human capital at the nonprofit business membership and research group in New York City. At that time, only 18 percent relied on numerous (more than 10) internal coaches, compared with nearly 70 percent this year. The 2016 survey includes responses from 181 global organizations, interviews and in-depth case studies to reveal key trends.

It found that executive coaching is now more targeted and often complements other leadership development programs. Organizations are expanding their coaching culture by:

• Embedding coaching into talent development and ongoing performance management processes (as opposed to using it only when a performance problem arises).

• Developing leaders and managers at all levels to be coaches.

• Utilizing senior leaders to communicate and lead coaching efforts.

• Using incentives and rewards to reinforce demonstrated coaching behaviors. 

Historically, organizations have relied on external coaches who focused their efforts on the C-suite or other leaders. However, organizations are realizing that internal and external coaching can have a positive impact in developing employees outside the leadership ranks—such as when used with Millennials, who may expect feedback beyond an annual performance review. This form of training can help employers deal with labor shortages by expanding employees’ skill sets, Lui Abel says. 

Internal coaching is less expensive than hiring external coaches. The survey found that the price tag for external coaching services has grown since 2014, with more organizations paying upwards of $600 an hour for coaching at the CEO and C-suite levels. External coaching can cost twice as much as internal coaching, according to the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP).

The Challenges

Still, there are challenges when using internal coaches. Make sure you clarify the role so that the coach doesn’t support actions of an individual that undermine another part of the organization, the SIOP website states.

While an external coach may be able to offer functional expertise and industry knowledge, an internal one can advise on personnel or departmental “landmines,” Lui Abel says.

When using internal coaches, HR professionals need to ensure that employee confidentiality is maintained, SIOP warns. Balancing the needs of the person being coached with those of the business can be difficult. Another potential drawback is that senior executives who don’t want to deal with performance problems may try to push problems over to internal coaches. 

Grade the Coaches

Most companies are rigorous about vetting would-be coaches, training them and evaluating them, Lui Abel says.

Google’s Career Guru program, launched in 2010, has grown to include 350 internal coaches in 60 offices around the world. To become an internal coach, an applicant must have been at Google for at least two years, serve at a senior level or be a subject matter expert, and have his or her manager’s support. 

Coaching is not the same as discussing a workplace challenge with a friend, she adds. “Coaching is a lot about asking questions” that help individuals discover how their values may be driving their behavior in a particular situation and then helping them find solutions to challenges. “It’s a skill.”  

Kathy Gurchiek is an associate editor for SHRM Online. 

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