Should Your Organization Use Internal Coaches?

Create an internal coaching culture to develop future leaders and teams

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 19, 2016
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Coaching is no longer just about fixing performance issues. Companies are turning to internal coaching to create a pipeline of leaders and to develop managers who can coach their teams, according to findings from The Conference Board's Global Executive Coaching Survey 2016 released Sept. 6.

Coaching is being integrated into performance management and being used to develop employees' career paths, the report said. The Houston, Texas-based University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, one of the case studies included in the survey report, uses internal coaches to lead a yearlong group coaching program for midlevel managers. One of the components is individual development plans.

Google, another case study, has a plethora of internal coaches, including those who help new employees navigate the company culture and those work with people managers to develop their teams. It also has an executive development team that focuses on leadership coaching.

"When we conducted our first executive coaching survey in 2006, the field [of coaching] was in many ways still a novelty," said Amy Lui Abel, Ph.D., managing director of human capital at The Conference Board, in a news release.

Since then, The Conference Board has seen an increasing number of organizations building internal coaching practices, Lui Abel said. The New York City-based organization is a nonprofit business membership and research group. Conference Board researchers drew data from case studies, interviews and survey responses from 181 global organizations such as Northwell Health, L-3 Communications, Google and Citibank India.

Coaching is now more targeted and often complements other leadership development programs. The survey found that organizations are expanding their coaching culture in a number of ways:

*By embedding coaching into talent and performance management processes.
*By developing leaders and managers at all levels to be coaches.

*Senior leaders are communicating and leading coaching efforts in the company.

*By using incentives and rewards to reinforce demonstrated coaching behaviors.

Historically, organizations used external coaches who focused their efforts on the C-suite or other organizational leaders. However, organizations are realizing that coaching can have a significant impact in developing employees outside its leadership ranks—such as when used with Millennials, who may expect feedback beyond an annual performance review. They also are viewing it as a way to deal with the "looming productivity crisis and labor shortage" that is expected to continue for the next 10 to 15 years, Lui Abel told SHRM Online.

Internal coaching also is less cost-prohibitive than hiring external coaches. The survey found the price tag for external coaching services has grown since 2014, with more organizations paying upwards of $600 per hour for coaching at the CEO and C-suite levels.

How Do You Do That?

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) notes on its website that both external and internal coaching provide value but points out some challenges of using internal coaches.

It's important, the website says, to clarify and differentiate an internal coach's role so that the coach observes organizational protocol when working with coachees and refrains from supporting actions that undermine another part of the organization.

Lui Abel sees it a bit differently. While an external coach may be able to offer functional expertise and industry knowledge, an internal coach can be more aware of personnel or departmental "landmines" and advise accordingly, she said.

HR professionals typically create and design coaching programs, roll out training for front-line managers, or include coaching in management training programs for their organization, she told SHRM Online.

Other challenges, according to SIOP, are balancing employee confidentiality with the needs of the business and being clear on accountability. For the latter, when coaching around performance issues, for example, SIOP notes that "it is essential that the supervising managers, even senior executives, stay involved as parties to the coaching."

SIOP and the Society for Human Resource Management are longtime partners that have created a series of resources for HR practitioners, including the June 2015 paper Coaching for Professional Development. SIOP, SHRM, the SHRM Foundation and the SIOP Foundation also sponsor the annual HRM Impact Award.

Google's Guru Program

Google is going beyond developing front-line managers and C-suite leaders as internal coaches to extend the practice to nonexecutive employees.

The technology company declined to be interviewed for this story. However, Lui Abel pointed to its program—which is among the case studies in the report—as an example of a cutting-edge strategy of internal coaching.

Google launched Career Guru in 2010 and has broadened it into Guru-plus with 350 internal coaches in 60 offices around the world. Coaching is accomplished virtually using Google Hangouts. Depending on the topic, the one-on-one sessions can range from one to eight sessions.

Coaches support 12 topics, such as sales. A sales employee working in Australia who is preparing to make a big sales pitch, for example, may get coaching from a "sales guru" working in the same industry in another country.

In addition to sales, guru topic areas cover:

  • Career.

  • Team development.

  • Leadership.

  • Manager—for people managers on people management-related topics.

  • Parent—for employees transitioning to parenthood.       

  • Innovation.

  • New employees.

  • Well-being.

  • Presentation—for learning to give reports and TED Talks, for example.

  • Respect—for employees facing work or personal obstacles.

"It's definitely revolutionary," Lui Abel said of the program, "but it makes perfect sense."

To become an internal coach, applicants must have been at Google for at least two years, serve at the organization's senior level or be subject matter experts, have their managers' support for serving as a guru, and be considered an employee in good standing by their manager and HR business partner. Gurus undergo training and are evaluated by those they coach.

Most companies "are quite serious and rigorous" about the vetting process and employee ratings of coaches, Lui Abel said.

It's important to remember that there is a difference between just chatting with a girlfriend about a topic, such as impending motherhood, and coaching, she added.

"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. "Coaching is not telling people what to do and barking orders," she said. "It's a skill."

The Conference Board expects to see more personalized coaching with measurable outcomes.

Rebecca L. Ray, executive vice president of knowledge organization at The Conference Board and a co-author of the report, noted in a news release that there is much anecdotal evidence on the power of coaching.

"But turning this tool of individual development into an organizational catalyst will depend on rich analytics, scalable deployments and objective, repeatable results. The next frontier [in coaching] will bring in the latest in technology, neuroscience, mindfulness and more."

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