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internal mobility - what's better: internal mentors or external coaches?

If your talent management strategy includes an internal mobility programme, you may be considering what level of support you put in place for employees, beyond just providing online tools to help them advance their careers. Some internal mobility platforms include tools and resources to help you develop internal mentors; others don't. Clearly, mentoring offers an improved experience for employees compared with having no human support.

What you may not have considered is offering career coaching - instead of mentoring - in your internal mobility programme. Here, we'll define the difference between coaching and mentoring and weigh up the pros and cons of each when implementing an internal mobility strategy.

defining coaching and mentoring

While these two terms are often used interchangeably, there are some important differences. Taking the CIPD's definition, coaching is a non-directive form of development (with the coach asking questions and prompting the individual to think and reflect); whereas mentoring is more directive (where the mentor offers advice or recommends courses of action the individual could take).

In the context of a talent development or internal mobility programme, the career coach is external and not necessarily an expert in the field the individual works in; and the mentor is a fellow employee and usually does have subject matter expertise that the mentee wants to learn from.

There are two other distinctions to bear in mind. The first is that the mentoring agenda will usually be driven by the mentee, who wants certain information or advice from the mentor; whereas a coach normally follows a structured coaching process and may have a brief from the organisation as to what to prioritise. The second is that mentoring tends to be longer term, while coaching is often over a shorter, set period of time.

pros and cons of internal mentors

Many people think that mobilising a team of internal mentors will be quicker and cheaper than engaging external coaches. In reality, identifying and training mentors can take time and some mentors might not be available to mentees for some time due to other business commitments.

Conversely, a team of external coaches, once assigned to a client, are a dedicated resource that already has the training and experience required. They can often be mobilised in a couple of days - or less. While there is a hard cost attached to external coaching, this needs to be weighed against the opportunity cost of taking mentors - often senior leaders - away from other high-value activities in their day jobs to make time to mentor.

However, there are some advantages to using internal mentors:

  • Mentors are usually senior people in the organisation who understand how it works, the office politics and what it takes to be successful over the long term
  • They are usually matched with the mentee for their specific industry knowledge, technical expertise or internal network - any of which the mentee might want to tap into
  • An internal mentor is in a better position than an external coach to observe a mentee's interactions or get feedback from others on their behaviour
  • Where a mentor and mentee already know each other, this existing connection can help establish the mentoring relationship and build trust quicker (although it can also be a hindrance in some ways - making authentic and confidential discussions trickier)

This personal connection can be one of the biggest disadvantages of internal mentoring as the mentor may struggle to detach their personal view or biases from work situations. In addition, some other drawbacks are:

  • Coming from the same organisation, the mentor doesn't bring a fresh, external perspective or different ways of thinking to the conversation
  • There are no mentoring qualifications, so a mentor is unlikely to have the same skill set and experience as an accredited external coach in how to provide the right growth and development for the mentee
  • The internal mentor has other organisational responsibilities and may struggle to make time and be focused for the mentee
  • The mentor is often part of the senior leadership team that is responsible for some of the challenges the mentee might be facing, or may know people the mentee is challenged by, which can create conflicts
  • The advice and guidance the mentor offers may be based on their personal experience in the organisation, and can lead to bias and stifle diversity in terms of who progresses where

career coaches

pros and cons of external coaches

External coaches are trained and accredited in helping individuals achieve growth. Assuming the coaches are experienced in providing career coaching, they are usually far better equipped than an internal mentor to deal with the sort of topics that come up in internal mobility conversations. While there is additional cost attached to bringing in external career coaches, there are a number of advantages:

