A guide to effectively leveraging Coaches, Consultants, and Contractors
You may have heard of the 3 Cs industry model (Company, Customers, Competitors) for success in strategic analysis. These are important elements to consider when working through strategy. As I talk to people about the work I’m doing through Wise Insights, I find a lot of people looking for clarification on a different set of 3 Cs:
This multi-part series of posts will help you better understand each role. I’ll provide 3 questions you should be considering as you plan for each role and then I’ll provide practical guidance on a few traps to avoid. We’ll wrap up the series with a post with important concepts that will apply to working with all 3 Cs.
Understanding the differences will help you leverage each role for the maximum benefit in the shortest possible time.
COACH. For the purposes of this series, we’re concerned with coaches who provide specific business services (vs. life and athletic coaches). We’re also not talking about specialty coaches such as agile or lean manufacturing coaches where there’s a specific training component to the role. Instead, we’re going to focus on roles like: Leadership Coach, Executive Coach, Business Coach.
If you look up the word in Merriam-Webster, this is what you’ll find:
2 [ from the concept that the tutor conveys the student through examinations ] a : a private tutor hired (e.g. a coach to help her daughter prepare for the test) b : one who instructs or trains (e.g. an acting coach, a birth coach; especially : one who instructs players in the fundamentals of a sport and directs team strategy)
There’s little wonder that people become confused with the idea of a “coach” in business. After all, a true business coach doesn’t actually instruct or train you in the fundamentals of business. So what, exactly, does a business coach actually do?
In Professional Coaching Competencies, Goldvarg and his co-authors define professional coaching as:
…the process of partnering with clients in a thought-provoking, inquiry based process. (p.ii)
Coaching is a relationship through which the coach helps you, the client, uncover, refine, and achieve your own aspirational goals. It is, in fact, a partnership of discovery.
Coaching helps when you:
are “stuck” and can’t see a way forward.
feel like something is off but can’t tell quite what it is.
know you can improve but aren’t quite sure where to prioritize your effort.
You might say, “But I’m smart, independent, and a pull-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstraps kind of leader. I don’t need help with that kind of stuff. That’s for people who don’t really get it.”
And, perhaps you’d be right. If you were Clint Eastwood. And you had a really amazing screenplay writer who has already scripted out the entire series of episodes in your business life. But for the rest of us…
The humility to ask for, and receive, external insight is a key factor in helping us be better leaders.
But how do we do this?
A business lesson from the (mini) golf course
If you’ve ever used a putter at a mini-golf course, you know how frustrating it can be to get that little ball into the cup.
On an actual golf course, successfully driving from a tee to the green is its own special kind of challenge. In both cases, if you don’t hold the club correctly, there will be a lot of swings and even more bounces before you make it to the goal — or give up on the way.
People who are serious about improving their actual golf game hire a pro. These are experienced players who specialize in helping you improve your form. They stand back and watch your swing. They show you how to re-align your body for the perfect shot off the tee every time. The pro tells you very specific things to do.
Business coaches bring the same outside perspective but with one major difference. For the most part, coaches are not prescriptive. They aren’t supposed to tell you what to do. There are a few cases where that’s ok but it generally doesn’t happen. If you need that, good news! There’s a role for that — but it isn’t your coach (we’ll cover that in Part 2 of this series when we discuss consultants).
A good coach asks strong and objective questions. They analyze what they hear and reflect it back to you in the context of what you want to achieve.
How do you think your team will respond to that?
Why do you think they’ll respond that way?
How can you test whether or not this is a good idea?
The coach may ask you to do one or two very specific things before you meet with them again. They won’t tell you what the results should be but they will expect you to put the effort into thinking about things in a different way. Once you’ve changed your thinking, you can change your actions. And that’s when the results start to happen.
When you understand the value a coach can bring, you’re ready to start looking for one.
What NOT to do when engaging with a coach
The number one thing people ask me about leadership coaching is: What’s your plan?
If you’ve read this far, you’ll know why that’s not a particularly helpful question to ask the coach. Remember? Business coaching is not prescriptive — the coach doesn’t tell you what to do. They help you think differently about the goals you want to achieve.
If you start by asking for quantifiable, measurable results before you start, you’re asking for a consultant.
Sometimes you’ll find a coach that has an 8, 11, or 13 step plan. These thought provoking topics may be helpful but a coach who already has a plan laid out is blending coaching and consulting. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it isn’t true coaching.
A coach who tells you they have a plan for your results before they’ve even talked to you? That’s probably a consultant masquerading as a coach. It is important to know the difference.
A true coach will start with you. What are your goals? What do you want to see? How can we design a series of conversations that will help you think differently?
That doesn’t mean you’re not going to have a plan. It also doesn’t mean you’ll have to guess at the results.
It just means the coach doesn’t know these things until you begin to collaborate on where you want to be. From that shared goal, you will journey together through the exploration of ideas on how you might get there.
In a coaching engagement, you do the work. The coach has some responsibility, of course. They must show up ready to listen. They’re duty-bound to ask strong questions and inquire about the things they hear.
But, in the end, the results are up to you. Want quantifiable, measurable results? Great, let’s talk about that. What do you think those should look like? Is it important to see those results changing over time and, if so, how might you record and track them?
You see where this is going, right?
Think about these 3 things when engaging with a coach
In general, what do I want to achieve?
What are some ways I might be able to tell that I’ve achieved it?
Who can I trust to help me gain clarity?
Notice that I didn’t say answer these 3 questions.
It isn’t important for you to have all the answers right now. However, it is important for you to be able to describe what you’re hoping to get out of the coaching relationship.
If you will spend time answering these 3 questions, an initial interview with a potential coach will be more productive because you’ll show that you already understand the value a coach brings. You’ll spend your time evaluating how the coach can help you — instead of listening to them explain how coaching works.
Why does coaching matter for leaders?
Leaders must be able to communicate their vision.
This assumes the vision is worth sharing. After all, a leader with no followers is a person on a long, solitary walk. Without a compelling vision, the people you need to help deliver it won’t be on the journey with you.
This is the starting point for all leaders. If you’re experiencing other leadership pains (not seeing buy-in, commitment, or results from your team) there’s a good chance they’re not fully behind the vision.
Coaching isn’t just for vision setting either. It is a valuable relationship to continue as you transition from vision to strategy and from strategy to execution. Leadership pains are often caused by gaps between the leader’s mindset and their behaviors as they walk out their vision on a daily basis.
A good coach can help you work through just about any situation you will have. Maybe you’re working through a major change initiative or have a set of difficult staffing issues. Maybe you’re just looking for ways to improve in your day to day mindset or process.
Whatever the need, find a coach who is skilled in the art of helping you see your goals and challenges in new ways. By remaining humble and open to input from others, you’ll find insights that will change the way you see things. You’ll overcome or work around obstacles that were limiting your progress and you’ll see accelerated success as you lead your team to the results you envisioned.
Next time, we’ll explore ways to effectively explore partnerships with consultants!
Paravelle offers executive coaching services to founders and CEOs with big growth goals. It's a crucial support structure that helps leaders avoid the negative results that come from being lonely at the top.
We might be a good fit to work together if you're:
at the create (<1M ARR), build ($1-3M ARR), or grow ($3-5M ARR) stage,
curious and looking for ideas and answers, and
ready to invest in working with a collaborator that brings a co-founder's perspective (without losing half your equity).