Do You Need a Consultant or a Coach?

October 21, 2021
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As executive coaching becomes more prevalent in the corporate world, I often see people confusing the role of a consultant and a coach. As a Huffpost article noted, “Knowing the difference between a business coach and consultant can save you a lot of time and a ton of disappointment… “

Many a times, even if the roles and distinctions are clear, organisations may still end up going the consultant route when their circumstance could better suit a coach, or vice versa. In my experience, there are three key differences between a consultant and a coach. Knowing them will help make proper distinctions and hopefully aid anyone who is at the cusp of choosing one for their organisation:

1. A Consultant Solves Problems Whereas a Coach Holds a Mirror 

A consultant is essentially hired to solve a specific problem in an organisation in a stipulated period of time. So, a consultant generates options, provides answers, recommends roadmaps and is often a part of the follow-on implementation.

An independent coach on the other hand holds a mirror to the client. That is, when the client goes to the coach with a problem the coach does not provide answers, unlike a consultant, but instead helps the client reflect and come to their own answers by asking a series of probing questions.

The coach rarely provides answers and answers the client’s questions with even more questions!

For example, I once worked with a large conglomerate to improve their sales and deliver those results within 4 quarters, which involved recruiting sales personnel to put together processes to achieve those results. Here I worked in the capacity of a consultant with the goal to increase the sales by ‘x’ percent in a specific time period.

In contrast, when I was hired in an organisation to coach the Head of Sales, my goal was not to increase the sales. Instead, it was to ensure that the Head of Sales was more efficient, could manage a diverse team and delegate work successfully.

Both in the case of consultant and independent coach, I addressed the aspect of improving sales. As a consultant I targeted the problem directly, whereas as an executive coach I worked with the individual to be better at his role, which would in turn help the organization do better.

2.The ROI on Consulting is More Tangible Compared to Coaching

When a consultant comes onboard, they are expected to articulate an ROI upfront. The process is time-bound – it could be months or quarters of work to enhance and improve the company’s supply chain, for instance. 

In executive coaching, however, it becomes a little difficult to articulate the ROI upfront as it is more of a long-term process and the results are not quite tangible as in consulting. Coaching is more individual-centric and less outward result driven (at least not immediately).

Executive coaching is a long-term engagement wherein a few results may be visible in the short-term, but in the long run it is always more accretive – seen more as a larger picture. Benefits are often much clearer in retrospect after a year or two of the engagement. Coaching requires, in a certain sense, a bit of a leap of faith. 

For instance, a consultant may be asked to implement an HR management system – to ensure all the organisational processes such as leave management, payroll, etc. be established in say 6 months. The consultant can put together and present what he will be able to bring to the table, i.e., the tangible ROI to the organisation.

On the other hand, an independent coach can be hired when the CEO realises that a senior executive is spending their time more on transactional work and not enough on strategic work.  He is too immersed in the current context and would be more effective if he thought more about the long term.

A coach can help this executive gain an equidistant perspective to work. Such an intervention does not lend itself to a quantifiable ROI upfront. Certain short-term goals may be quantifiable, but the long-term gains can only be perceived after some quarters of an active coaching engagement.

3. Consulting Depends on Several External Factors & Coaching is Individual-Centric 

When one is hired as a consultant, several things in the organisation need to be orchestrated in the right manner to get things right; the leader has to be involved, there may be changes required in technology, processes, and people… All these things need to come together in an organisation for the consulting engagement to be successful. It is an organisational initiative. 

Executive coaching on the other hand is an individual initiative where the coach engages with a client to work on their behavioural traits and habits, for instance, which in turn will then lead to organisational improvement. This is largely dependent on the particular individual getting coached with the help of stakeholders (team, peers, clients etc.)  who provide feedback throughout the coaching journey.

For example, a consultant hired for setting up a new manufacturing plant would need to advise on hiring people, buying machinery, bringing in the right technology to be able to be ready to start manufacturing in 18 months’ time. 

A coaching engagement on the other hand would involve coaching the Head of Manufacturing to help improve his potential and relevant skillset that would result in the increase in production. This is highly dependent on the particular individual.

So, which is better – coaching or consulting? It depends! As this article notes 2“…consulting is largely informational, coaching is heavily inspirational and “skill-formational.” One doesn’t need to look at it as an either-or approach and instead should be looked at on an as-needed basis.

There are times when an organisation requires quick, objective, tangible solutions, which is when they’d be better off with a consulting approach. On the other hand, a business leader may feel a coaching route is better suited as they find that investing in a senior individual to be a better investment to the organisation in the long run, and lead to higher ROI.

Adding to that – the same executive may need a consultant as well as coach at different times or even the same time. I know of some leaders who even have multiple coaches at the same time for the benefit of multiplicity of perspective!

So, consider the totality of your situation and needs and choose wisely! 

About Simply.Coach

Simply.Coach is an enterprise-grade coaching software designed to be used by individual coaches and coaching businesses. Trusted by ICF-accredited and EMCC-credentialed coaches worldwide, Simply.Coach is on a mission to elevate the experience and process of coaching with technology-led tools and solutions.  

About the author
Executive Coach & Co-founder of Simply.Coach

As an Executive Coach, certified by Marshall Goldsmith for leaders and teams, Venkat believes that a mix of ideal leadership behaviours and a well-executed strategy determines business outcomes, and he works with industry leaders in achieving specific results with the right changes in behaviour and processes. Earlier, he was a Partner & Vice President at IBM, with a track record of successful engagements leveraging technology and Change Management. Venkat has lived in Europe and Singapore and consulted with clients across industries worldwide and in India.

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3 Responses

  1. Gautam Bardoloi says:

    Wonderful article. From my perspective one key difference which I see between consultants and coach is how we “start” the engagement. While a consultant is about capability, past track record, price etc, for a coach its about the “personal” contact and “comfort” level. In short you can do an RFP for a consultant but not for a coach. Also, consultant is time-specific and may or may not translate to long term relationship, but for a coach its a long term relationship. My 2 cents

  2. Anonymous says:

    Wonderful perspective. Loved the simple explanation.

  3. Nivedita Chandra says:

    This has been a dilemma for most strategic assignments. Being both a consultant and a coach, my take is – While solving functional issues requires more of a consultant, strategic challenges at times require solving more of behavioural and mindset issues than skill gaps. Skills/Knowledge gaps can be addressed by taking on consultant horse power. Others requires Leadership development or replacement. Solution you choose comes from correct assessment of the problem.

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