A guide to effectively leveraging Coaches, Consultants, and Contractors
This is part 2 of a multi-part series designed to help you understand 3 key roles that will help you get results quickly:
In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about the role of a coach in business. Unlike an athletic coach, a business coach (sometimes also called an executive coach or leadership coach) doesn’t tell you what to do. Through strong listening and reflective questioning, an effective coach helps clarify your vision of the future. This vision is a critical foundation for accelerating the pace of results through strategy.
This post explains the differences between a coach and consultant. It also contains 3 thought-starter questions about the role and practical guidance on traps to avoid when working with consultants. It ends with a summary of why consultants are valuable to you, the leader, as you work to accelerate delivery of results with your team.
Consultant. The main difference between a consultant and a coach is that a consultant is a bona-fide expert in a specific topic, discipline, or domain. They’re specialists who serve as advisors and present opinions ranging from targeted suggestions to broad ranging solutions.
Unlike coaching, consulting is a prescriptive relationship. In other words, the consultant works with you to assess your specific pain points and then recommends specific activities and solutions to resolve them.
That doesn’t mean a consultant can’t also provide coaching insights. In fact, if you work with someone who knows how to balance these skills, you’ve made a rare find. You should understand that consultants generally aren’t trained as coaches. If you do find someone who can do both, it is important that you manage your expectations. Know when you’re asking for coaching vs. when you’re looking for consulting advice. Otherwise, you risk getting frustrated. Few people like to be told what to do when they’re just sounding out ideas.
Regardless of your consultant’s blend of aspirational and prescriptive talents, all consultants help when we:
lack depth in a particular discipline area.
need a broader perspective than our team’s experience provides.
want to break through the ways we’ve always done things so we can explore new ways of working.
You might say, “But I’m the expert and if I show any sort of weakness, my people won’t trust me anymore. I’ve gotten us this far, I can get us the rest of the way on my own, thank you very much.”
And, perhaps you’d be right. You might actually be the next Steve Jobs with so much confidence that you can convince people to give up their career to help you create that one more thing. But for the rest of us…
The humility to admit that others can add value in areas where we lack certain expertise is a key success factor.
But how do we demonstrate productive vulnerability — but in a safe way?
Back to the golf course
In the coaching post, I talked about how a golf pro is an expert. They’re trained and experienced in the mechanics of golf. Serious golfers pay the club pro to professional dissect every part of their swing. The pro makes specific recommendations tailored to the golfer’s style and traits.
And then the session ends.
The player’s job is to do the things the pro explained to them. Most of the time, the player comes back for more sessions and more instruction.
Change takes time. Results are directly tied to how much (and correctly) you practice. Results come more quickly and last longer when you work hard and consistently.
The more time and money the player invests with the pro, the better their swing mechanics will be. After all, practice doesn’t make perfect — only perfect practice makes perfect. Practicing something wrong 100 times means we’ll likely do it wrong the 101st time.
The job of the pro is not to play the 18 holes for someone else. It isn’t even to walk the course with the player (though, if you have enough money, I’m sure you can find someone who will). And, they’re certainly not going to come to the mini-golf course to help with that pesky windmill hole.
In the same way, consultants generally don’t walk through the day-to-day execution of the plan. If you need that, good news! There’s someone to help with that — but it isn’t usually your consultant (we’ll cover that in Part 3 of this series when we discuss contractors).
Consultants are like golf pros. They bring knowledge and expertise. They work with you to identify key pain points and areas where changes can fundamentally improve your results. Sometimes they’ll be relatively small things while, at other times, you might be in for a massive shake-up of the status quo.
What NOT to do when engaging with a consultant
The number one thing people ask me about consulting is: Can you prove it is going to work? And a close second is often: It costs how much?
One of the biggest mistakes I see people making with consultants is deciding it isn’t worth bringing someone in at all. “Well, they’re just going to tell me what I already know.”
Consultants get a bad rap for this.
In reality, successful consultants actually cause this to happen. They’re skilled at drawing out problems that are already there. They analyze. They ask targeted questions that lead them, and their client, directly to the heart of the issue.
Good consultants know they can’t just smack their clients with the solution. That’s because most clients need to feel the solution was their own. Otherwise, it just won’t last. These consultants aren’t being manipulative. They’re being collaborative. They weave their client into the solution in ways that help the client buy-in. The resulting is a plan that combines the expertise of both the client and consultant.
When you see yourself in the solution, you believe in it. You’re committed to it. You’ll see it through and you’ll be accountable for the results. They’re helping you own the solution to your challenge.
For example, your team may be missing a critical skill. Or, you’ve got the skill but you’re at a novice or advanced beginner level. Your perspective is limited on what to do or how to do it. The consultant is able to bring an outside point of view along with a particular, well developed expertise you don’t have. Together, you create a viable strategy based on where you want to go.
In a consulting partnership, you and your team will still be responsible to carry out the work. You shouldn’t expect the consultant to do it all for you.
If you do, you’ll almost always end up asking the second question — “why is this so expensive”? A consulting firm, however, will often be able to provide a seamless handoff between their consultants who help you plan and their contractors who do the work.
Understanding the difference between the consultant and the contractor is an important part of properly maintaining your expectations.
Oh, and one more consulting ‘gotcha’ to avoid
There’s another thing to avoid when working with a consultant. It doesn’t happen all the time but it does happen regularly.
Consultants are often attacked or shunned when they shed light on the problems in a team or company.
Let’s face it, nobody wants to air their dirty laundry to someone else. Its uncomfortable, embarrassing, and sometimes even a little threatening.
In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins says:
You absolutely cannot make a series of good decisions without first confronting the brutal facts. (p.70)
If you find yourself in a very difficult place (e.g., needing a team or company turn-around) and you really need a consultant to help, don’t hide behind discomfort, embarrassment, and fear.
If you’ve chosen your consultant well, they’ll have empathy for your situation and will work hard to help you successfully resolve the difficulties you’re facing.
For example, maybe you have an employee (or even a team) that’s not the right fit. You’ve pushed the solution off for a while because it would be too disruptive and even a little painful to address. This is a form of organizational debt. When left unchecked, it can destroy a leader’s ability to achieve results.
Staffing issues are just one example of the tradeoffs leaders have to make over time. We always intend to come back and pay the debt but, too often, we’re busy taking care of the next opportunity. If you find yourself with too much organizational debt this, don’t push back on doing what it takes to fix the underlying challenges. Look for an empathetic and experienced consultant to help put the issues behind you.
Think about these 3 things when engaging with a consultant
What’s my vision and the top 3–5 issues where I could use some outside perspective?
What decisions has the company made, as tradeoffs, that we need to revisit in light of the current situation?
What can I bring to the collaborative solution process?
You don’t need to fully answer these questions. The goal is to think through them so you can accurately and quickly frame the situation as you kick off the consulting engagement.
Why does consulting matter for leaders?
Some consultants are generalists and capable of handling a wide range of business strategies. Others are specialists and highly trained in targeted areas like marketing, sales, design, development, operations, or finance.
Leaders who strategically engage consultants and use them effectively are more likely to achieve their vision quickly.
Successful leaders tie their vision to workable plans. They face challenges head-on and aren’t afraid to admit when someone else with unique expertise will add value. Whether you’re planning a long-term strategy, a tactical advance, or addressing lingering issues, consider bringing in the right consultant to help you formulate a solid plan.
Use consultants to create leadership space to extend and accelerate innovation, inspiration, and trust building work within your team.
Next time, we’ll explore ways to effectively use partnerships with contractors to expand your team’s capacity!
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).