“Making sense of how we define a coaching approach – Part 3 : differentiating leaders taking a coaching approach from internal coaches” by Doug Montgomery and Laurent Terseur


In our first two blogs of this mini series we explored what it took for us as former leaders and managers to expand our existing range of styles by adding a more coaching approach, and shared what we felt were the related benefits and challenges that may be of value to others. 

In this third and last piece of the series, we compare and contrast the roles of “coaching” leaders with the role of the internal coach (and by proxy external coaches who face similar dilemmas).

We define internal coaches here, as individuals who have trained as coaches and enter into contracted coaching assignments with other members of staff within the same organisation and alongside their normal day job. 

We observe that internal coaches often start out as leaders or managers who acquire coaching skills to use in their own work, and then decide to take this further with additional training to become internal coaches. 

We see both roles delivering important value to the organisation, in different ways, and want to share our insights, drawing from our respective experiences of these two roles in different large organisations.  We have identified 4 key areas defining key differences: 

  1. Agendas

  2. Consistency of Style

  3. Systemic implications

  4. Power in relationships


A fundamental difference we see between the two roles relates to their respective agendas, and how they impact the boundaries for coaching conversations. 

An internal coach spends some of their time coaching other members of staff, from outside their own reporting line and function, with the focus fully on the coachee and their coaching objectives.

We experienced that internal coaching works particularly well in large organisations, where significant organisational separation between coach and coachee is available to allow the internal coach to work outside their personal areas of line responsibility, knowledge and expertise. 

We see this organisational distance as desirable and in many organisations insisted upon, as:

  • it reduces the temptation for the coach to problem solve and mentor, rather than

  • it reduces the likelihood of the coach knowing people in the coachee’s story, hence better protecting confidentiality and eliminating potential conflicts of

  • it ensures that even if they share an interest in the organisations' success, internal coaches have no direct responsibility for the coachee’s projects, objectives or development, allowing them to create and hold a safe space in which the coachee can take responsibility for their actions and choices

  • it allows to provide the coachee a safe environment in which they can speak and explore honestly and openly without fearing possible repercussions.

From our experience this last point can be a sensitive issue for coaches whose day job stretches across the organisation should reorganisations shorten the distance between coach and coachee. e.g. Doug knows of one internal coach and HR professional, whose responsibilities were changed to work in a division in which several of her former coachees worked.

Similarly, the “coaching leader” can acquire and use coaching skills to use as a leadership style and encourage the growth and development of their team members, build the confidence and find ways of achieving business goals.  

However, the team leader using a coaching approach with their direct or indirect reports has an ongoing interaction with those in their own reporting line and function, and has responsibility for their reports' projects, objectives, performance and development. 

Therefore the leader’s agenda is structurally more conflicted than that of the internal coach, as:

  • they are not in a position to guarantee the absence of implications for the team members, as they have an influence on their performance evaluation, development and compensation, hence they have (and are perceived to have) a vested interest and investment in the individual and situation

  • they are much closer to the action, often being subject matter experts, and having accountability for the overall outcomes puts a greater burden of accountability for progress on them than on an internal coach.

  • they are likely to find it more challenging, during coaching, to be non-judgemental and fully allow their team members to be in control of their own thinking about the work and to choose ways of moving forward that are not how the leader would have done it.

  • they are responsible for assessment and judgement of their team members performance, whereas an internal coach can keep to a non-judgmental approach at all times.

We have come across examples of all these situations.  We hear leaders who want to take up a caching style express these as fears about the approach.   An open conversation about the intention of taking a coaching approach is, in our experience, the starting point for both leader and team member to work out how they get the best out of the style and manage these potential challenges. 

Consistency of Style

The second difference we notice is in the range of styles that leaders and internal coaches are expected to use.  

The coaching leader’s role, as we have described it in a previous blogs, requires the use of a wide range of styles across the spectrum from “telling” through “advising”, “sharing” to “eliciting”, as they adopt the role of teacher, expert, consultant, visionary, manager of plans and resources, mentor, or coach depending on the circumstances. 

From our experience, understanding what style is most useful for any given situation, is key to engaging in conversations with the appropriate mind set and approach needed to achieve the most useful outcomes.  

