12 Key Differences Between Coaching and Consulting I Didn’t Expect

The past 20 years have uncovered a myriad of professions or titles that are loosely defined, or not immediately related to a clear connotation.

A great example of this is depicted by one of my most popular posts which is about non-programmers called “developers” and the different technical titles. It made it to HackerNews years ago, and still shuffles around Twitter feeds I get looped into (including this morning).

The difference between coaching and consulting has caused confusion among those who want to offer business coaching and consulting services.

No matter if you’re a client looking for consulting or coaching services, or someone eager to specialize—here’s my experience on both sides of the table.

My Consulting Start In 2005

I’ve worn different hats over the years—with consulting projects signed in 2005 first, contracts as a trainer, mentorship programs for alumni groups, and my advisory firm.

And for the past 15 years, I’ve helped some of the largest tech companies in the world, organizations like Saudi Aramco and CERN, different banks and telecoms, and over a hundred SMEs without holding a relevant degree (how do you get enrolled for a consulting diploma?)

Coaching has been on my radar ever since, with formal certification authorities such as ICF, ECA, EMCC, EuCF. This level of consistency and formalization is appealing, and that’s how I eventually joined Evercoach and their Business Coaching program. 

While I was somewhat skeptical about the level of impact and value, I’m happy with expanding my understanding of the landscape of coaching and consulting—and here are some of the main misconceptions I had prior to that.

Coaching and Consulting Differences

1. Coaching Is Not Limited to “Life Coaching”

One of my earlier hesitations about the program was the predominant percentage of life coaches out there.

On one hand, the lack of certification means that everyone could preach whatever they feel like, just like influencers don’t need skills to post Photoshopped stories on Instagram. Additionally, I saw limited value in “spiritual” programs in the context of business (being my niche).

However, both concepts were flawed. A certified (and experienced) life coach can be beneficial in developing business executives, managers, and individuals of all kinds. And there are professional coaches in virtually every broad area that consulting has covered.

2. Both Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Moreover, coaching and consulting can overlap, or complement each other.

Consultants can pull back and do a deeper dive on a conceptual level before striking with a list of suggestions. Coaches can push and nudge a little more as needed.

Businesses can work with both coaches and consultants, and that’s totally fine.

3. Coaching Believes You Know The Answer

This was one of the key explanations that helped me figure out the entire relationship of coaching and consulting.

Consulting is about giving common and proven solutions to problems. Coaching believes that clients have an answer they believe in, subconsciously, or are afraid to pull the trigger themselves. 

Guiding them through the process and reviewing different perspectives and approaches leads to the same answer, and higher satisfaction and buy-in due to a better alignment between both parties.

A great analogy is sports coaching. Great coaches enable and empower great athletes to accomplish more, unblock their limitations, and grow further—it’s a journey athletes have to take themselves, not outsource.

4. Coach-Consultant Is a Thing

Another pleasant surprise for me was the common connotation of “Coach-Consultant”. 

Coaching does not draw a clear line between what a coach should accomplish, or at least leaves the opportunity to engage in consulting as needed, partially or at a later phase.

This is truly empowering. I tried this out in several consulting sessions with ongoing clients and carved some coaching time in. 

Balancing between a retrospective analysis and self-reflection and some tactical decision-making is a different beast.

5. Creating a “Founder’s Safe Space”

Consulting is tactical and direct—and everything moves as quickly as possible.

Coaching draws some inspiration from therapy. In an executive setting, coaches offer a safe haven, a “bubble” for founders (and other busy professionals) who want to manage stress, decompress and tune off for an hour.

Executives and managers have an unhealthy tendency to keep their foot on the pedal 24/7. But since it limits creative thinking and higher-level analysis or critical thinking, carving “safe space” slow times tunes into different brain frequencies and improves rejuvenation and brain quality.

Daniel Kahneman discusses both brain states in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. Fast thinking is labeled as unconscious, instinctive—and sometimes, leads to prejudice or just a lack of rationale. Slow thinking is deliberate and methodical, which is why humans need focus time and some uninterrupted space for important work or any analytical exercises.

6. Meditative Exercises Force Reset

As the fast-paced executive that I am, and a known ruthless grinder, putting in 80-plus hour-weeks for the past decade, taking breaks to recharge does not come naturally. It takes a forced effort to plug me into the zone.

And it’s not that I don’t believe in meditations or breathwork. I do, and my first experience dates back to the mid-90s and my Karate lessons. Meditation is an integral part of the process – and I do indulge in a mindful recharge in the sauna every now and then – but not on a regular basis.

Coaching leans heavily on breathing exercises at the beginning or between sessions, and they present a suggested best practice to lean on non-violent communication or when adopting self-reflection. 

Being practically forced to engage in breathing exercises during different group or 1:1 sessions helped me learn how to detach from a previous scenery or situation (or an outcome of a previous meeting) and charge into the new session with a clear mind. 

