Recent research suggests a growing number of companies are developing their own internal coaches to help groom executive talent.
By Mark McGraw
In 2010, the Mayo Clinic board of directors wanted to see the Rochester, Minn.-based healthcare provider sharpen its focus on developing leadership talent from within.
"There were discussions at the board level around succession planning and what we could do to ensure that we have a strong executive-talent pipeline going forward," says Priscilla Gill, manager of leadership and organization development at Mayo.
Recognizing the need to groom its future leaders, the board charged the current Mayo executive leadership team and Gill's leadership and organization development function with "making sure this happened," she says. "So, we decided to complement our existing external team of coaches with a cadre of internal coaches, to help us get there faster."
In the six-plus years since, Mayo Clinic has relied increasingly on internal coaches to help develop the organization's leaders. And, if recent research is any indication, a growing number of companies are taking or will soon be taking this more personalized -- and more cost-effective -- approach to mentoring executive-level talent.
Consider the New York-based Conference Board's Global Executive Coaching Survey 2016, which compiled data from case studies, interviews and survey responses from 181 global organizations. The findings revealed that 69 percent of these companies currently use internal coaches to "proactively build the next generation of leaders." Among those not currently utilizing internal coaches, 69 percent say they intend to do so in the coming years.
According to the survey, efforts to expand a "coaching culture" within these organizations include embedding coaching into talent- and performance-management processes, developing leaders and managers at all levels to be coaches, and using incentives and rewards to reinforce demonstrated coaching behaviors.
(The survey also found an uptick in external-coaching rates in recent years, with organizations paying an average upwards of $600 per hour at the CEO and C-suite levels, and rates for coaches working at the levels directly below CEO going up since 2014.)
"We've [done] this type of study three times in the past six years, and the number of companies [implementing internal coaching programs] is very similar over those three studies," says Amy Abel, managing director of human capital at the Conference Board. "That tells me that this is not a fad. We know now that a personalized and customized approach to leadership development is more impactful. And internal coaching happens to fit that description very well."
Adopting such an individualized style of leadership development was the impetus for initiating the Mayo Clinic's program, which has turned out roughly 30 internally certified coaches in its six-year existence.
That's an average of five coaches a year, a number that becomes more impressive when considering what these busy leaders have to do to earn the title of coach, says Gill.
"[Participants] have to be willing to commit to a nine-month certification process," which includes rigorous 360-degree pre-assessments to determine their skill and affinity for coaching, and a two-day workshop that "gives our coaches the opportunity to learn the basics, demonstrate their coaching skills and get feedback" from peers, says Gill.
Naturally, choosing the right individuals is critical to building a successful internal coaching program, and to developing capable leaders.
HR leaders should spearhead that process, which is likely to uncover viable candidates from within their own function, says Abel.
"I'd say that many internal coaches are HR professionals," she says, "so, in some cases, it's a matter of self-selecting; an HR practitioner identifying him or herself as a potentially good coach."
In considering candidates from other areas of the organization, HR professionals must look at how they have developed people in the past, says Abel.
"Is an internal candidate known to be a people manager?" she says. "Are [candidates] known to have team-development skills? Have they done coaching before? These are the questions you have to ask.
"People tend to think of a coach as someone who barks at you, but it's not all about telling people what to do," she adds. "It's about inquiry, and getting someone else to think differently about a particular issue, and preferably coming to his or her own conclusion through that inquiry process."
Internal coaches can come from anywhere within the organization, of course. But, they typically pursue one of a few different paths, says Marie Holmstrom, director of talent and rewards at Willis Towers Watson.
The more traditional route is through HR, "especially those in talent management, who have a background in behavioral sciences," says Holmstrom, noting that these individuals might also hold doctorate degrees in organizational and/or industrial psychology, and have some experience coaching executives.
In other cases, individuals in the later stages of their careers -- "who have spent a good amount of time in the organization, maybe as operational leaders, and want to do something different" -- are prime candidates, she says.
"For example, I recently had a conversation with a CEO whose U.S.-based company had just been acquired by a Japanese company," says Holmstrom. "He's looking to become an internal coach, not just within the U.S. organization, but in the combination of U.S.-based organizations the Japanese company has acquired. The next CEO has been named and groomed, but this [soon-to-be-former] CEO doesn't want to retire. He wants to shift gears and, as a coach, help these companies integrate at the executive level."
