Executive Coaches Are Not Consultants
Know your options when facing a leadership challenge
Yesterday I walked a former boss and old friend through the fundamental difference between executive coaching and management consulting.
He’s a longtime CEO and general global-business superstar, yet he held a misconception I find common among CEOs, which is that executive coaching is a type of consulting engagement. When I explained how coaching fundamentally differs from consulting, and that the difference is defining, I saw the light bulb flip on.
It’s a conversation I’ve had more than once lately, granting me some practice in illuminating a topic about which I feel passion. Here’s what I say.
A consultant is typically an expert on something very specific, hired by a client company to solve a specific problem.
The problem might be incompatible data systems, a physical plant that needs an upgrade, or an issue that requires crisis-response readiness. The project might last a short few weeks, as in the crisis-response example. Or it might last a year or two if the challenge to be addressed is enterprise-level.
The client company pays the consultant, or group of consultants gathered in a firm, to dig in deeply then make recommendations on what needs to be done. Then sometimes the client company pays the consultant(s) to implement what is recommended.
Photo by fizkes purchased on Shutterstock
I’m quite familiar with the model myself. I was a consultant for most of my career.
Overlaps: The word “consultant” is used in some industries as a synonym for “contractor.” A consultant is indeed a type of contractor. But a contractor may not remotely be a consultant.
An advisor is typically someone very experienced either in a domain area or in business leadership generally. The advisor is paid by a client company to offer its CEO or other seniormost leaders, well, advice. Advisor relationships are less likely to be project-specific, though they can be, and more likely to be ongoing in nature and based on preexisting relationships.
A friend of mine who has successfully built and sold two companies is currently contracted as an advisor to a CEO who runs a business in the same field. This CEO pays my friend to pick his brain and listen to the advice and counsel that comes.
Overlaps: Sometimes consultants, when they’re good, also secure advising engagements. Or their client engagements evolve to become advisory ones.
Coaching is quite different from consulting and advising. What is addressed, how it’s addressed, and how the time is spent are entirely unique. Unlike a consultant, an executive coach doesn’t diagnose problems, offer recommendations, nor write implementation plans. The coach doesn’t formulate points of view on what the client should do. The coach has no agenda that she hopes the client will adopt.
And unlike in advisory relationships, a coach dispenses advice rarely. Many coaches dispense advice never because, as a rule, people don’t follow advice very well. And most people don’t enjoy receiving it even if they’ve asked for it.
Instead, in scheduled periodic conversations, the coach asks questions. Lots and lots of incisive and occasionally provocative questions in a sequence that is methodical. Those questions are always forward-looking and solutions-focused, never backward-looking or diagnostic.
And never leading, because leading questions would require the coach to have an agenda, which the coach doesn’t. It’s all about uncorking the client’s inner wisdom and ingenuity … in other words, their own solutions, which they are far more likely to implement than solutions suggested by someone else.
This way of questioning is the coaching process. It can be used by anyone. But in the hands of a skilled coach, it can equip the client — or better said, the person doing the thinking — to move mountains.
Overlaps: Some advisors call their practice “coaching,” though coaching is not what they are doing. They are giving advice based on their expertise and lived experience. This fact is bothersome to advocates for purity in the practice of coaching, me included, because it creates misunderstanding that is difficult to correct. And frankly, it doesn’t work very well. Advising is a valid and great thing to do for clients who want it. Just don’t call it coaching.
I’m asked, “What does the coach deliver exactly?”. The answer is that, unlike in consulting, the coach does not deliver Powerpoint decks of recommendations or working-draft tactical implementation plans.
The coach produces something more crucial. That is the client’s increased capacity, self-created tools, and self-devised rules of thumb to show up to whatever their leadership challenge they face in fresh, inventive, and energized ways.
I also like to explain to C-suite leaders that coaching delivers applied increase in leadership capacity. The coach helps the executive not only cultivate their inner skillfulness for the long term but to be ingenious in ways that benefit the business right now, in the moment.
A meta-analysis study published in 2016 in the Journal of Positive Psychology (Theeboom, Beersma and Van Vianen) found that coaching has significant positive effects on performance skills and goal-directed self-regulation, as well as on well-being, coping, and attitude toward work. The industry of coaching in business is an $11 billion-plus market. It’s growing because it works.
Certified Executive Coach. I work with CEOs of company up to $500M to help them get the most of their human capital and to lead change.