Internal Vs External Coaches : The need and areas of focus

I remember being a speaker at a webinar sometime in June 2020 when one of the questions discussed was whether organisations should have internal  or external coaches. Being an external coach at many organisations, it’s anyone’s guess which side I was on. 

Leadership is challenging, and it often gets lonely at the top. Organisations expect executives to lead them through difficult economic climates, manage change, transitions, and navigate personnel challenges, all at the same time. Executives are also expected to coach their team and manage each individual’s performance. So yes, leadership is demanding and I personally believe a strong support system can help leaders succeed – be it the support of their peers or that of an external coach.
Coaching as a concept started mostly for CXOs and senior executives – the idea was and still is to move people from ‘Good’ to ‘Great’. Through the years we have seen organisations creating and developing an internal ecosystem to coach talent, and have put mechanisms in place to track progress. This supports the coach, the individual, the manager and the organisation itself – and the results are usually very positive. Organisations now recognise the return on investment they receive from a culture of Coaching.

Return on investment enables external coaches to understand their own areas of improvement and for internal coaches to understand the main areas they should focus on. Before we get into details, let us discuss the pros and cons of external and internal coaching:

Internal Coaching:


  • Targeted to the company’s requirements, and usually part of a larger development program in the organisation.
  • Shorter cycle of skill identification and development.
  • Flexible: can be executed at will.
  • Easier internal measurement.
  • Cost effective.


  • Low confidentiality for coachees.
  • Employees are reluctant to share personal information.
  • Leadership attitude towards dissonance might exacerbate the situation.
  • Overworked coaches and lack of personal focus.

External coaching:


  • Specialised skills and experience in specific areas.
  • Unbiased: Internal politics usually plays no part and coachees feel more comfortable.
  • Focus: No distractions and increased focus on the process and results.
  • A coach provides 360° feedback, a fresh perspective usually leading to better results.


  • New coaches are unfamiliar with cultures & processes.
  • Coaching goals are usually short term.
  • Higher cost.
  • May not be available at a short notice

With this background in place, let’s discuss 5 scenarios which should be exclusive areas for you to consider getting an external coach into your organisation:

  1. When coaching an executive:
    The level of confidentiality and trust a senior executive demands is higher than what the rest of the organisation needs. We need to invest time in understanding the requirements of a leader. This may help us look for a specialist coach who has achieved demonstrable results and one who has experience to deliver tangible benefits for the executive. Getting the Coach, leader and the important stakeholders together before starting the intervention ensures everyone is in a safe space and expectations are clearly understood.
  2. Improving an individual’s performance:
    Internal coaches might not have the bandwidth or the expertise to solve a manager’s problem with specific employees. It may be important to identify potential departments which need help with performance over the course of a year, and discuss issues with the managers of these teams. Once the problem has been identified a dedicated coach may be appointed. This Coach can enable individuals in the team perform better and achieve targets which have perhaps been missed.
  3. High potential individuals:
    Organisations reach out to us regularly seeking support for their Fast trackers. As an HR leader, I am sure you have your own list of individuals who are high potential and only need some polish. I believe dedicated development programs for these stars help increase retention. Such programs must have coaching as an essential element, besides the usual areas of competency development. Bringing in an external coach to help with the development of these individuals will improve the organisation’s repository of leadership skills and demonstrate your willingness to invest in talent for the future.
  4. Situations fraught with internal politics:
    In a situation where conflict or politics have the potential to disrupt the expected retention rate, skill development, or performance targets, the people management team (or should I just use Human Resources), might be best served by bringing in an external coach. These coaches can be charged with solving specific issues, and they will largely not be influenced by internal politics. While you are the best judge of identifying situations which need expert care, you might want to focus on departments with stable hierarchy and declining team performance, where the leaders are not able to pinpoint the issues.
  5. Need for specialty coaching skills:
    When the problem is expressly identified and is well articulated, it might be useful to bring in external experts and document the process used to fix the problem. This will save you internal bandwidth and also help document a process which can potentially be used in similar situations in the future. External coaching can be very efficient and help uncover underlying systemic issues.

    While I might be construed as being biased (knowing that one is biased is the first step to a resolution!) towards external coaches, I have observed many benefits of internal coaching. It would perhaps be better to label me as being biased towards coaching in general (as long as you agree that external coaches are almost as useful as internal ones). Whether you seek help with an external or an internal coach, I strongly believe Coaching is here to stay and if leveraged correctly and to its full potential, organisations will observe a boost in employee productivity, with the added benefit of individual success and a feeling of well being and happiness in their roles.


Why coach middle managers?

Ever since the ‘70s, managers of nimble organisations have felt the need to energize and motivate people. They realize that a motivated workforce punches far above their weight. An entire culture of start-ups is emerging as – at least partially – a result of motivated employees who don’t find their outlet in the traditional work setup. Today, the need to motivate and engage employees has never been higher for most organisations.

To answer the question of whether middle managers need coaching, I need you to consider the following:

  1. Are your people-managers motivated for high performance most of the time?
  2. Are these managers equipped with the relationship and communication skills they need to lead?
  3. Do you measure the EQ of managers, and have the ability to predict their success in a leadership role?

Whether you answered in the affirmative or otherwise, you must set out to improve these areas of corporate behaviour. Let me illustrate with a peculiar instance of this behaviour – annual appraisal cycles. While the entire responsibility to provide feedback and assess subordinates rests with managers, there is very little objectivity built into the system. While we may like to believe otherwise, the fact is that managerial bias creeps in at every single stage of this process. In other words, managers game the system, rather than improving their team to do better for the organisation. 

This is exactly where coaching can help. Coaching brings: 

  • Objectivity:

A third party perspective brings in the objectivity required to look at things differently. In case the relationship between a manager and a subordinate is fraught with emotional baggage, understanding such relationships objectively is difficult. A coach brings in skill and expertise to enable you to remove emotion from the equation. The coach can support you to understand your own objectives and those of the other party thus driving harmony and eventual success. 

  • Bias Recognition:

Whether it is the coachee or their manager, a coach can support you to recognise and acknowledge existing biases. Unconscious biases, by their very nature, exist and are difficult to diagnose. Coaches can help in recognising, acknowledging and supporting you as you take the first steps to resolve them. 

  • Holistic Development:

Holistic development of employees is another area organisations sometimes struggle with. A reality of modern corporate life, this may mean an organisation may miss out on identifying and developing talent. In the long run, this may mean an increase in cost due to lateral hiring or a team which is not fully utilised. It is immensely useful to recognise these future leaders early and invest in them.


  • Productivity: 

The most tangible effect of coaching on middle managers is a boost in productivity, which has a knock-on effect on the rank and file. External coaching is a positive signal for the employee, and one which has the potential to resolve long standing development issues. It is well researched and documented that employee productivity goes up when they feel valued enough to be developed by their organisation. 

To sum it up, organisations which look at investing in their employees and are looking at long term benefits must consider coaching to meet their managers’ development needs. L&D teams can recognise potential coachees by looking at fast trackers, high potential employee base, and employees moving to leadership roles, among others. These employees can benefit immensely from coaching, and can lead to great returns for the organisation. The idea is to leverage coaching as a means to move employees from ‘good’ to ‘great’.

We rarely feel the absence of something of which we haven’t seen the benefits. Every organisation which has experimented with good coaching has seen far reaching effects on productivity, especially in continental Europe and the US. The best leaders in the industry vouch for the phenomena that is coaching, especially if the grounds for success is based on employee and inter-departmental support.