Internal Company Coaches – Facing Up to the Challenges.

Internal Coaching - Tim Lord

More and more companies are looking seriously at the skill of coaching as a method of developing and enhancing the performance of their staff and teams. The more enlightened organisations now insist that all line managers are competent in the skill of coaching while others are going even further and creating specialist ‘coach’ roles in order to support employees and teams within the organisation.

There are, however, six major challenges that the internal company coach has to face and overcome before they can really excel in their coach role and thus brings tremendous benefits to themselves, the employees and the organisation itself.

In this article, Performance Coach, Allan Mackintosh, who was himself an internal company coach for six years, outlines these six major challenges that the internal coach has to face, and ways that the coach can face these with confidence.

Challenge No.1 – Recruitment of Coaches

Correct recruitment is vital in any role if the organisation is to get the maximum for their employees and it is no different in relation to the recruitment of coaches. Great care has to be taken to recruit the right person in terms of their beliefs and their potential to take on the necessary skill set that is required for a competent coach. When I first became an internal company coach, the recruitment was done internally with some people identified as potential coaches but the majority coming from a pool of ‘potentially redundant’ line managers who were in this position after a major company re- Structure. The result was that certain individuals were ‘forced’ into a role in order to stay within the company. This was far from ideal and as a result a number of people did not take to the role and surrendered left the organisation. Others stayed in the role but really struggled to take on the role of the coach and actually behaved more like ‘trainers’. In order to avoid these challenges, organisations really have to take great care in the selection process of coaches in order that they get the right people with enough potential to become great coaches in the workplace. Shoddy recruitment only leads to great financial loss in the long run! Those employees wishing to become coaches should look at what they really believe about people and if they do not believe that everyone has the potential to become excellent in any role they undertake, then they might want to think about becoming a coach. If you do not believe in people then do not become a coach!

Challenge No.2 – Does the organisation really understand what a coach does?

It is vital that the coach role and what coaches do and can achieve, is fully understood by everyone in the organisation and not just a few ‘supporters’ of coaching. From the Board to the ‘shop floor’, everyone must know what coaching is, what coaches do, how coaching works, and what coaching can achieve. Otherwise, confusion reigns and chaos can ensue. In my own experience, in the early days, coaching was being promoted by the Chief Executive and a leading HR executive. Senior Management played along without really understanding what coaching was and what coaches were supposed to do. The coaches were expected to work with line managers in order to support them through the vast organisational change that was happening along with supporting and enabling them to develop their skills in leading their teams to success. On reflection, the role of the coach varied intensively through the organisation with coaches in some areas acting like ‘mini-managers’, others like ‘trainers’ and a few actually doing some coaching! In many respects, some coaches simply did the senior manager’s ‘bidding’.

It is essential that everyone understands why coaching is being promoted, especially the line managers who may be supporting the coach. They have to agree objectives and methods of working so that there is consistency across the organisation. The coaches have to understand what they are supposed to be doing and they have to have the skill (and the courage) to stand up to senior management when, despite, the management wants them to operate in a way that sometimes is not actually the coach Role. The objectives of the coaches must be consistent and clear, and where possible measures should be put in place in order that the success of the coaching interventions can be measured and communicated, in order to further the understanding within the organisation.

Challenge No.3 – Contracting the Role

Many of the challenges within the ‘understanding’ of the coach role arose due to the fact that the coaches never really learned how to ‘contract’ their role with their senior management, their peers and those people they ended up coaching. Contracting is simply a process where two people sit down and discuss expectations and agree a way forward. It is an opportunity to get to know the people you are working with, to understand their roles and to agree how best the two are going to work together. It is an opportunity for the coach to get know the person, to get them to fully understand the coach role, to learn what coaching can do for them, and how coaching can work for them. Only this way will the managers and coaches gain a full understanding of the role, the skill and what it will mean for them. In the early days in my organisation, coaches ran straight into task and started trying to coach individuals and teams without going through the contracting phase. As a result of a lack of understanding, there was confusion and in may cases mistrust. Many coaches were seen as the senior manager’s ‘little helper’ or ‘right hand man’ and as such huge barriers appeared between some coaches and the people they were supposed to be coaching. Contracting done effectively starts to build understanding, trust and respect. Coaches can not survive without this!

