Can Internal Coaches Be As Effective as Outsiders?

Harvard Business Review

February 4, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

Can internal HR coaches be effective in coaching leaders? Definitely.

Will most internal HR coaches be effective in coaching leaders? Maybe.

My friend, Linda Sharkey (now VP of People Development at Hewlett Packard), did some outstanding research on internal HR coaching when she was at GE Capital. GE’s findings were clear: Not only could internal coaches do as good a job as external coaches, internal coaches often did a better job than external coaches.

There are four unique challenges facing internal HR coaches:

1. Confidentiality: If leaders believe that the internal HR coach will use disclosure against them in future personnel decisions, the coaching process will probably not work.
2. Credibility: In some cases, internal HR coaches are not given the credibility of external coaches. If this is true, the internal coach can deliver the same message as the external coach, but the message will be discounted and possibly ignored.
3. Training: Many external coaches are specialists. (For example, in my work as an external coach, I only help already successful leaders achieve positive change in behavior. That is all I do.) HR professionals often have to know about many topic areas and may lack training or experience for coaching in some specific client needs.
4. Time: From my experience, this is the biggest challenge. Many of the great HR professionals I know can manage confidentiality, have great credibility, and are well-trained as coaches. They are so over-committed now that they don’t have the time to take on this type of assignment.

Four reasons that the GE case study was a success:

1. In the GE case study, HR professionals were coaches to high-potential leaders. This was a critical success factor. If internal coaches are working to “document for dismissal,” they won’t be welcomed by their clients. If HR coaches are working to help successful leaders get even better, they will be very welcomed by their clients.

2. GE gave leaders a choice in HR coaches. This helped ensure that the coaches were seen as credible, gave the clients more ownership in the process, and helped ensure a good fit between coach and client.

3. Coaches were trained to reinforce the specific goals of GE and deal with the specific issues faced by their clients.

4. Coaches were given the time they needed to devote to their coaching clients. This was seen as part of their job not an add-on.

As Linda Sharkey’s research at GE has shown, when the coaching process is designed to ensure success, internal HR coaches can do a fantastic job.