If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know if you’ve got there?

If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know if you’ve got there?

two people puzzling over complicated directions

21 July 2023

Katharine St John-Brooks writes about the excitement of developing a strategy for internal coaching, sharing insights from her book, Internal Coaching: The Inside Story.

You know that moment during a conference when there’s a sudden rustle all over the room as people start rummaging in their bag for a pen or a notebook or an iPad as they realise that maybe they should start taking notes?

I had one of those moments when I was talking about, of all things, strategy! Or to be more specific, the importance of developing an internal coaching strategy.

First, the muddle through approach

It will not come as any surprise that many internal coaching pools come into existence because of a single enthusiast – usually a member of the Learning & Development department – who is a trained coach and very passionate about what coaching can achieve. Somehow, they scrape together a big enough budget to train up half a dozen internal coaches and start letting people know that coaching has been added to the L&D menu. And that’s it.

If it goes really well, and maybe there’s a champion somewhere in the management hierarchy who is in a position to protect the budget when times get tough, then a second or even a third cohort of coaches may get trained up. The pool may even get big enough to justify spending money on a coach management system, so that L&D no longer have to do all the matching of coaches with clients and acquire a helpful way of monitoring activity. They may even make CPD and supervision available to their coaches.

‘What’s wrong with any of that?’ you might ask. ‘It sounds good. We want to encourage coaching, don’t we?’ Well, yes. Of course. But if the L&D enthusiast who has been driving the initiative from the word go leaves, the whole enterprise could fall to pieces. The coaching effort needs to be sustainable.

Having a well-thought-through strategy

How much better would it be if, on day one, that enthusiastic coach sat down with a piece of A4 and thought: What is our purpose in setting up this pool of internal coaches? What is the problem we are trying to solve? What is it that we’re trying to achieve? How will it support what our L&D and HR colleagues are trying to do? Could it help to take forward our business strategy?

If that sort of thinking is done, how much easier it will be to answer other questions, such as: Who should receive the coaching so that we get the biggest bang for our buck? What does that mean for the scope and scale of the training that our internal coaches should receive? Then, critically, how will we know that we are achieving what we set out to do?

If the coaching pool in your organisation started off with more of a ‘muddling through’ approach, no problem! It is perfectly possible to devise a strategy retrospectively. But you might think: That sounds like a lot of work. Why do we need a strategy? We’re providing a valuable service to the organisation with our coaching already. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

The benefits of having a strategy

There are several reasons why it is worthwhile to invest in that early thinking time:

If the budget you’ve managed to carve out for the coaching resource is dependent on, say, the support of the HR Director or the Finance Director, and that person leaves, what happens? Is the existence of the coaching pool at risk?

If your coaching pool is championed by someone influential, e.g. a Director or CEO of the organisation who has personal experience of the value of coaching, and they leave, what then? Is the existence of the coaching pool at risk?

If there is a recession, or if, for any other reason, the organisation needs to draw in its horns and shave off non-core spending, is the existence of the coaching pool at risk?

I ask those questions because, if you have no strategy or anything to explain to those who hold the purse strings how coaching supports the wider organisational strategy, the sustainability of the coaching effort can hang by a thread when circumstances change. Will it be enough just to say that coaching is ‘nice to have’?

A properly thought-through strategy provides a much more solid foundation for the coaching effort, is likely to lead to more value for the organisation, and should ensure that funding keeps flowing. Also, crucially, how can you tell whether the coaching is successful unless you have a clear idea of its purpose?

I’m a great fan of evaluation. How can you justify to Mr or Ms Moneybags that continuing to invest in a coaching pool is worthwhile unless you have some evidence for its effectiveness? Sure, you can tell them how many coaches you have, how many coaching hours they have delivered, how many clients have been coached – though you might be surprised at the number of organisations who aren’t even sure about that.

You may even have asked your clients, post assignment, some basic questions, such as: ‘On a scale of 1-5, how much did your coaching help you to achieve your goals?’ (or whatever) so you can say that 95% of the people who had received coaching gave it 5 out of 5.

But if you are clear about the purpose for which you set up the coaching pool in the first place, you are in a much better position to demonstrate that it has been money well spent.

There are, of course, other benefits to having a strategy. For example, you may want to change your organisational culture to a coaching culture and use the internal coaching pool to contribute to that effort. A further benefit can be the impact on the coaches. If there is clarity around what they’re there for and how what they’re doing fits into the bigger scheme of things, it enhances their levels of satisfaction.

Examples of strategic purposes for the internal coaching effort

So, in your organisation, what are the problems that having a pool of trained internal coaches could contribute to ‘fixing’? Are you suffering from not having enough women or BAME staff in senior positions? Do you have problems with staff retention in middle manager positions? Have you found that your leadership programmes don’t seem to be hitting the mark, because managers enjoy them but then don’t use their new knowledge back in the day job? Have you seen too many business-critical projects fail to deliver or even go off the rails?

My book on internal coaching gives dozens of examples of strategic purpose for internal coaching pools, but the main message is that they tend to fall into four main categories:

1. Support for employees making transitions – e.g. onboarding; promotion; returning to work after a break

2. Support for HR initiatives – e.g. improved retention; embedding diversity and inclusion policies

3. Support for L&D initiatives – e.g. building employees’ resilience; improving effectiveness of management and leadership programmes; developing a talent pool

4. Support for business change – e.g. offering board level ‘thinking partnerships’; providing support to team leaders)

As Hunt & Weintraub wrote, back in 2006: ‘Those internal coaching programmes that seem to be most successful have a job to do.’


What I’ve been talking about here is the importance of spelling out in your strategy what the purpose is for setting it up. Coaching strategies need to cover much more than that, e.g. governance, marketing, eligibility for accessing the coaching, CPD, supervision, evaluation... but they don’t need to be a 40-page document. I’ve seen excellent coaching strategies that cover all the key bases in two pages. The important thing is to do the thinking.

Katharine St John-Brooks was a leadership coach for 20 years after a career advising government ministers. Her book, Internal Coaching: The Inside Story, was published in 2014 by Karnac Books and has proved to be an enduring staple on many coaches’ bookshelves. It led to contributing chapters on internal coaching to the Complete Handbook of Coaching, 2018 (4th edition due in 2023), Coaching Supervision: Advancing Practice, Changing Landscapes, 2019, and the Ethical Coaches’ Handbook, 2023. Katharine holds an MSc in Organisational Behaviour and an MA in Professional Development (Coaching). She founded EMCC UK’s Public Sector Coaching and Mentoring Forum, followed by their Third Sector Coaching and Mentoring Forum (which she has chaired for the past six years). She has completed a thriller based around a coach’s edgy relationship with her new client – a recently appointed government minister – and has embarked on writing the second in the series.

Image by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash