Coaching image; a group of people around a table

Coaching v. consulting

What is the difference between mentoring, advising, coaching and consulting?

We are in a zeitgeist where people and companies leverage outside help extensively. Mentors, coaches, consultants, advisors … these terms are frequently used and often confused. For many professionals, the differences are murky. How do I know which I need?  

Dictionary definitions are a good place to start. Interestingly, all of these terms are defined in the mother of all dictionaries, the Oxford English, except coaching, which is a relatively new field (more on that to come). The coaching definition therefore comes from the International Coach Federation website. The ICF is the global governing and accrediting body for the coaching profession.

Mentor: a person who acts as guide and adviser to another person, especially one who is younger and less experienced. (OED)

Advisor: A person who gives advice; a counselor; (in later use sometimes) spec. an assistant appointed or engaged to provide advice, frequently in a particular field.

Consultant: A person qualified to give professional advice or services, e.g. in problems of management or design; an adviser; (OED)

Coach: a professional who partners with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires the clients to maximize their personal and professional potential. (ICF)

Already, certain differences become clear. First, mentors, advisors and consultants all provide advice. Implicit in their role is a presumption of expertise to be shared. A coach, by contrast, provides not advice, but a creative process. That is an enormous difference between coaching and the other three disciplines, and we’ll discuss coaching further in a minute.

Despite their similarities, mentors, advisors and consultants also have nuances. As a rule, a mentor is not paid for his or her work, and often, mentor/mentee relationships form organically. Young professionals often seek mentors in respected colleagues senior to them, and similarly, people rising in professional status often report mentoring others as one of their great joys. Many companies offer mentor programs for high potential employees, and generally include a matching process to ensure chemistry in fit. Even when assigned, a true mentor relationship cannot be forced.

An advisor differs from a mentor. The word “advisor” contains the word advice, and an advisor may or may not be paid for his or her work. In certain cases, the term can apply a loose affiliation with an organization. Many non-profits, for example, have a board of trustees with governance responsibilities, and a board of advisors comprising friends and supporters to whom they can turn for advice. Companies may have similar structures with Boards of Directors and Advisory Boards. And every services professional I know seeks “trusted advisor” status with clients. Of all these terms, “advisor” is the most general. In some respects, it can be considered an umbrella term for other, more specific types of services.

The definition of “consultant” is quite specific. First, a person is presumed “qualified” to give advice. Such a person generally has deep achievement and knowledge in a specific field, and sells that expertise as a service to clients. The relationship is generally an engagement scoped in detail, where the consultant delivers a specific set of services in support of a desired outcome (e.g., re-design a sales organization; create a strategic plan; identify opportunities to cut costs). The consultant has expertise a client lacks, or else hiring the consultant wouldn’t make sense.  

All of these disciplines, while dissimilar in important respects, also share the assumption that the mentor/advisor/consultant has expertise that the mentee/advisee/client does not.  Coaching, by contrast, differs radically from all three. A professional coach’s assumption is that she and the client are co-equal, setting out to enhance or transform a client’s awareness.  Author Anaïs Nin writes that “we see things as we are, not as they are.” Good coaching begins by examining the observer we are, and unpacking how we see things. From this place of new awareness, a coachee can begin to imagine new possibilities. This process of “trying on” new ways of being is fundamental to the transformation process. Finally, the coachee makes commitments to herself around actions (one-time events) and practices (on-going activities) to make these possibilities reality. At every point in the process, the coachee is the expert in herself. The coach’s role is to hold a mirror to the coachee by asking insightful questions, listening deeply and remaining non-judgmental. From this space of safe exploration, new realities are created.

I am both a consultant and a coach, and work with clients in both capacities. I choose these roles from a genuine desire to help people reach potential. My company, Platinum Rule Advisors, exists to bring out the best in people and teams, and offers both consulting and coaching. People attracted to these lines of work are often similar. The work, however, is different. In a consulting role, I might work with a client on an employee engagement survey and advise them on strategies to bring their people strategy into alignment with their business strategy. In a coaching role, by contrast, I sit with a client and ask questions and listen. Breakthroughs and insights are theirs, not mine. Recently, a high-achieving client with a series of C-suite roles in large companies realized in a session that a perceived failure from fifth grade was causing his adult self to believe he wasn’t smart. He used this awareness to rewrite his story (an action) and remind himself that the fifth grade event was isolated (a practice). He is now in a new job embracing his intelligence. This transformation is not mine – it is his alone. 

So to answer our original question – what is the difference between mentoring, advising, consulting and coaching?  Mentoring, advising and consulting all entail some transfer of knowledge or expertise. Coaching, by contrast, involved a coachee doing some “heavy lifting” to create transformation, guided by a trained coach. All these disciplines are time-honored methods of helping people reach their potential. Being clear on which best fits your specific need is critical. To discuss which might serve you, schedule a call with us.


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