Fitting the Profile
At Mayo Clinic, "there are probably two main buckets of internal coaches," says Gill.
On one hand, there are those who have completed professional certification requirements through the International Coaching Federation or a similar organization, she says.
On the other are internal coaches who have completed Mayo's aforementioned internal qualification program, adds Gill.
"We identify [candidates for the internal program] based on a few qualifications," she says. "One, they are tenured. We want to make sure they have a good five or 10 years of leadership experience. Oftentimes, they would have held a role as a chair, vice chair or administrator. And their track record and their evaluations should suggest that they've grown their people; that their people have advanced under their tutelage."
General Motors Co. looks for a combination of the right experience and interests in its internal coaches.
"We've found that the best coaches are those who want to be coaches," says Chris Oster, director of global talent management at the Detroit-based auto manufacturer.
Among the roughly 65 qualified internal coaches at GM, "most have master's degrees in organizational development," says Oster, who helped start the program in 2001. "And some have consulting experience."
Education and outside experience aside, familiarity with the organization is most critical, she says, adding that would-be coaches also take part in skills and interest inventories designed to gauge their fit for an internal-coaching role.
"We typically ask that a coach has been in a role for three to five years with GM, unless [that person] came in from another company already armed with ICF certification, for example. We're mostly looking for experience," says Oster, noting that GM is in the process of expanding the program to include its European locations.
Those that aren't already certified take part in GM's four-day internal program that includes case studies, work with a mentor, self-evaluation and the Zenger Folkman Extraordinary Leader 360-degree assessment.
At the close of the four-day session, new coaches are assigned to a coach mentor, "who advises and counsels [the new coach] throughout the initial coaching engagement."
At the close of the assignment, the senior coach assesses the newly minted coach to determine if he or she is ready to proceed independently to provide service to his or her next internal recipient, says Oster, who notes that coaches are expected to maintain at least two internal-coaching "clients" at all times, "and attend ongoing in-service trainings, in order to keep our coaching cadre fresh."
When Everyone Wins
Once certified, the types of support these coaches provide leaders can vary widely, from advice on how to handle a conflict with an employee to help sharpening a specific skill.
While part of coaching is sharing actual expertise, "coaches first have to understand the context in which [his or her recipient] is operating, as well as understanding what makes the individual tick, what drives [him or her]," says Holmstrom, adding that a good coach must be equally adept at listening as well as doling out advice.
"I've seen too many coaches [fail] when their approach is to just give a lecture."
Internal coaching at Mayo is designed to avoid such a one-sided approach, says Gill.
For example, coaches, the employees being coached and those employees' managers frequently take part in "triad meetings" to provide instant and ongoing input to coaches, she says, adding that coaches are also encouraged to pose questions to their coaching recipients during these meetings.
"They're getting feedback in the moment. They're learning the skill of coaching," says Gill, noting that the HR team and coaches take part in monthly meetings "where we are sharing our successes in coaching."
Mayo Clinic also offers one-day training programs to all managers and business leaders, says Gill.
Graduates of that one-day program can, in turn, take part in Mayo's Practicing with Your Peers initiative, a seven-week follow-up session "for those who want to go deeper into coaching," she says. "This program gives them the opportunity to hone their skills."
Ideally, these programs will lead to improved performance from executives, even those already meeting or exceeding expectations.
But, for an internal coaching program to truly thrive over time, HR must make clear to coaches that they stand to gain from participating as well, says Oster.
"HR has to ensure coaches get something out of it too," she says. "Coaches have to understand that, by being a part of this, they will acquire leadership and communication skills that will serve them well in their own roles, and that they are making valued contributions to the firm."
Serving as an internal coach could potentially lead to lucrative coaching and consulting opportunities outside the organization someday, for instance.
"We're not shy to remind our internal coaches of that possibility," says Oster, adding that having a successful program in place can be a powerful recruiting tool as well.
"Most people aspire to eventually be a mentor, and offering access to this type of training and experience as a coach helps attract people."
Gill and her team try to impress upon Mayo's internal coaches "that coaching is about developing the talent," she says. "It's about challenging and supporting those taking part in the program, and recognizing that this is about forward movement. It's a challenge for our coaches and our talent to find time to participate, so we want to maximize that time.
"We're trying to build our bench strength, and in so doing, trying to strengthen the Mayo Clinic culture . . . ," says Gill. "And I think we've done that."