The Internal Coach For Organisational Learning?
Management & Leadership

The Internal Coach – a myth or catalyst of organisational learning?

Feb 26, 2015
Internal coach
Mobile Curve
Mobile Curve

By SACAP Educator, Lee Kingma

Organisations have experienced excellent results in growing the competencies of their executives/employees by contracting the services of external coaches. However the development of internal coaches as a learning and development strategy is still being explored. Is this a possibility for effective organisational learning or is the approach fraught with too many challenges?

Many definitions are to be found for the process of executive coaching. The Center for Creative Leadership (Douglas & Mourley, 2000, p.40) provides the following description of coaching:

“Reduced to its essence, executive coaching is the process of equipping people with the tools, knowledge and opportunities they need to develop themselves and become more effective. Executive coaching involves teaching skills in the context of a personal relationship with the learner, and providing feedback on the executive’s interpersonal relations and skills. An on-going series of activities tailored to the individual’s current issues or relevant problem is designed by the coach to assist the executive in maintaining a consistent, confident focus as he or she strengthens and manages shortcomings.”

Most coaching authorities describe the coach as being someone from outside an organisation who uses psychological skills to help a person develop into a more effective leader. These skills are applied to specific present – moment work problems in a way that enables this person to incorporate them into his or her management or leadership repertoire (Peltier, 2001).

It is suggested that the effective coach can however be from within the organisation. Some major challenges which arise due to the coach being part of the organisational system are those of maintaining confidentiality, being influenced by the prevailing politics and ideology as well as the internal coach’s own career priorities and goals to achieve within their own role. These are challenges which need to be dealt with upfront if the decision is made to engage internal coaches as part of the organisation’s learning and development strategy. By no means are external coaches completely free of such challenges. The (perhaps flawed) assumption is merely that their externality will help them remain more neutral and objective.

Senge (1995) identified five disciplines which are well respected in the organisation development field in evolving learning organisations. These five disciplines are identified as follows and aligned to internal coaching in each discipline.

Personal Mastery – Learning to expand personal capacity to create results and creating an organisational environment which encourages all its members to develop themselves toward the goals and purposes they choose.

Internal coaches are required to attend a professional and accredited executive coaching program in order to qualify as practicing coaches. This learning experience is a potential life changing process for individuals in growing personal development. Competent internal coaches are well placed to demonstrate these skills to employees in a formal coaching relationship and also in their daily business communication. Shorter Manager-as-Coach learning interventions will enable managers to be more effective in developing their teams to build a performance culture.

Mental Models – Reflecting upon, clarifying and improving internal pictures of the world, and seeing how they shape actions and decisions.

Many different coaching models abound but most agree that mental models, also termed structures of interpretation or internal scripts are the major obstacle to preventing employees from seeing different possibilities or breaking free from negative habits. The internal coach will learn the art of being able to recognise, question and shift a mental model and this skill can be transferred to others in the organisation.

Shared Vision – Building a sense of commitment in a group by developing shared images of the future and the principles and guiding practices to get there.

Coaching conversations are formulated on the premise of future behaviour rather than focusing on the past, which cannot be changed. Managers who lead teams benefit by being introduced to the principles of coaching in setting future goals, and breaking down perceived obstacles by using metaphors to illustrate new possibilities for their teams.

Team learning – Transforming conversational and collective thinking skills, so that groups of people can reliably develop intelligence and ability greater than the sum of the individual members’ talents.

Basic coaching skills can be used as the foundation for team meetings to enable clarity of thinking, mutual respect and build trust in the members and the leader. Action learning or Circle Coaching has been found to be highly effective in sharing knowledge and enabling teams to build conceptual thinking and formulate innovative strategy.

Systems Thinking – A way of thinking and a language for understanding the forces and interrelationships that shape the behaviour of systems. This discipline enables the change of systems more effectively and to act more in tune with the larger processes of the natural and economic world.

Integral coaching is congruent with the principles of systems thinking as it creates a perspective of recognising and appreciating the connectivity of all actions in the organisation. This also breaks down silo behaviours created by different departments and structures such head offices and geographic locations. An appreciation for socio and environmental challenges is created by engendering compassion and awareness of others’ suffering and the need to preserve natural resources.

Challenges to implementing internal coaching

Neither external nor internal coaching strategies will have traction or be sustainable in developing a learning organisation unless the leadership is fully committed to its value creation. Internal coaching will change the culture of the organisation but cannot be owned by human resources alone and requires the energy and curiosity of the entire executive team.

Coaching programs emphasise the importance of confidentiality and this should be understood as a core principle and skill before the internal coach embarks on any coaching conversations. Any reporting that might be required can be transparently agreed upon by all parties involved beforehand, reviewed and edited by coachees before submission or even done solely by the coachee e.g. during meetings with line manager. There may be times when the internal coach believes that the interests of the organisation trump the promise of confidentiality to the individual employee. Professional supervision should be introduced to guide the internal coach in ensuring that appropriate and agreed upon confidentiality is honoured at all times.

Internal coaches need to place their own career ambitions aside when committing to a coaching relationship. If they are unable to separate their own goals with those of the individual employee, they should not be allowed to coach as this could potentially harm the reputation of an internal coaching program. Making time for coaching or mentoring others is always problematic and only individuals who are truly motivated to ‘pay it forward’ will make the time available for others. Politics will always be a reality of any organisation and it is the responsibility of the coach to guide and offer strategies for the employee to manage politics with courage and integrity.

Benefits of internal coaching to the organisation

While specialised skills such as technology savvy is a prerequisite in today’s world of work, interpersonal skills are core to maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with employees, suppliers and customers. Coaching skills are the foundation of understanding communication which lead to positive workplace relationships.

Coaching can enable innovative thinking in the organisation as the principles of coaching are steeped in finding different ways of thinking and responding to all aspects of life. Most organisations are faced with the risks of sustainability, value creation and competition. Coaching conversations can create the fertile ground for growing new ideas and creating actions plans to create new business strategies based on ethical and sustainable principles.

The external coach has a vital role to play when it is necessary that an entirely objective attitude is sought for individual or team coaching. There is also a treasure test of wisdom which can be unlocked in the organisation through the adoption of internal coaching processes which will dispel the myth on the sole reliance of external coaching.


Douglas, C., & Morley, W. (2000). Executive coaching, an annotatedbibliography. Greenboro, N.C: Center for Creative Leadership.

Peltier, B. (2001). The Psychology of Executive Coaching. Brunner-Routledge: New York

Senge, P. (1995). The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. Nicholas Brealey: London

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