Contracting with senior management is a must and it is in this area that coaches have to be very wary. Many managers will expect the coach to divulge information gained from coaching sessions from employees. This can put the coach is a tight spot because as confidentiality is a pre-requisite in almost every coaching conversation and relationship, what happens if the coach lets something ‘slip’ to a senior manager? If this leaks back to the coachee then all trust with the coach will be lost. The coach must contract effectively with both senior management and the coachee and this is where the internal coach may have to be courageous and outline to the manager that there may be aspects of the coaching conversation that will not be fed back! Similarly the coach has to contract with the coachee what can and can not be discussed with a senior manager.

Challenge No.4 – Learning the Skills

We were thrown into the ‘deep end’. Although we were given some initial theory training we became coaches without first learning the skills and as a result we ‘bumbled’ along using the managerial skills that we had been brought up with. The result was that the coachees saw very little difference in skills and behaviors. Coaches were still operating in a ‘tell’ fashion as opposed to an ‘ask’ one. We were actually put through an intensive two year program and although some of it was very beneficial, there was some of the course that to this day, I wonder what the reasons were for it! We were all given a personal coach in order to support us through the program and this, for me, was the turning point in my development and in many respects, my life. My coach was excellent – challenging yet supporting with the knowledge and experience that should go with a ‘training’ coach. Unfortunately, some of my coach teams had coaches allocated to them which coaching skills allegedly left a lot to be desired. It is vital, in this respect, that ‘mentor’ coaches are chosen carefully and allocated appropriately.

When creating a coach role, I would advise organizations to think carefully about how they are going to train their coaches. Training them from within an internal training department is very risky without the coaching capability is extremely sound and respected. It may be better looking externally and choosing a training organization which possesses a track record in training coaches and who have good quality coaches on their staff. Do not go for one or even two day training courses. All these do is highlight the skills needed – they do not build the actual skills necessary. A program which includes theory, practice and follow up coaching is a necessity. Whilst doing this it is advisable to consider putting senior and middle management on such programs because in the future, who is going to coach the coaches?

Challenge No.5 – How do you know the coaching is working?

One of the major challenges the coaching industry faces today is actually providing that engaging deliveries what it promises. Many senior executives demand to see the link between coaching interventions and the ‘bottom line’ – results. This can sometimes be a challenge because even in the sporting arena, it is not the coach that gets the result it is the athlete or the team. How many people know who the coach is behind the top athletes in the world? Team coaches are probably better known due the exposure that they get from the media but very few individual sports ‘champions’ coaches are very well known. Yet, these sportspeople would never consider trying to do what they do without a coach!

In business, internal coaches have to ensure that their interventions are proving to be a catalyst to success whether it is a team success or an individual one. Collecting feedback from coaches is one way, although the coach will have to ensure that the coach sees the link between the coaches’ interventions and the individual’s success! Sometimes, the coaching can be so subtle that coaches do not realise that the coach has actually made the difference even though the coach has actually carried out the successful action. Regular reports to senior management are a must. They must be kept informed, highlighting successes and challenges, and emphasising where the coaching intervention has brought success and why. Coaches really need to promote themselves and their actions so that senior management sit up and take notice. One of your greatest challenges in the early days as an internal coach was that, as a coach group, we did not stand up for ourselves and promote what we did, why we did it and the successes that were achieved.

Challenge No.6 – Keeping your Development going.

Within organisations there is a great need to deliver through action and as such ongoing development can take a ‘beat seat’ with the result that skills are rarely enhanced without through the odd ‘refresher’ course. Coaches can not afford to become ‘stale’. Although the coach may have gone through an intensive coaching program over a period of time, it is important that not only do they look to keep the skill levels to an acceptable level they should really be looking to continuously enhance them. Coaching is a skill that needs continuous growth and there are more and more ways to coach effectively being discovered as research into the skill grows. Many internal managers and coaches can become insular in that they rarely network outside their organisation. Coaches, in particular should look to join network groups, engaging communities and the various institutions that are now accepting coaching as an essential business tool. Without continuing growing your coaching knowledge and skill, the danger is that your skills may become ‘stale’ with the result that some of the learned coaching behaviours slip and before you know it, you are back acting as a manager or trainer! 

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