7. Peer-to-Peer Coaching Is Eye-Opening

Most coaching programs (including Evercoach) have regular coaching calls of all sorts—group coaching, 1:1 peer coaching, three-way sessions with a coach, client, and an observer, and more.

Considering how much I value my time, the concept of undertaking these was a borderline deal-breaker for enrolling. Yet, after the first month, I had regular peer sessions with several other coaches in my group, coming from different ways of life.

The thing is that consulting is mostly a solo job. You become an expert in an area and your skills are in demand, therefore you apply what you know best. The feedback loop is limited. There’s no practical experience you can draw from other consultants (unless you hire them for jobs).

Engaging in peer-to-peer sessions presented a different scope and paradigm of conducting a session, structuring a meeting, and even adopting different techniques that other coaches were experienced in from their walks of life. 

As a result, I’m introducing more variety into my advisory and consulting sessions nowadays—some retrospectives, deep-dives, coaching techniques like RAIN for mindfulness and introspective reviews, and more. 

Bringing the best of both worlds and being able to differentiate between coaching and consulting as well as pick one can be very powerful.

8. Understanding Both Is a Powerful Tool

Imagine a consulting or advisory engagement scheduled for quarterly planning or financial analysis, a broader tech overview, or devising a complex marketing strategy.

But the executive on the other side of the table has a terrible day. Board meeting coming soon, troubles at home, a key hire just resigned, or a disappointed client submitting a bad review. 

Instead of pushing through the original agenda, being able to switch to coaching, get to the root of the problem, employ emotional management, and clear the air is a much more productive way to pivot to what is really needed. 

Additionally, you can uncover a broader limiting belief that would affect the broader plan if it goes unnoticed—and this is a good opportunity to attack it first.

9. Capacity Development Is Tackled Differently

My consulting and training background has presented hundreds of opportunities to engage with individuals, small groups, and large audiences over the years.

I have tons of success stories, happy trainees, and individuals who now run multinational businesses or take director-level roles at some of the largest tech companies out there. 

But I have had a number of group settings that made a limited impact—especially when I was hired to train or consult on a specific topic without foreseeing limitations, disengagement, mindset obstacles, and personal priorities taking over. I can recollect company training programs where employees were assigned to a course but didn’t perceive the value, as well as university classes that could have gone better. 

Coaching can be incorporated to improve the success rate of similar group settings. Expanding capacity first and foremost, by uncovering core values and aligning the rest of the program to serve intrinsic motivation for additional engagement can be a great instrument to deliver real results.

10. Different Ways to Engage Creativity

I’ve consulted and trained engineers, managers, designers, QA specialists, freelancers, self-employed professionals, students, teachers, and people of all walks of life during my career.

Consulting and training both lean on developing a strategy–a roadmap–for achieving a goal. The implementation may vary, but the process is more strict, and rigorous at times, and unleashing creativity is dependent on trust, time, brainstorming exercises, role-playing, and more work together. It also works better when trainees are more experienced and have a broader set of choices to pick from (based on their background).

Coaching leans more on these mutual brainstorming exercises and doesn’t necessarily end at a single predefined point. Priorities may change over time, and individuals can guide the process through their own internal map, value system, and understanding of what drives them internally. This spikes a different level of creativity and innovation can be born in various ways.

11. Focus on Problems vs. Your Client

Consulting broadly focuses on solving a problem or a set of problems. This is a tactical way to unblock a known obstacle, and move forward with the plan.

Coaching revolves around the client – their state of mind, mindset, strengths, and weaknesses, comfort zone, and areas that need improvement.

Depending on the case, different frameworks and approaches can deliver better results. Organizations and experts hiring consultants may need to work on their own value system and paradigms first or mix in some coaching work during the consulting process.

Imagine hiring a consultant to adopt a better project management methodology to increase efficiency and team velocity. While the problem itself can (and probably should) be resolved, there’s often the underlying doubt of slacking or procrastination, shaped as micromanagement.

Working on the root cause and rectifying the direction toward KPIs and group results will streamline the process for the management team and improve the communication across all parties after.

12. Experts Still Need Coaches

Coaching is interpreted differently among different audiences (especially in certain demographics and parts of the world). Some communities are more successful in leaning on coaches while others have more work to do. 

Understanding the value of coaching does not come naturally. And oftentimes, experts believe that coaching is not a necessity for their skill set—especially for accomplished individuals, directors, or executives who have successfully grown an organization or managed successful teams.

It doesn’t mean that experts don’t need coaching, though. Similar to therapy and training, each and every one of us can continue to grow personally, professionally, and spiritually. Diving into our core value system, identifying extremes (like unconscious fears of doubts), and improving communication and emotional management skills, can help everyone immensely over time.

So Which One Is Better?

There’s no universal answer here—both consultants and coaches can help you push further and accomplish more.

My coaching training alone was a professional (and personal) development that made me a better consultant and a business advisor. As a result, I’m employing more coaching techniques in my advisory sessions and successfully tackling a broader set of business problems.

If you’re uncertain which one between coaching and consulting is for you, let me know and I’ll help unblock. 

Your thoughts?