Leadership coaching explores possibilities and builds long-term capabilities, handing leaders the means to solve a wide range of problems in the future. Consulting offers specific solutions to specific problems from a position of authority. 

The difference between consulting and coaching is the same as the proverbial difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish.

A coach may not provide direct answers to the problems you face as a business leader, but coaching will help you develop the skills to come up with your own answers in the future. A consultant gives you answers to specific problems, helping you overcome well-defined hurdles.

Coaching and consulting both have a place in the corporate playbook; however, they are designed to meet different needs.

In my leadership development books and blog posts, I have grouped the differences between consulting and coaching into two main categories.

  • Differences linked to the source of expertise
  • Differences stemming from the nature of the solutions

Coaching provides guidance. Consulting gives you instructions.

There’s a difference between providing training and giving instruction.

A coach will tell you how to become better at the sport of your choice, but he/she will also accompany you on your development journey, guiding your play and improving your skills along the way.

A consultant is more likely to instruct you on how to throw a pitch or swing a golf club, thus helping you achieve a specific objective with optimal efficiency.

Coaching builds long-term capability. Consulting solves a problem. 

A coach builds capability. In the coaching equation, the expertise comes from the person coached and not the coach. A leadership development professional aims to uncover/develop capabilities that you can use to handle a wide range of problems in the future.

Consulting on the other hand, focuses exclusively on problem-solving. It teaches methods and processes. A consultant brings specialized expertise to the table to help you overcome a hurdle. Once the leader/organization accomplishes this well-defined and thereby limited objective, the work of the consultant is done.

Coaching trains you to recognize problems and find solutions. Consulting guides you through a specific task.  

Coaching trains an individual to extract the truth on their own. Well-coached leaders learn a series of strategies that help them make the most of their strengths while minimizing the impact of their weaknesses. Exceptionally coached leaders become capable of working out such strategies without outside help.

Consulting focuses on specific tools to help leaders and organizations accomplish a specific objective and move forward.

Coaching promotes internal growth and drive. Consulting focuses on external assistance.  

Although consulting can help with growth, coaching promotes a more organic and sustainable approach to progress. Outside expertise can be valuable and crucial under certain circumstances, but coaching creates inside expertise, fueling organic growth by providing long-term clarity and the ability to deal with problems that haven’t even surfaced yet.

Coaching is exploration. Consulting is execution. 

When a business coach provides guidance to a client, he/she embarks on a process of exploration on equal footing with the trainee. Through this process, the coach helps the trainee to spot opportunities and explore possibilities.

Exploration is the source of organic, sustainable growth. 

A consultant analyzes the opportunities and offers clear options based on his/her expertise, together with a set of instructions that lead to execution.

A coach is a partner. A consultant is an authority. 

A coaching relationship is a relationship of equals. The coach guides the client as someone who may not have better subject matter expertise but can open up new perspectives and ways of handling things for the trainee. Even Tiger Woods has a coach, but few would argue that the coach is the better golfer.

A consultant, on the other hand, helps from a position of authority, helping clients achieve breakthroughs with point-specific expertise and a laser-like focus on the problem at hand.

The bottom line: Both are valuable. 

Executives should understand the differences between coaching and consulting, so they know whether their organization can benefit the most from the services of a coach or a consultant.

If you want to learn more about the subtleties of leadership development, or to learn more about the leadership coaching we offer, check out my books and blog posts.


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