How to Position Internal Leadership Coaches for Success

Only one-third of organizations believe they are effective at developing great leaders who drive business results, according to Brandon Hall Group’s study, Great Leaders: How Do We Develop More? 

In the study, respondents rated coaching leaders as the most important strategy to improve leader training. 

There are several types of coaching. Most organizations expect their managers to coach their direct reports on their performance and career development. That is not what we are talking about here. This brief focuses on organizations that appoint employees — often leaders or internal consultants — to coach leaders below them and high-potential leader prospects on how to improve their leadership capabilities. 

Coaching is a unique discipline that is quite different from providing feedback, mentoring or counseling. Especially for higher-level leaders, hiring an external, experienced and certified professional coach may be the best option. But employers are not always willing or able to make the financial commitment. 

Internal leader coaching can be effective, but organizations must provide training on key coaching components, such as active inquiry, as well as templates, learning resources and feedback channels. Most organizations do not do that. 

In talking to HR leaders trying to get leader coaching programs off the ground, there is still confusion about how to make internal leader coaching successful. Training is nonexistent or limited and there often are no formal processes to make coaching effective.

  • How can we improve the way we prepare internal coaches for success? 
  • How do we get the greatest benefit from coaching leaders? 
  • What are the processes we should put in place to drive coaching excellence? 

Develop Effective Processes for Matching Coaches 

Not everyone possesses the attributes or competencies to be a good leadership coach. And not every leader or prospective leader is coachable. Brandon Hall Group research shows that these attributes are important for coaching:

Leadership coaching involves helping leaders, which we will refer to as clients, solve challenges and learn or refine skills and behaviors through discovery. This type of coaching is to help leaders grow, not solve performance problems.

Coaches ask questions that help clients find solutions. While advice can be offered from time to time if the client is open to it, the real work of coaching involves asking questions through a process called active inquiry. Coaches may know the answer, but that’s not their job. The objective is to help a client discover the answer. 

Therefore, if organizations want to use internal leadership coaches, they must find people with the attributes for coaching and an interest in learning the right techniques. Assessments that evaluate the thinking style and behavioral traits of coach candidates can be helpful. 

Provide Training, Guidance for Coaches 

Coaching is not difficult, but there is a particular skill set associated with it. The key is getting the coach comfortable with asking questions rather than giving answers. Coaches must check their egos — their certainty that they know how to solve someone’s problems — at the door and be willing to follow the process. 

Coaches need at least basic training on active inquiry. This involves: 

Having the client set a clear goal for each session. While the overarching goal may be for the client to be a more effective leader, each session should seek to solve a specific challenge or issue related to the client’s leadership. 

Focusing on open-ended questions that move the conversation forward to reaching the goal. The coach should focus on “what,” “when,” “how” and “when” questions.

You could have an external professional coach conduct group training for internal coaches, then have a library of resources available. You can also have support groups for coaches to help each other or to consult with an expert. But training and ongoing support are important. 

Make Coaching a Formal Commitment 

The internal coach and client each must understand that coaching is a serious process to help the leader develop. For each coaching engagement, there should be an agreement that each person signs. It defines the purpose of the engagement and its scope, including when and how often meetings will be held. Taking this formal approach defines the commitment. If one person is reluctant, the coaching should not proceed.

Supply Coaches with Tools to Understand Their Clients 

Assessments are useful to help a coach understand the client (and for clients to understand themselves). This could include a formal assessment of the client’s thinking style and/or behavioral traits. It could include the coach interviewing the client’s manager to understand the client’s strengths and goals (if the client agrees) or conducting a 360-degree verbal assessment of people who know the client (again, if the client agrees). 

In internal coaching engagements, this assessment process is often overlooked or organizations might want to use an assessment taken some time ago to save money. The idea is to understand the client’s current state so the coach can help that person move forward. The organization must be willing to take the best available steps to provide coaches and clients with the tools they need to be successful. 

Ensure Confidentiality 

There must be complete trust between the coach and client. The specifics of confidentiality should be defined in the coaching agreement. If a manager or others are going to be informed about coaching progress, that must be determined and specified upfront. There should be no surprises between the coach and client about the confidentiality of their discussions. 

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Mike Cooke



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Mike Cooke

Chief Executive Officer of Brandon Hall Group Mike Cooke Prior to joining Brandon Hall Group, Mike Cooke was the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of AC Growth. Mike held leadership and executive positions for the majority of his career, at which he was responsible for steering sales and marketing teams to drive results and profitability. His background includes more than 15 years of experience in sales, marketing, management, and operations in the research, consulting, software and technology industries. Mike has extensive experience in sales, marketing and management having worked for several early high-growth emerging businesses and has implemented technology systems to support various critical sales, finance, marketing and client service functions. He is especially skilled in organizing the sales and service strategy to fully support a company’s growth strategy. The concept of growth was an absolute to Mike and a motivator in starting AC Growth, in order to help organizations achieve research driven results. Most recently, Mike was the VP and General Manager of Field Operations at Bersin & Associates, a global analyst and consulting services firm focused on all areas of enterprise learning, talent management and talent acquisition. Tasked with leading the company’s global expansion, Mike led all sales operations worldwide. During Mike’s tenure, the company has grown into a multi-national firm, conducting business in over 45 countries with over 4,500 multi-national organizations. Mike started his career at MicroVideo Learning Systems in 1992, eventually holding a senior management position and leading all corporate sales before founding Dynamic Minds. Mike was CEO and Co-Founder of Dynamic Minds, a custom developer of software programs, working with clients like Goldman Sachs, Prentice Hall, McGraw Hill and Merrill Lynch. Also, Mike worked for Oddcast, a leading provider of customer experience and marketing solutions, where he held a senior management position leading the company into new markets across various industries. Mike also serves on the Advisory Board for Carbon Solutions America, an independent sustainability consulting and carbon management firm that specializes in the design and implementation of greenhouse reduction and sustainability plans as well as managing the generation of carbon and renewal energy and energy efficiency credits. Mike attended University of Phoenix, studying Business Administration and Finance. He has also completed executive training at the Chicago Graduate School of Business in Chicago, IL.