  • A coach brings external perspective from having worked in a variety of other organisations and sectors. This brings fresh thinking to the conversation and an ability to challenge the organisation's conventional thinking or received wisdom. A coach may see things that a mentor is too close to notice, or is too embedded in the culture to recognise
  • An external career coach is far more likely to remain objective because they have no vested interest or political position in the organisation. This can help the coachee speak freely and confidentially and make more progress more quickly
  • The coach also has no prior knowledge of the coachee, with no access to performance history or the opinions of others, which means the coach embarks on the relationship with no preconceptions or biases
  • A coach has the training and expertise to deal with a wide range of sensitive issues more easily than a mentor, for whom this may not be a strength. The coach is also likely to be better at providing sensitive feedback. This can help the coachee overcome persistent barriers or limitations
  • The coach is there solely to focus on the individual, with no other internal distractions or competing priorities. There is also a commercial relationship in place that makes the coach more accountable for results

However, this cost is also one of the disadvantages of engaging external coaches. In addition:

  • The coach needs some time to understand the cultural norms in the organisation and will need more time than an internal mentor to understand the nature of the individual's specific role and the internal mobility avenues available
  • A coaching programme is more structured, and the process can be more rigorous for the individual. While this can be a good thing, it may mean the coachee is limited to a specific amount of time at certain intervals with the coach; rather than having more direct or immediate access to an internal mentor
  • The coach will not have the same deep level of industry or role-specific knowledge that a mentor has. This isn't necessarily a barrier to the coach enabling the coachee to achieve their objectives, but it may mean some time in coaching sessions needs to be spent explaining things that a mentor would already know

is the investment in external coaching worth it?

As with any investment, balancing the reward with the risk is key. An experienced career coaching provider brings a team of highly skilled, certified, professional coaches. One of the few studies available comparing internal and external coaching (not internal mentoring, as defined above), concluded that, on internal provision, "There will always be issues of confidentiality, personality clashes, credibility, etc". It went on to recommend that the most effective solution may be to use a mix of both.

Using external coaches in an internal mobility programme does not prevent employees from seeking out internal mentors informally - particularly if the coaching and career development tools include recognising your key development areas and skill gaps and provide support for building a better internal network.

However, choosing not to use external coaches does cut off that additional perspective for employees engaged with internal mobility. The greatest skill of a good coach, and perhaps the greatest value they add, is helping people hold a mirror up to themselves and truly understanding what is reflected.

TED speaker and organisational psychologist Dr Tasha Eurich has studied self-awareness. She found that 95 percent of leaders thought they were 'self-aware'; yet only 10 percent actually knew themselves well.

When a skilled career coach asks the right question, helps someone reflect more deeply on what they want and how they can progress, or challenges sensitively like a critical friend, the investment the organisation has made in them pays off immensely.

That is why we make career coaching available to every participant that works with us on an internal mobility, redeployment or career transition programme.

Providing smart tools is one thing, offering to support internal mentors takes things further, but we believe we can have the very best impact - and deliver the most outstanding results for clients - by combining both those things with one-to-one career coaching. No-other internal mobility provider does this.

related content: download our e-book - 5 ways to develop a modern, always-on talent mobility strategy

career coaching for breakthrough results

choosing an internal mobility partner

It is now more critical than ever to have strong internal mobility provision. Analysis from Gartner showed that employee turnover due to a lack of future career opportunities is costing an average-sized enterprise $49m (£35m) per year. This is their conservative calculation, that doesn't factor in things such as the loss of organisational knowledge and the impact of turnover on the performance and engagement of other employees.

According to LinkedIn, the pandemic has led the majority of L&D practitioners to make internal mobility more of a priority than it was before. So there's clearly a need to build internal mobility provision into post-Covid HR strategy.

When you start to look at the complexities of creating an internal mobility culture, it becomes apparent that specialist coaching and consulting expertise will help with implementation. We are the only internal mobility provider that offers your employees personalised one-to-one coaching, along with an industry-leading tech platform, to help them realise their career goals.

Randstad RiseSmart is also the only provider that comes from a career transition background. This means that our understanding of internal mobility is built on over 14 years' experience of supporting thousands of career journeys in over 100 countries and 40 industries. We bring unrivalled expertise in contemporary career management to support your internal mobility strategy.

To learn more, or request a demo of our platform, please contact us.