"Dispatch from the [Internal Coaching] Front" by Ian Flanders (Guest)

The importance of detailed understanding of the context, and having ready access around an organisation, in helping to appreciate the circumstances and boundaries inherent in any coaching interventions. 

How coaching interventions can start – opportunistically …

Last week I found myself sat opposite a colleague being asked whether I had any spare coaching capacity at the moment. I responded that I had, and asked what they had in mind. It transpired that they were looking for a coach for a relatively newly appointed senior manager. 

But after this promising start things began to get complicated!

This area of the business had seen significant change; a new Leader, consolidation of roles, and head-count reduction. The ‘potential’ coachee had come through these changes that, on paper at least, made them the obvious deputy and possible successor to the leader. 

But as I listened to the background of the situation it became clear that consideration of ‘deputy’ or ‘successor’ had not been part of that decision making process!  In fact the newly appointed Leader did not, and had never seen the subject of our conversation as his successor, and clearly saw another member of his team as their ‘deputy’. 

And I sensed that there was a growing concern that an awful lot of eggs might have been placed in the wrong basket.

The importance of clarifying expectations from coaching that are both clear and relevant

Thinking that the ‘issue’ was all out on the table, I asked “So what are you looking to me to do?”  It now emerged that there was one more twist in the tale. 

Concerned about what they were sensing, and knowing that the annual review was approaching, the leader sought feedback from a number of the report’s colleagues and stakeholders, and, without further ado laid them out in front of their report in all their glory. 

It was in relaying this tale, and the reaction it provoked, that the Leader alarmed their HR Manager, who was speaking to me now. 

The HR Manager had recognised that raw feedback, delivered without explanation or support, could be extremely damaging, and that a coach was a possible approach to helping someone process feedback productively. 

Now, we were able to get down to a sensible conversation about what an internal coach could contribute to this situation, but also what the limitations of any intervention would be. 

Establishing ‘safe space’ is fundamental to a coaching intervention

Coaching in organisations has largely shaken off the stigma of being a remedial intervention, and has, as a result gained broad credibility with potential coachees.

I stressed that I could not, and would not want, to ‘fix’ this coachee. For me any such attempt would both compromise my role as a coach, and, blur unacceptably the responsibility boundary between coach and line manager. Nor would I report on the coachee to their line manager, or the business for the same reasons. 

The role that slowly emerged as we continued talking was to position oneself/get alongside the coachee in order to help them to understand the situation they now found themselves in. 

It would require that a ‘safe-space’ be created:

  • Fashioned from trust, within which the coachee could unpack the feedback given to them,

  • Take time to digest it, and

  • Decide what they would do as a result.

I stressed therefore that the work between coach and coachee would be confidential. In truth this is the way I always work, but I state it to the coaching sponsor every time, as an inviolable law.

Contracting for the potential scope of the possible agenda in Coaching

It struck me as we were talking that the possibility must exist that the subject of our conversation might decide to leave the business, and indeed that this might be one of the desired outcomes. 

When I shared this reflection, it was clear that with the sudden loss of the ‘basket’ in this way risked the business equivalent of an awful lot of scrambled eggs. 

This prompted me to state the possibility that the insight gained by the coachee through the coaching process might have the effect of hastening a decision of this nature, especially if the coachee came to realise that it was in their best interests. 

This outcome statement was acknowledged as true.

Realizing both the circumstances and boundaries, I agreed with the HR colleague that they would talk to the Leader, and set out the basis for my possible involvement. 

This basis was:

  1. We agreed that the ‘option’ of working with me as a coach should be offered, not forced upon the potential coachee.

  2. I also asked for a meeting with the Leader before any approach was made to their subordinate, to make clear to them the basis upon which I would act.

Reflecting on the conversation I am struck by two things 

One, is recognising those important forces that may be very relevant for the internal coach to intervene on. 

The business and the business’ agents have objectives that must be delivered: 

  • Fix them or change them;

  • Prevent a management vacuum;

  • Maintain credibility.

The coachee, if that is what they become, will want help; someone to hold at bay the anxieties pressing in on them whilst they try to make sense of the situation they finds himself in. I also had to reflect on whether there might be consequences for me, as coach:

  • Will I, my career-my future, be impacted by the outcome of this situation?

  • Can, should, the coach be responsible for the ‘outcome’ under such circumstances?

My second reflection is that the person who was the subject of this conversation may not be the only person who would benefit from coaching. 

Being able to think through the needs and consequences of a business reorganisation, and, being able to deliver difficult messages to your subordinates without destabilising the team are leadership competencies. It seems clear that for some the importance of these skills has to be learnt the hard way. 

The [internal coaching] front line is a challenging place to work!

So … What experiences do you have about internal coaching?

Ian is a senior executive working in a major international business. In addition to his current responsibilities, he has become increasingly involved in his own practice of Coaching. 

He has developed his own coaching approach and practice over a number of years, participates as a member of various coaching (internal and external) networks, and also contributes regularly to the supervision of other coaches