Consulting is a large and growing field, popular with business school graduates and entrepreneurs alike. The work promises involvement in strategy at the highest level, exposure to different companies and industries, and potentially high salaries (along with long working hours, naturally). There is clearly a demand for these external consultants to come in and find solutions for specific issues where the internal expertise or resources just won’t do. However, there are pitfalls with this approach, notably that the solution may just be a “quick fix” lacking ownership within the organisation and therefore lacking any sustainable impact. This is where I believe consulting can benefit from a coaching approach.
What is consulting?
Look up “consulting” or “consultancy” and you’ll find some variation of this definition: consulting is providing expert advice within a particular field. The expertise that the independent consultant or consulting firm offers is an expertise that the client lacks, at least at the present time. Consultants can provide an objective view on a company’s situation, independently of any internal politics or organisational complexities, and will bring in frameworks and tools as well as broad experience in a given field. Sometimes consultants are also brought in simply to fill a gap, in more of a contractor capacity.
As consultants, we will come in to an organisation and depending on the brief we will talk to the key stakeholders and then apply our thinking and knowledge to the specific situation and propose a strategy, a new process, a new organisational structure… We may also provide training for the team that will implement the new approach and we may even be there for a long time – but eventually and by definition we will leave.
The pitfalls of consulting
This model means that consulting can be focused rather on the short term, “in-out”, leaving the client to take it from there. The risk, then, is that this is where it all comes to a standstill. The focus is shifted elsewhere, other priorities take over, and the internal team often lacks both the time and the knowledge needed to move things along. I’ve heard this often lamented among my consultant colleagues, and saw it happen for example when my colleagues did three-month stints in Africa with a UN organisation and found that nothing moved at all during the year that passed between their visits.
This is where I think that elements of coaching can come into play. The International Coaching Federation describes coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential”. It’s a relatively new field, although it’s said to originate in the Socratic approach of asking questions to help stimulate thinking. Today it can encompass sports coaching, executive, business and leadership coaching, life coaching, spiritual coaching, and an endless array of other coaching contexts.
The benefits of coaching
The key difference between consulting and coaching is that the expertise in a coaching relationship is assumed to be on the client side. Of course the coach is (hopefully) trained and qualified and will expertly support the client in getting to the answers, but ultimately we trust that the client will have all the answers. If we take business coaching, which is most relevant in the consulting context, the client is the expert on their business, their target audience, their own strengths, and so on.
So what are the benefits of a pure coaching approach? Well, importantly, we are empowering the client to take responsibility for their own decisions, using their own expertise. This will bring a more sustainable solution since they are learning to think for themselves (the classic “teach them to fish” scenario), getting a deeper understanding than is possible if someone just comes in and tells them the answer, and taking real ownership of that answer and its implementation going forward.
An optimal blend
Now can we rely solely on such an open coaching approach in the business context? Probably not. In one of the few articles I’ve found on the subject, Cheryl Belles talks of a “bell curve” along which various blends of consulting and coaching exist, depending on the specific situation. Sometimes the client just wants a quick fix and doesn’t care about the longer-term anchoring in the organisation. Sometimes you really do need the specific expertise, for example, in new areas like digital marketing (yes, it’s still new for a lot of people!), technically complex subject matters and areas where it’s simply more effective to bring in someone who really knows what they are doing. But there is definitely a role for an element of coaching even in more traditional consulting situations and you’re bound to see longer lasting results if you use this blended approach.
Mentoring is an interesting area that seems to offer this type of blend of consulting and coaching. The mentoring relationship assumes that the mentor is an expert with experience for example in setting up a business; but the most effective approach is still to start by asking questions to get the mentee thinking, to allow them the space to come up with their own solutions. Again, the mentee is the expert on their own business, their customers, their particular strengths and skills, and they are the ones who will live with the decisions that they are making. As mentors we will still bring in our experience and offer suggestions, but it is up to the mentee to decide which option to go for.
Are you a consultant using elements of this “coaching” approach in your practice? Or maybe you’re a coach also using elements of consulting? Please share your thoughts and experience in the comments below!
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