“Dispatch from the [Internal Coaching] Front” by Ian Flanders

[Internal] coach/client relationships, inside and outside the coaching bubble; far more complex than just a question of definition

I recently took the decision to stop working with a coachee. On the face of it part of any coach’s practice, but, for me as an internal coach something that had consequences on a number of levels.

Beyond definitions

The question of relationship of coachee to internal coach, outside the coaching relationship itself, is an interesting one, and often arises in relation to definition. An internal coach is often described as someone who works with clients from their own organisation, but, who do not work in the same ‘chain of command’. However, almost in the same breath it seems, manager-as-coach is talked of; being defined as someone who manages their team in a coaching ‘style’. Clearly the client bases for these two ‘coaches’ are based upon completely different premises. But, as Ronnie Corbet would say at this point, I digress.

The original agreement

I started working with Chris two years ago. My ‘day-job’ was in one function within the organisation, whilst he was a leader in another, unconnected function. Our teams interacted, as did we, but neither of us felt that our ‘day-job’ was a barrier to a coaching relationship.

The coaching agenda that Chris initially defined centred on his team.

  • He wanted to explore options to change the structure, skills set, and strategy of the team, in order to better support the needs of the business.

  • Later, he introduced to our coaching sessions the topic of his own future career direction.

Having worked together within a coaching relationship for 18 months my job role was expanded, and as a result my leadership responsibility was expanded to include the function in which Chris was (and is) a senior manager; suddenly we were in the same ‘chain of command’. He did not report directly to me, his boss, my direct report, sat between us, but to complicate things further his new boss was not the person who had initiated his coaching journey. We were three colleagues, interconnected, but the nature of each connection, and the lens it created through which my coaching relationship with Chris was visible, was unique to each of us.

Re-contracting for coaching

For Chris it appeared that his main concern relating to this structural change was the potential loss of a ‘thinking partner’. He valued the coaching sessions, using them as part of his process to design and implement the changes he believed necessary to move his team’s performance forward. He was happy to carry on as before. Chris’ boss appeared caught in a dilemma; supportive of coaching, indeed a coachee himself, and reluctant to challenge their new boss (me), but, very concerned at being out of the loop on the redesign of a key area of their function.

At this point I took the initiative to say that I felt it inappropriate to continue the coaching relationship with Chris.

However, this proved not to be the end of the story. Chris approached me to ask for specific coaching support to help him think through his future. He stated that he wanted to go back into the safe space that he and I had created to explore how he was feeling, and think through how he wanted to move forward. I expressed my concern that I did not want to, as coach, come between Chris and his boss. He said that he understood this, but felt that the nature of his objective in restarting our coaching relationship would not create a conflict of interest. I agreed with him that any future collaboration should be with the full knowledge of his boss.

When I discussed Chris’ request with his boss it became clear they recognised that the significant organisational changes Chris has experienced were having a significant impact on him, and, that support to think through the implications and to decide how to move forward was in the interests of both Chris and the organisation. It was clear from our discussion that Chris’ boss trusted me to respect the boundary between coach and line manager; I agreed to meet Chris again as his coach.

This decision proved to be a mistake

Both Chris’ boss and I respected the coach-coachee-manager boundaries, but Chris did not. When we met, Chris chose to use the time to question an organisational design decision that his boss, with my agreement, was implementing. He had been briefed on the proposed changes by his boss, but it became clear to me that, reflecting on the changes, he now had a number of personal concerns. He attempted to use the coaching session to reopen the decision, and recruit me to his side.

I stopped the coaching session, and became the function leader. I experienced intense feelings of disappointment, but also anger, and I am sure that both these emotions were visible at the end of the meeting.

Reflecting on my training, what I’ve learnt from my experiences

During my initial training to become a coach I instinctively felt that, for me, it would be inappropriate to coach someone who was ‘connected’ to me in the organisation. And, I know that I am not alone in this belief.

But this is now the second time that I have been drawn into this situation.

I reflect that, for me, there is a need to consider not just whether I can respect and maintain the boundaries in such a relationship, but, also need to take a realistic, hard-headed view of whether the other parties to the coaching relationship can do the same. I need to be mindful that my ‘ego’ will always assure me that any internal relationship complication can be handled, and recall, with humility, the personal evidence that proves this is not the case.

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