Internal vs. External Coach: 4 Things to Consider Before You Make the Call

Internal vs. External Coach: 4 Things to Consider Before You Make the Call

By | August 17, 2020

“After much deliberation and debate, the decision has finally been made. There is an agreement to invest in a leader with a coach to help them reach their highest potential. This is great news! Now, it’s time to source the perfect coach. Of course, there is a sense of urgency now that everyone is aligned.”

Sound familiar? As the leader of the executive coaching strategy at a Fortune 100 financial services firm, I was responsible for designing and implementing thousands of coaching engagements around the world. Each time, one of the biggest considerations was whether to use an internal or external coach. Each time, the answer depended on the leader and their situation.

I reached out to a Talent Management Leader at Merck, an Executive Coaching Practice Leader at a Fortune 100 Financial Services Company, and Heads of Coaching at Samsung and Intel with the same question. Here are four of the considerations that informed our decisions, and that you can use to inform yours.

1. The Leader

Typically, the more senior the leader, the more likely an external coach will be a better fit. C-Suite executives, their direct reports, and even the next few levels down the organizational ladder tend to prefer anonymity when working with a coach so they can be fully vulnerable and transparent.

On the other hand, when investing in developing the potential of more junior talent, such as first-time managers, directors, and early VPs, an internal coach can help reinforce cultural nuances and help navigate the organization.

If there is a question around whether the leader is ‘coachable,’ lean toward an internal coach. It’s a great first step before making a significant financial investment.

Finally, one must consider the cost. Coaching can be a significant investment. With budgets increasingly limited, external coaches need to be used where they can produce greater returns.

2. Expertise

Depending on the situation and need, external coaches can be an excellent resource when a specific skill is required.

There are external coaches who focus specifically on areas such as communication style, executive presence, leaders in transition, and expertise in assessments and/or neuroscience, to name a few.  There are also leaders who prefer to work with a coach with extensive credentials and experience that internal coaches tend not to have.

In addition to expertise, there might be some leaders who want a coach with a specific preference the internal coach cadre might be lacking. As an example, a leader could ask for a female coach who has worked at the senior executive level and is a member of the LGBTQ community. Very specific requests like these often had me looking externally.

3. Perspective

Does the leader who is being coached need reinforcement of internal cultural norms, or would it be beneficial for them to hear from someone else who has either experienced their challenges elsewhere first-hand or via coaching others? External coaches tend to have less of a ‘been there tried that’ attitude, and at times can infuse increased innovation to a leader’s thought process.

Companies often rely on internal coaches for new hires, as well as to support large strategic initiatives — situations in which it is important to be aligned to the culture, leadership styles, and the common company language.

4. Scale

If there is a need to provide coaching to a large number of people in a short timeframe, it might be best to engage with an external coaching vendor who can help you scale up and down quickly. I have seen this work well with leadership transitions, targeted high-potential populations, and first-time managers who need support that the HR function is not staffed to provide.

Internal development programming is another place to scale coaching. We know supplementing development with a coach increases the long-term success of behavior change. This is an excellent opportunity to utilize internal coaches. It provides consistency around cultural norms, allows for more frequent check-ins, and is also a nice development opportunity for internal coaches. I have seen this model work successfully many times.

Context is Key

Coaching is not a one-size-fits-all solution — there is the context that needs to be considered. Taking the above considerations into account can help you determine whether you use an internal or external coach.

Regardless of your choice, finding the right fit is paramount. The strength of the coach-coachee relationship greatly determines how coaching recipients perceive the outcome of coaching. It also increases positive outcomes and reduces rare unintended negative effects.

Coaching is a significant investment and one that can provide a tremendous return on investment if you take the time to get it right.

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