Career Coach or Consultant? How to Determine Your Best Fit

At the end of a coaching session, a client once said, “I just want you to tell me what I should be doing so I can go do that.”  She was half-joking and half-serious, and I know from experience that we needed to explore her statement further to determine how her needs could be best met.  After all, when you’re in career transition, you may need the services of a coach and a consultant and it’s important to know the difference.

The International Coach Federation (ICF) differentiates coaching from consulting as follows: “Individuals or organizations retain consultants for their expertise. While consulting approaches vary widely, the assumption is the consultant will diagnose problems and prescribe and, sometimes, implement solutions. With coaching, the assumption is that individuals or teams are capable of generating their own solutions, with the coach supplying supportive, discovery-based approaches and frameworks.”

The consultant will diagnose problems and prescribe and, sometimes, implement solutions.

In my own work helping people navigate the uncertainty of career transition, I’ve found that the coach versus consultant decision is easier to make when you’re aware of these three aspects of yourself:

a) How you prefer to solve problems or address challenges in your life

When it comes to complex challenges like career transition, the last thing some people want is to be told what to do.  After all, life’s challenges are the stuff of life; they’re where we test our mettle, earn our stripes, and grow stronger in many ways.  If you simply tell these people what to do, you deny them the joy of coming up with their own answers, having new insights and learning new skills.  Generally, these people are better served by coaching.

Others are attracted to the bigger picture so they need people to advise them along the way such that they can feel free to pursue their higher purpose.  A client I worked with last year was clear on his higher purpose to make a decent income for his family, and was much less concerned about what he did to make that happen.  Outside of our coaching sessions (which were focused on confidence-building), he sought input from colleagues and did market research to discover the most practical career change to consider, and then began interviewing with several companies in a targeted fashion.  A combination of coaching and consulting-type conversations served this client well.

b) Knowing what you don’t know

Let’s say you’re contemplating the idea of starting your own business.  If you’ve worked in an organization for most of your career, there may be a lot of things you don’t know about running your own business.  At a certain point in your career transition, you’ll need to learn both the logistics of being self-employed (i.e. deciding between sole proprietorship or incorporation) and how to navigate the uncertainty that accompanies transition. How do you decide which one to focus on, and when?  In most cases, this depends on how clear you are about the business you want to start: is there a specific product that you know you want to sell, or is your career transition more about making a lifestyle change, where the specifics of the service you want to offer are less defined?  The former may be better served by consulting while the latter could resource coaching for maximum benefit.

One of my clients was clear on the product she wanted to sell yet found herself unable to move forward with her business idea.  She had attended a comprehensive program about starting and running your own business (consulting-style), but she couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t ready to put this learning into practice.  Through a combination of coaching and therapy work, she realized that she was more suited to a service-based career that honoured her true passion and she began taking concrete steps in that direction, including taking a part-time job in her industry as well as continuing to build her own business.

With coaching, the assumption is that individuals or teams are capable of generating their own solutions, with the coach supplying supportive, discovery-based approaches and frameworks.

c) Being realistic about what you want and where you are in relation to that

Our society is all about instant gratification, for better or for worse.  When we identify that we want a career transition of some kind, we tend to want it right away – especially if we expect our career transition to bring an end to any pain we’re currently experiencing.  This anticipated promise of relief from pain can be so intoxicating that we may even ignore the reality of our situations: can you really expect to quit your current job and find another one with a better title and higher salary?  Is it reasonable to think that you can be immediately successful in your new small business, just because you’re a hard worker and you want to be successful?  If you said “yes” to either, you may not be thinking realistically.

Meaningful career transition takes time – sometimes months or even years, depending on the scope of the change you want to create.  Meanwhile, you may need support to help you manage any pain (frustration, despair, anxiety) you continue to experience, and navigate the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what the future holds.  A coach and/or therapist can help you develop the skills necessary to manage your pain or uncertainty while you explore what is truly possible for you in your career.  A consultant can provide the knowledge you don’t have once you’ve identified a clear path forward – whether that’s about how to market your new services or understanding the education required to develop the career of your choice.

Knowing your preferences for solving problems, knowing what you don’t know, and being realistic are three key ways to help you make the coach versus consultant decision.  Another factor to consider is that these days more consultants are calling themselves coaches, and some coaches also provide consulting services, blurring the line between the two disciplines.  If you’re not sure if you’re dealing with a coach or a consultant, check for their ICF coaching credentials: do they have ACC, PCC or MCC after their name?  If not, the person you’re hiring for coaching may not be professionally trained and may take more of a consulting approach to working with you.  That may be exactly what you’re looking for but you’ll be more successful in the relationship when you’re clear about its nature.

Still not sure about the difference between coaches and consultants, or how to know what you need in your career transition right now?  Please contact me to discuss further, I’m happy to clarify and refer you in the right direction.
Also, for a limited time I am offering a discount on my Listen, Sense, Grow career program: a creative coaching program ideally suited for people who want to make a career transition but aren’t exactly sure where to start.  If you register by January 20th, you’ll receive $100 off the full price.  Takeaways include:
  • a short- and long-term plan for transitioning well in your career,
  • next steps that you’ll be taking action on already, and
  • tools to support you when you’re uncertain or unmotivated.  Read more here.






About Me

Maggie Coulter Coaching was founded in 2009.  Specializing in career and leadership coaching for people who have experienced significant interpersonal trauma. Navigate stressful work situations and lead with confidence.

You can learn more about me here.

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