We see a lot of room to apply the coaching attitudes of trust and curiosity more consistently across all these leadership behaviours and styles, and some coaching questions at the outset of each conversation may help the leader diagnose what style fits best the situation.   For example they could use very simple and open questions with their team members such as; “So what is it you need from me?”  Or “what specifically are you stuck with?” to shed light on what the most useful style to adopt would be."

We also learned from our experience that a shift between styles during the same conversation can be appropriate. For instance, starting by setting a clear objective and expectation is part of a manager style, which could switch to a more coaching style to elicit options for how the individual could tackle the task and what actions they will commit to.  The conversation could end with a switch back to a manager style when approving resources and arranging times to check in on progress. 

The internal coach, on the other hand, has a different relationship with their coachee to that of the leader with their team members.  That coaching relationship is usually for a fixed number of sessions over a limited period of time.  Within each session, the internal coach can be expected to be consistent in their coaching behaviour and attitude, as they remain in their coaching role throughout the relationship.  The challenge for the internal coach is not so much to choose an appropriate approach, as to avoid slipping into non coaching styles, which can cause confusion and undermine the trust the coach claims to have in the coachee’s ability to think for themselves. 

Systemic implications

Our third observation is related to the systemic context in which the leader and internal coach operate. 

1.    Collusion with the Culture

Every organisational system has a culture.  This implicit expectation of “how it is around here”, sets the norms of how people behave and what is OK to say and do and what is not OK.  As parts of the system, both internal coach and coaching leader are part of the organisation’s culture and share in these norms; often unconsciously.

Both coach and leader may therefore fail to challenge the cultural assumption that their respective coachees and team members may be making, i.e. they may be unconsciously in collusion with each other in complying with the culture and miss potentially useful options and opportunities that could add value because they challenge the status quo.   

For the leader, there is usually no support to bring these collusions into their awareness.   Whereas, in effective internal coaching programs, coaches have access to coaching supervision, in which they are able to discuss their coaching work with an experienced practitioner who may be able to notice and raise awareness of such collusion.   An example of such collusion that we have seen is where the coach who gets so caught up in the organisational business in their day job, that they do not recognise the influence of that business on their coachee.   Both coach and coachee work under the assumption that being very busy is just the way it is around here, rather than challenging whether that is really true all, or some, of the time.

Of course, this challenge of noticing collusion extend to internal supervisors, who also need to be aware of their own collusion with the coach with regards to their common system! Since working as independents and worked across a number of different organisations across a broader range of services we can see here an important advantage offered by external supervisors and external executive coaches who are independent of the system because they have a more detached view of the system and draw from these experiences combined with training in understanding systems and their traps to offer that different perspective.

2.    Impact on relationships

Organisations are composed of multiple overlapping systems (groups, departments, teams, divisions, offices, etc.) and individuals belong to many of these.  The leader and the internal coach will be influenced by and have influence and impact in the many systems they are each part of.

From our experience the internal coach’s work with their coachee:

  • has an indirect impact of significant importance on their coachees' systems through the changes and actions their coachees choose to take;

  • has a much more marginal impact on their own systems, except for the time they spend away from their normal work and location.

  • often provides the coach with satisfaction and fulfilment that energises them for the rest of their work.

  • provides the coach with insights across the organisation as they work with people from other parts of the organisation – and are often able to see emerging trends and attitude changes across the system.

In contrast, we observe that leaders taking a coaching approach with members of their team are likely to create a significant and multidimensional impact on their own system: 

  • by the effect of empowerment, change and actions taken by the team members being coached,

  • by creating conditions for building trusting relationships within the team, as individuals experience being trusted and asked for their opinions

  • by changing the psychological distances between themselves and different members of their team if they vary the extent of their coaching approach between the various team members. For instance, team members not experiencing for themselves the level of trust placed in their peer, may feel undervalued or excluded from a special relationship. This can adversely affect their relationship with the leader and their peers.

  • multiple coaching leaders across the organisation helps to create a more coaching culture and enables a more empowered and engaged organisation.

