external or internal coaching

I am often asked what it’s like coaching someone externally versus being an internal coach. The questions aren’t always from fellow coaches but rather L&D practitioners who are either interested in venturing outside their day to day role or looking to take on something new in the field of coaching.  Nowadays, organizations are adopting both internal coaches as well as turning to outside support. I figured it was time to write an article on the subject; describing the differences as well as the potential pros and cons of both.

The intent of this article is not to position either internal or external coaching as superior to the other. My goal is to point out the unique challenges and benefits companies can face by utilizing internal versus external coaches. Let’s begin with an overview of the differences between the external versus internal coach.

“Coaching is now part of the standard leadership development training for elite executives and talented up-and-comers at IBM, MOTOROLA, CHASE, and HP.” – CNN.com


Sometimes but not always – external coaches have received a more extensive coaching training than internal managers, and have spent more time coaching people. In addition to their core coaching skills, external coaches with specialist expertise can be matched specifically to the individual (or employees) requirements. For example, a coach specializing in sales skills could be brought in to support a sales team or call center.

In addition, employees may feel more comfortable discussing issues with an external coach that they may not discuss with their manager or internal coach. An external coach may be able to identify hidden issues that may be critical to improving their performance. Because they are not affected by the organization’s internal politics, external coaches are more adept at providing sensitive feedback, as well as maintaining objectivity and confidentiality.

Employees are more likely to cooperate and discuss issues freely with external coaches as they are not directly involved in the day-to-day business of the individual or the organization. An external coach is not biased with preconceptions about either the individual or the organization. As a result, that they can often see things that are not obvious to the individuals manager or to people embedded in the organization’s culture and processes. Because the external coach does not have the additional responsibilities of a manager, they can focus exclusively on the employees needs before, during, and after the coaching session. This can lead to high impact coaching that can produce significant results both in the short and far term.

There are some disadvantages to utilizing external coaches including cost, since it is always going to be more expensive than using existing resources. But one of the biggest potential challenges lies in the external coach being unfamiliar with the social norms of the company’s people and processes. This lack of intimate knowledge and understanding can be major road block to building trust and relatedness with the employee.


  • PROS
    – Specialist skill-set and deeper experience
    – Provide an open environment to question established
    methods and processes
    – Focused solely on the employee without distractions
    – Higher credibility
    – Potential for a higher level of confidentiality
    – Unbiased perspective regarding culture and internal politics
  • CON
    – Cost may be high & unbudgeted
    – Availability may not match short-term needs
    – Don’t know culture or processes of organization
    – Changes identified may not fit the organization



Many times companies are strapped for time or budget and may not have the luxury of using an outside coach for their people. If your company already has an intact team of coaches or a coach on staff, this can be a valuable resource. The main advantage to the organization of using internal coaches is that they do not have the direct costs that hiring an external coach would require. An internal coach has the eyes and ears as well as pulse of the organization and they are typically part of the broader HR / People Operations Team. This provides them key information both about the health of the company and culture as well as gaining valuable insight regarding potential employees they may be asked to coach. One huge added benefit is that because you are constantly interacting with people and teams, you will have many more opportunities to influence them than an external consultant would have. This may not always be the case depending on the scale and scope of the coaching initiative as well as the structure of the broader organization.

Utilizing an internal coach can pose some challenges as well. One issue revolves around the internal coaches inability to prioritize their own tasks and time to conduct effective coaching sessions. If this is solely the role of the internal coach then this would be less of a concern. However, if not set up for success – the internal coach may feel rushed or pressured and as result create an unsafe and potential unproductive session and environment for the employee. The internal coach when set up for success can be a powerful weapon in developing not just low performers but also aiding in the development of your high performers.

The organization and culture of the internal coach must provide a clear foundation for who the coach is and what they can and cannot provide. This will ultimately support both their coaching and the development and self expression of the employees they are working with.


  • PROS
    – No direct costs
    – Opportunity to know the employee better and build trust quicker
    – Knows the culture, process and social norms of the organization
    – Potentially more flexible in accommodating the employee
    – Ability to observe more readily
    – Can help promote a coaching culture from within
  • CON
    – May not be able to alter their communication style
    – Could divert time away from other responsibilities
    – Can present personal bias
    – Potential credibility issues
    – May be seen as trustworthy
    – Qualifications and experience

Final Thought:

When to use internal versus external coaches will be best determined by a number of factors, including the importance of political neutrality and objectivity in the coaching effort, the importance of high confidentiality, internal integration with other organizational programs, and cost constraints of the organization. Truthfully, there is a place for both types of coaches in large organizations. External coaching will typically be the domain of senior executives where the overall impact of change can be significant. On the other hand, internal coaching makes this form of development much more accessible and certainly viable for mid level management and high potential candidates. Whether you choose the internal or external route, hopefully you now have more insight regarding the landscape of coaching within organizations and the opportunities that exist when looking at supporting your people.

I never cease to be amazed at the power of the coaching process…” – John Russell, Director of Harley Davidson