At a recent professional networking event, I found myself in conversation with a business owner and tech entrepreneur. As I was describing my work, he suddenly asked, “Do you mentor your clients, because my business partner and I could use some help?”
I was somewhat surprised by the question, because although I see my role primarily as a business consultant and coach, it hadn’t occurred to me that what I did included mentoring, even though it’s probably in the mix of services and support I offer. And from experience, working with business partners can sometimes be likened to relationship counselling….
To be clear, though, I see that there are distinct differences between consulting, coaching, mentoring and counselling – even though the boundaries may at times be blurred.*
The one thing I believe they have in common is that they each bring external perspective, especially when there may be a need for fresh thinking, such as a new take on current processes, or simply a circuit breaker when businesses get in a rut or hit a road block.
Here’s what I regard as the essential and unique qualities of each of these roles:
At its simplest, consulting can be described as initiating the dialogue between an organization and itself. When it concerns a review of ongoing operations, or a strategic initiative, most organisations call in consultants because they want an outsider’s view – not because they don’t know what they are doing, or can’t think for themselves.
As external consultants, we have the privilege to be invited into a client’s organisation; and our obligation to the client is to tell them what we really think, not what we think they want to hear. Our purpose is to capture the relevant information and “play it back” to the client to make sure we have understood what we have heard, whilst adding our honest interpretation of the data, along with some informed recommendations for action (which, of course, the client is free to disregard).
Our key contribution is to highlight inconsistencies or ambiguity in the data, to ensure that the client has considered all possible options, and to point out relevant external factors that the client may not be aware of. Above all, as a consultant I try to bring insights as well as perspective – what one person I have worked with described as “pure gold”.
The most effective coaches are those who can help clients identify specific goals, the steps required to achieve them, and then support them through the process. While business coaches can work with groups or teams, they are more suited to one-on-one relationships, to ensure they are keeping the client accountable for their own progress.
Many business coaches see their primary role as helping the client develop a strategic plan, and then making sure they stick to it, sometimes by telling them what to do. Whereas executive coaches may hone in on a particular aspect of an individual’s performance, to sharpen their skills and to make them more effective in their role; or in the case of a career coach, help them achieve a career change.
In some cases, a coach is similar to an instructor, and aims to help the client improve a skill or competency in pursuit of better outcomes and results. As a coach, I know the best work I do is when I get feedback like, “You’ve helped us to do in three weeks what it would have taken us three months!”
Mentoring is mainly about helping the client to become the person they aspire to be. More so than coaching, mentoring is most effective in a one-on-one relationship, and unlike coaching may not be linked to specific or time-based goals. A mentor may bring deep domain knowledge and experience, but doesn’t instruct the client or tell them what to do. Instead, a mentor may ask, “So, what are you going to do about it?” when the client raises an issue or a problem.
While a coach may focus on “doing”, a mentor may be seen as helping to develop certain behaviours or attitudes. Although the mentor is also there to provide some external perspective, in some ways their role is to hold up a mirror so that the client can reflect on what they (and others) can see.
In some situations, a mentor can provide a role model, so long as this is not about following someone we admire, and more about self leadership. More importantly, a mentor can act as an advocate, which is significant for entrepreneurs, business owners, CEO’s and senior executives, for whom it can be “lonely at the top”.
The best mentoring probably happens when the “process” is invisible – and the dialogue happens in the moment. I know from experience that my role as a mentor has had most impact when I hear my words or ideas being expressed by others – not as plagiarism, flattery, imitation or even sycophancy, but because the mentee has taken on board what I have said, and made it their own.
Counselling could be defined as the dialogue around change and transformation, although it is different to mentoring in that it can address cognitive perspectives, as well as behavioral issues.
We are familiar with the role of change managers, but without engaging the organisation on the need for change, their work can become process-driven (and a thankless task). It’s much better to foster an open dialogue about the broader context and opportunity for change, which can open up new possibilities for transformation. Ideally, this approach can take some of the fear out of the change program, as well as creating a sustainable change model.
I have known some managers to use counselling techniques to resolve operational issues within their teams, because it can be an effective way to get to the bottom of a problem without apportioning blame and without being judgemental.
Counselling can cross the line into “giving advice”, which is not always helpful if clients are not receptive, or if it means clients don’t learn to think or decide for themselves. I once trained and worked as a counsellor in helping people resolve personal, employment, financial and legal problems. The key requirements of the role were helping the client to see that there may be a number of different solutions (without telling them which one to choose), and to uncover the underlying issues (rather than dealing only with the presenting problem).
The best counselling provides clients with a sense of empowerment, backed by a clear understanding of their responsibilities, and an appreciation for the consequences of choosing one course of action over another.
Putting it all together
As mentioned earlier, despite their differences, the roles of consultant, coach, mentor and counsellor can overlap – and there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as practitioners and their clients understand when and how the positions may alternate between one state and the next. Ultimately, it will depend on both the circumstances of the situation, and what is appropriate to the clients’ needs.
* There is a particular tendency to use the terms “coach” and “mentor” interchangeably, even though they are quite separate. For a good summary of the differences, see this recent article.