How much “coaching leaders” are conscious of all or part of the likely impact of their own actions and related perceptions is a key awareness challenge. This should be easier for those ‘internal coaches’ who switches back to their normal leadership role, and at the same time this raises a question about how deeply into beliefs and values the leader should go with members of their team.   This takes us into our fourth differentiator between leader and internal coach.

Power in the Relationship

Leaders, whether they understand it, like it or admit it, hold an asymmetrical power in relation to those they lead since they make or influence decisions about who does what task or opportunity, who gets rewarded, and who gets promoted – or not.   So what is the personal and psychological depth to which a leader should seek to coach a member of their team? How do they enhance the level of trust and engagement rather than damage it? 

The most common situations in which we observed leaders effectively use a coaching approach include:

  • supporting the individual to solve a work problem for themselves,

  • supporting others to deliver a tricky task,

  • prepare others for a new challenge or new responsibility

  • to build the self-confidence of others in how to think for themselves about a work project or challenge.

This is essentially about business-related content or transactions, in which a personal development aspect kicks in as the individual learns that they can think about different options and be creative, and are trusted to offer suggestions and opinions, and to challenge how things are normally done.  To use the “iceberg” metaphor often used in coaching, much of a leader’s coaching approach is on the surface or at or just below the waterline.  

To go deeper under the surface and have a conversation tapping into a team member’s fundamental beliefs, values, and personal history, requires appropriate levels of trust and confidentiality (quite apart from the skills and experience) to safely work at such depth. Such personal information and insights into vulnerability and emotional triggers have the potential to skew an already unbalanced power relationship further in favour of the leader. We are not suggesting that all leaders would take advantage of such a shift, however being aware of the potential for inadvertent unintended consequences we feel is important to point out here as a forewarning.

Contrasting this with the experienced internal coach, we observe far less asymmetrical power in the relationship with their coachee who is not in their management or organisational line. We acknowledge though, that internal coaches too can still hold or be perceived to be in an unbalanced power relationships by their coachee.  The internal coach may be, for instance, in a more senior role than the coachee and therefore be perceived to know more, or to hold some influence in the organisation that may be beneficial (or detrimental) to the coachee.  Alternatively, the coachee may be more senior and may not trust the coach with relevant but sensitive business information, or personal information about themselves or other senior executives. 

In the organisations we’re aware of that have internal coaching programs, the coach training includes significant emphasis on contracting, boundaries and how sensitive personal areas will be handled. [Hawkins and Smith 2011 describe coaching contracting content and skills].   They will have looked for obvious conflicts of interest at the chemistry meeting that may require an alternative coach to be sought (in some internal coaching programs this is a formal part of the coach – coachee matching process). Less obvious but possible conflicts may have been thought about and discussed by the coach and coachee, such as how the coach will behave, should the coachee’s name come up in committees, selection boards, job appointments, etc. that the coach is party to and vice versa.

These explicit coaching agreements creates the space in which the internal coach has permission to work with the coachee’s beliefs, and is in position to challenge their thinking, where these beliefs came from, and how they are impacting the future direction the coachee wants to go in. In this way, the experienced internal coach  is able to work at a level beneath the surface of the iceberg to support the coachee’s performance and development in an equal and co-created partnership.

Summary and questions to the reader

As we bring this mini-series on leaders taking a coaching approach to a conclusion, we are excited to re-acquaint ourselves with the powerful impact on individuals and organisations that such open and engaging leaders can make. By drawing out the comparison between these coaching leaders and internal coaches, we hope to help organisations and leaders understand the different value these two roles bring. 

By considering these four aspects of the roles - agendas, consistency of style, systemic context and power balance in the relationships - we hope that leaders, coaches and those that organise the training and management of coaching programs within organisations will be even better armed to develop their internal coaching offerings with greater clarity of each role.

We would be delighted to hear about your own experience as an internal coach or as a leader using coaching approaches, so please add comments? 

  • What is your perspective on their major differences between the roles?

  • What have you noticed about the value added and challenges faced?

To connect with Doug Montgomery and/or Laurent Terseur

Hawkins, P and Smith N.  2011, Coaching, Mentoring and Organisational Consultancy; Supervision and Development, McGraw Hill Education, OUP.   pages 209 - 211