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Coaching, Consulting, and the Difference Between

What’s the difference between coaching and consulting? And what does your organization need? What do you need?

While there are important discussions around these questions, it’s important to back up and start with the foundational query before engaging coaching, consulting, or both: 

Am I ready to humble myself and accept that I don’t know how to solve this? Am I prepared to hear and see where I need to change, and to go the distance with what it takes to make those changes?

If you’re ready for that step, taking the next into coaching or consulting feels safe, feels right, and feels manageable. 

Coaching the Individual 

Think of all the people — from elite athletes to chess prodigies to successful CEOs — who have achieved a level of mastery in their field. What nearly all have in common is that they had a coach, a mentor, to help transform potential into results. Michael Jordan, arguably basketball’s GOAT, said his greatest skill wasn’t his blazing speed, gravity-defying dunks, or tenacious defense. “I was coachable,” he says. “I was a sponge and aggressive to learn!”

Coaching is supporting people to achieve the goals for which they are aiming on terms that work for them. The coach might bring expertise to the process but she doesn’t impose. She responds to the client rather than requiring the client to respond to her. The desire for change, for growth, for improvement — to be the GOAT — comes from within. 

Engaging a coach first comes with the recognition that you need one. Perhaps there’s a hurdle you’re just not clearing. You’ve tried ten different approaches. It’s not working. Humility says, There must be someone who has done this before, who has helped others, and who can help me.

The fear is always there, right? If I get help, people will see I’m not good enough. They’ll see through my facade. They’ll see I’m an imposter. Ego gets in the way… But what greatness has ever come without a coach or a mentor who was instrumental in drawing that greatness out? 

Coaching is not about remediation; you’re not “correcting” faults. Rather it is proactive. You’re practicing your foul shots, you’re perfecting your passes. You’re anticipating, rather than reacting. This space is where coaching provides the most value. 

Coaching is most effective when the leader recognizes that they have capacity and potential — and the right help will make the difference they need. Be coachable. Be a sponge. Have an aggressive desire to learn. 

Consulting for the Collective 

Go ahead. Push Us. Challenge us. 

While leadership coaching is often for the individual, consulting is typically communal. A consultant comes in, invited to bring the expertise that a team is looking for (or that their leader thinks they need!). The challenge here is that when the session is over, people are going to do what they want to do. They may — and often do — revert to form. A consultant seeks to draw out as much as they can from the group and to recognize and applaud their insights, and help them make real, lasting change. 

If you, as a leader, are on board, then the whole organization can make progress. But that’s not often the case. The problem is that CEOs typically love change for everyone else more than themselves! With consulting, you may be subconsciously hoping that an external expert will validate you. Will tell them that they need to change. That the market is the problem. That the world is the problem. That your people are the problem. 

Consulting is contingent upon your ability to embrace change. And it can be uncomfortable. But when has progress and growth ever been easy and comfortable? Think about installing a ceramic light switch plate. You need to turn the screw tightly enough to secure the plate but not so hard that you break the ceramic. When you find the right balance, consulting turns the screw – just enough. 

For consulting to be effective, there needs to be recognition that the team cannot solve the problem and needs help. When you are receptive, when you are humble, then you can see progress. The magic happens when team members (and maybe even you) get an insight that lands in a way it never has before or get reinforcement that what they thought might be the answer actually is. Consulting can orchestrate the kind of conversations that empower people to share their best thinking and applaud someone else’s best thinking. It creates a space for these discussions. 

It’s About the Work 

Coach and bestselling author John C. Maxwell writes, “People change when they hurt enough that they have to change, learn enough that they want to change, receive enough that they are able to change.”  

Wherever you and/or your team is, acknowledging this tipping point is crucial. At its core, consulting is an organizational approach to addressing problems and hurdles. Coaching is a one-on-one version of this. As a leader, you will get more payoff — more bang for your buck, so to speak — if you invest in consulting for the whole and in coaching for you. After all, if you are unwilling to do what you are asking others to do… No one will follow you. People won't, and can’t, come with you unless you show them the way. Unless you walk the way.

In an ideal world, coaching and consulting work in concert. Together. You work with a coach to capitalize on that capability, to hone those skills, to defy gravity in your own right… and you then work with your team to break through resistance and affect necessary change. 

Is It All Just Semantics?

Maybe a lot of this does come down to semantics. Coaching versus consulting. The individual versus the collective. But what marks progress is the humility and the willingness to accept that no one has all the answers — but that you and your team can move towards solutions. 

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