Coaching v Consulting
Is it the client or the coach who is the fool?
When I started my career in 2006, I had to explain to people what ‘business coaching’ was. Now, I have to explain how I’m different from the dozen shonky business coaches they’ve met at networking breakfasts.
I do this by telling them I’m a business coach who doesn’t believe business coaching works; how coaches who are proud they’re not consultants are setting up their clients, and their own business, for failure.
So, what is the difference between a consultant and a coach, and how does that distinction play out in the reality of helping business clients?
Recognising the differences makes for better coaches and improved client outcomes.
Coaching v Consulting Pedants will observe that a pure consultant brings the solution and completes the work themselves - think IT or Legal, for example. A pure coach does nothing but ask questions, 'coaching' you because all the answers are inside you and you do not need external solutions.
Put another way: A consultant has all the answers, because you are a fool. Coaching is the opposite - you have all the answers, and your coach is a fool.
Both extremes are, well, extreme. It’s naive to believe a small business owner has all the answers inside them, and it's cruel to compel an entrepreneur to pay you to deliver when every bone in their body wants to learn from you quickly to go and do it themselves.
Management Consulting is epitomised by multi-national firms, and to provide insight Business Insider produced a "Day in the Life Of" article focused on a third-year Deloitte consultant named Tim.
Tim is very good at what he does. It's just that I am scared about what he does and what that represents for Business Consultants in general. Scared for him personally - he works, on and off, for 18 hours a day; delivering a return on investment for his clients.
Tim is on site for a client most of the day - of course, "he spends the first few hours on site making multiple coffee runs, sifting through weekend emails, and reviewing material before meeting the client" at 2pm.
What are some of the expertise his team deliver at their 4-figure day rates? Tim says they're “busy preparing PowerPoint slides and fixing details like font size in existing presentations."
Consultants have a reputation for borrowing your watch and selling you the time. For the actual consultants, there's a high burn out rate - living in hotels and reviewing font sizes is hardly an energising career.
When I was in my first year as a Business Coach, the Courier-Mail ran a similar feature on me - a Day in the Life of a business coach. I found the comparison between the early stages of my career, and Tim’s consulting life, to be striking.
Don't get me wrong - I make no claim to working as hard as Deloitte consultants seem to. Despite all those coffee runs, Tim grabbed a half hour lunch and was still working at night in his hotel room - in my comparable day, I had an hour to enjoy lunch beside the Brisbane river, and knocked-off work at 4.30pm because my beautiful wife had movie tickets.
My day as a business coach was a lot more face-to-face, with two different clients and their teams. Because a key part of my role is transferring capability into the business, I need to be coaching humans not crafting slides.
I even made the point that "it’s my responsibility to keep them accountable, not do the work myself".
“Keeping them accountable” versus “editing PowerPoint slides”: is that the distinction between consultant and coach?
I believe that for my 4-figure day rate, my clients receive a far greater return on investment because their return is ongoing. One client mentioned in that 2006 article implemented our work all the way through the GFC, even while I was away, coaching UK businesses through the recession. Years after he invested in my team, his team is still reaping the benefits.
Yet as my career has developed, I’ve found some clients desperately need me to do some of the work myself. And the clients where I’m solely coaching are retained for less than half the time of those clients where I help with the heavy lifting sometimes.
Intrinsic Client Knowledge The coaching modality is predicated on the assumption that the client has all the information and knowledge that they need. The role of the coach is to step in and help bring their awareness to that knowledge.
For small business owners, that assumption is wrong. A butcher, baker, or candlestick maker with an entrepreneurial bent is not born with intrinsic knowledge about marketing, sales, and cash flow forecasts. They need guidance. They need educating. They need consulting, sometimes.
They also want to build their business capability. As Terry Pratchett taught us, if you build a man a fire he will be warm for an evening.
If you set a man on fire, then he will be warm for the rest of his life. Coaching is about helping a client keep that fire burning while educating the client on what is and is not safe.
In my humble experience, working directly with more than 300 businesses in 12 countries, business owners need a hybrid solution that can bring consulting expertise ("you don't know what you don't know") and a coaching methodology (to transfer skills and because no-one knows your business better than you).
The best Business Coaches know when their questioning has run dry, and they need to intervene with advice or guidance. They bring with them a toolkit of strategic frameworks that simultaneously help a client to understand the subject at hand and recognise the different choices they need to make in that regard.
In this way, you ensure the client is taking their business in the right direction, both in general and for their unique vision, without taking away their choice or removing their autonomy.
For the only thing that kills a coach-client relationship more than consecutive months of “nice chats” with no outcomes, is pointed criticism the client is not ready to embrace.
Which is right for your business
This depends on what your business needs - do you need answers immediately or empowerment for long-term growth?
Coaching is a terrible solution if you're on the verge of insolvency, and Consulting is a terrible solution if you want your team to learn the strategic skills needed to run the business themselves.
In reality, I would suggest that your – every business – needs both.
You need a business advisory solution that combines the best parts of coaching, consulting, and perhaps even other modalities like mentoring or facilitation.
Find someone who can bring the answers you may need, and yet also has the strength to ask you if they feel right for your situation.
That way you will receive the greatest ROI ... as long as you don't have questions about font sizes.
Jacob Aldridge is an international business coach, and the Director of Advisory for businessDEPOT.
Since 2006 he has worked with more than 300 companies in 12 countries, all of them sharing his belief that business is better when it’s fun.
Jacob shares his strategic toolkit, The businessDEPOT Way, through his free weekly video series #BlackboardFridays.
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