In a previous role I worked as a senior executive coach within a large organisation, dealing primarily with senior level managers. Working as an internal coach was extremely rewarding. However, the role provided challenges that needed reflection. Here are the main learnings that I took away and which are of general consideration for anyone who is working as a coach in their own organisation.
The Advantages for Internal Coaches
Coaches who work within their own organisations have a number of advantages over external coaches. They understand the overall context of coaching in the company. They understand the politics of the organisation, “how things get done”. They know the language and norms, the cultural artefacts, of the organisation. This knowledge allows them to have a solid business and organisational context within which coaching is placed.
However, some commentators argue that building trust is more difficult for an internal coach, the primary reason being the potential conflict of loyalty to the organisation versus loyalty to the client. While I agree in general with this view, my experience has led me to posit that there are more complex issues at play. I have categorised these into three challenges.
The Coachee Challenge
The Internal Coach generally has a role, other than their coaching role, within the Organisation and, in many cases, coaching is only a small part of their day to day work activity. This issue of ‘role duality’ has implications for the Coachee as it may be a source of misunderstanding or conflict.
The Coachee must be able to trust the Coach and be confident that issues discussed within the coaching relationship do not find their way into other organisational settings, either directly or indirectly. It may be a challenge for the Coachee to be able to identify the coach in the coaching role while acknowledging that the coach may have to operate in a different role for other interactions. If the Coachee has any doubts about confidentiality then they may perceive breaches of trust even if no actual breach has occurred.
To demonstrate this, consider a hypothetical example. A Coachee is unsuccessful in a promotion competition and the feedback is that he was weak in the area of influencing. If the Coachee had confided with a coach that influencing was a weakness for them, then the coachee may be suspicious that the Coach has input this information to the promotion process. This is less likely with an external coach who is removed from such processes.
The other side of role duality is that there may also be a temptation on behalf of the Coachee to project a more favourable persona to the coach in the hope that it might be noticed by the coach and fed back to the organisation. In other words, the Coachee may try to use the Coach as a conduit into the organisation through which they can influence their careers.
The Organisational Challenge
The Organisation has a duty to acknowledge and support the confidentiality of the coach-client relationship without question. If the Organisation were to attempt to use the Coach as a source of information on clients then this would totally undermine coaching in the Organisation. Thus there is a need for clarity in Organisations with regard to protecting the confidentiality of the coaching relationship with internal Coaches. The Organisation is entitled to be briefed on ‘Themes’ that emerge from coaching but this must never be individualised.
The Coach needs to have an overarching Contract with the Organisation which goes beyond the individual coaching Contract for a particular Client and Coachee. This has particular application in the area of Talent and Succession Management where information on High Potential candidates is gathered in order to make judgements on job assignments and management rotation. The Coach cannot be asked to bring information on Coachees to these discussions.
The Coach Challenge
The Internal Coach also has to be aware of organisational bias, in other words, any limiting beliefs that they have as a result of working within the organisation, rather than being external to it as is the case with an external coach. The Coach must have sufficient self-awareness to be able to acknowledge and deal with any organisational biases that they may bring into the coaching relationship. For example, a Coach may have heard about the Coachee or be aware of some details that could cause the Coach to pre-judge the Coachee. This is far more likely with an Internal Coach who spends their working time in the organisation and is privy to these conversations
The Coach must be able to maintain separation between their role as a Coach and any other roles that they may have to fulfil, ensuring that information received in a Coaching relationship does not find its way out into other conversations in the organisation. This requires a high level of self-awareness and self-monitoring.
The Internal Coach must also ensure that they do not personally benefit from information they receive in the coaching relationship.
Having examined the potential challenges I would put forward some potential solutions that Internal Coaches could bring to their coaching practice.
The first solution is to have a very clear overarching confidentiality agreement, supported from the top of the Organisation and communicated widely. This should be part of the company’s Coaching Policy and is a contract between the Coach and the Organisation.
Secondly it is important to contract properly with each Coachee and Client and to be explicit in highlighting the practical steps that are taken to ensure confidentiality. I believe the Internal Coach needs to be sensitive to any of the identified challenges and to re-contract if the coach feels that the initial contracting has not been properly accepted by the coachee.
Coaching Supervision also has an important role to play in supporting the Internal Coach. It can provide a safe environment for the internal coach to discuss the coaching relationship and the wider organisational context. The challenges identified can be brought into the supervision space and worked through with an experienced coach.
Internal Coaches have an important role to play in the development of capability within organisations. To be really effective they need to be aware of the specific challenges they face and to take steps to avoid issues that would undermine them as coaches or even undermine coaching in general. The steps outlined above should provide a good starting point.