Strategist vs. Consultant vs. Coach

I was recently asked, “what is the difference between a strategist, a consultant, and a coach?”  Although this is only my opinion, I’d like to share my response.

A strategist is a person who helps organizations identify options and incorporate them into a plan.  A business strategy consultant is someone who helps an organization implement all or part of a plan.  A coach works with individuals within an organization to help them grow, whether in terms of professional knowledge, career advancement, and/or individual accomplishment.  Let me provide examples to clarify the differences, as I see them.

As a strategist, I meet with executive leadership to hear their subjective opinions on the state of the organization.  We usually go through at least one planning session that identifies two key things:  (1) where is the company currently? and (2) where does the company want to be next year? As a strategist, I ask probing questions to help the leadership identify all of the options available to the organization and decide which of those options to rule out and which to pursue.  The leadership has the answers—my job is to ask the right questions.  The reason a strategist is required at all is not because I know the business and what this organization should do to be successful.  Rather, most times the leadership has become so caught up in daily operations that they have stopped asking the necessary questions of themselves. When an organization hires a strategist, they have decided they are ready to be intentional and deliberate about business growth.  As a strategist, my job is to ask probing questions to determine the organization’s “health.”   I then review my findings with leadership to help them determine a plan and, more importantly, determine the actions necessary for the desired intentional and deliberate growth.  A sincere trust must be established between the leadership of an organization and the strategist for this relationship to be productive. The working relationship tends to be frequent but intermittent at the beginning and then becomes more sporadic and less frequent as a plan is developed and moves into implementation.

Consultants are hired to help implement a strategy or parts of it.  Sometimes consultants conduct assessments, interviews, and work groups to implement actions determined necessary for business growth.  Consultants may act as management or augment staffing functions.  They generally have a determined (limited) scope of work from beginning to end of a project.  There are times that a strategist and consultant can work together for the best interest of an organization. The relationship between the organization and consultant should be periodically evaluated for accountability of both parties.  To be effective, a consultant should always maintain an objective perspective of the organization.  Consultants usually work with both leadership and staff levels.  There may be times that a consultant will need to refer an individual to a coach for some personal attention.

A coach works with individuals.  The coach may be an internal employee or external contractor.  A coach assists in the individual’s personal and/or professional development. The employee may be in a leadership or staff position and is looking to improve performance, move up in the organization, or learn team member skills. In general, coaches work directly for the benefit of the individual, and only indirectly for the benefit of the organization.

In seeking to bring in outside help to your organization, you should first be clear about the purpose for which the outside help is needed.  The purpose will determine skills and experience needed for the greatest benefit to the organization or an individual.  The purpose will also help you to understand whether you need to bring in a strategist, consultant, or coach.  However, remember that just because someone gives themselves a title does not necessarily mean they are competent to fill that role.  Exercise due diligence to ensure you are trusting your organization’s well-being to a fully qualified and capable professional.  Credentials should not be the only criteria used for evaluation. Examine the individual’s experience and contact former clients, if possible, to make sure you’re hiring the right person to aid your organization in business development.