This one’s in the house: Why it pays to develop internal coaches

Could the influence of coaching – that infant prodigy of the learning and development world – finally be on the wane?

Initial findings from the latest annual learning and development survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) certainly seemed to indicate so, as it revealed that in 2007 fewer organisations were involved in coaching activity – 63% of respondents compared to the 2006 figure of 70%.

However, dig a little a deeper and it seems that the story is not that coaching is on the wane, but more that it is putting down roots, as organisations look to create an in-house coaching capability rather than recruit external coaches on an ad hoc basis.

One in 10 organisations reports that coaching has been completely integrated into the wider HR and learning and development strategy in their organisation.

“People are starting to think more strategically about coaching and are making their objectives clear,” says Victoria Winkler, learning and development adviser at the CIPD.

Going internal

She adds that the research shows proportionally more coaching is being carried out by internal coaches and line managers than external coaches.

Typically, internal coaches coach those who do not report to them and the line managers coach those who do. Overall, the bulk of the task falls to the line manger, with one in 10 respondents saying that line managers deliver 76%-100% of the coaching in their organisation.

Lack of training

What is worrying, and what could undermine many organisations’ attempts to create a credible coaching culture, is that while line managers are increasingly expected to take on the responsibility for coaching, very few are truly trained to do so.

An embarrassingly meagre 2% of all respondents to the CIPD survey train all line managers to coach, and only 17% train a majority of their line managers to do it.

When organisations do train line managers to coach, they usually try to do so in less than two days or, as in 20% of cases, do not offer any help to their coaches to keep their skills up-to-date.

Winkler admits she is concerned and would like to see organisations setting out clearer development plans for their line managers to become coaches and making more of an effort to create the building blocks for a coaching culture.

“For example, it is critical to develop a common language about coaching so that all parties understand what is expected of them,” she says.

“And HR departments need to look at the people management skills, not just the technical skills when they put people in front-line positions. HR has to communicate coach-like behaviours, such as listening and giving guidance.”

At The School of Coaching, founder and director of studies Myles Downey makes a similar plea for a structured approach to internal coaching initiatives. “One of the dangers in training internal coaches is that it is easy to think ‘this person is a natural’ without people fully understanding that coaching is a particular set of skills that must be learned. It is too easy to identify friendly, nice people and good listeners and then give them insufficient training.”

Downey recommends that organisations introduce formality and monitoring, just as they would when interviewing and employing prospective external coaches.

“At least with an external coach there is a written contract,” he says. “Internals need clear goals and clear objectives, not just between the coach and coachee but also the internal coach’s manager, who should be given an overview of these objectives.”

Monitor the process

Deploying internal coaches should not be seen as an easy option, says Downey, and the process should be monitored.

“For example, organisations could conduct a study across a patch of people being coached to see if they are achieving their objectives,” he says.

“And organisations need to steer away from the danger that internal coaches treat the coaching relationships as informal and fail to set either clear success measures or an end date to relationships.”

Supervision is a key component in external coaching initiatives, and Downey expects to see this in internal projects too.

Despite the warnings, both Downey and Winkler agree that an internal coach can add value because they have the one thing which externals don’t – a knowledge of the business.

How this knowledge is deployed is crucial, adds Charles Brook, director of consultancy The Performance Coach.

It can be a case of too close for comfort – an internal coach might be able to identify with what the coaches are going through but this is not necessarily a good thing and the coaching sponsor ( the HR or learning and development manager) has to give the internal coach the right tools to manage this relationship. “If you are going to make the concept of internal coaches work, help them to deal with the content of a coaching conversation,” he says.

“It can be too easy for an internal coach to associate with the coachee’s situation,” he says. “They need to know they must not influence the coachee, and must seek to distance themselves.”

Of course, there are plenty of examples of organisations practising what they preach by taking an informed and measured approach to internal coaching initiatives.

At the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement, for instance, Brook was involved in a scheme to create cohorts of trained internal coaches (see case study above). He thinks that appropriate timing and in-built supervision were the keys to the scheme’s success.

“The programme, which was introduced at a time of flux, gave people access to internal coaches, who helped them through change and to increase performance, ” he says.

Fading away?

But does this mean that the role of external coaches is fading?

Brooks thinks not. It is a matter of using the right tools for the job.

“It all comes back to having a coaching strategy,” he says. “Organisations should be clear about where external coaches would fit and what internal coaches could contribute, and where line managers are using coaching styles. They also need to know which of their people it would be most effective to use coaching with,” he says.


Reorganisation led the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement to seek to develop a coaching culture.

The NHS Institute commissioned a coaching programme from the School of Coaching and The Performance Coach, which was designed to support board-level development by training a number of senior people and chief executives to coach their peers.

“We ran four cohorts of 15 last year,” says Sue Mortlock, associate leader at the NHS Institute, who explains that the centrally-run programme has created registers of accredited coaches, which can be accessed by the strategic health authorities. Three cohorts are planned for 2007 and one for 2008.

Mortlock is conscious that careful planning is needed to make an internal coaching scheme beneficial, and has a clear picture of the qualities she is looking for in an internal coach.

“A coach needs a high level of self-awareness,” she says, “because they take responsibility for the conversations and they also need to provide a challenge constructively in a supportive environment.”

Mortlock has monitored the quality of the coaching by ensuring the internal coaches have access to trained internal supervisors, external telephone supervision, and by offering a coaching certificate in conjunction with the University of Strathclyde and Manchester Business School.


At Loyalty Management Group, the company that owns and operates the Nectar customer loyalty programme, HR director Gabrielle de Wardener took a conscious decision to create a coaching culture. “We wanted to investigate different ways to enable managers to empower their teams to take more responsibility for their own decisions.”

She did this by increasing the coaching skills of 50 managers at the 200-staff firm.

Coaching workshops from training specialist Steps Drama were part of her strategy, as participants watched scenarios at a firm similar to their own and participated in one-to-one roleplays with an actor to practise their coaching skills.

The managers were also given an insight into the “Grow model” (goal reality options wrap-up), and used it to inform actors in another roleplay.

“Managers have told us that they like the way they learned these coaching skills,” says de Wardener. “We want our business to be proactive and entrepreneurial and we feel that a coaching culture is the best way to let people use their skills and talents.”

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