Who comes first: The consultant or the coach?

I wear two hats professionally: The consultant and the coach. I wanted to share insights about how I choose the right hat to wear.

Steffan Surdek
May 18, 2016
Who am i

My professional career doing organization development and coaching work with my clients often requires me to play a dual role. There are times where I need to wear the hat of the consultant and others where I need wear the hat of the coach. I realize more and more though that there are times teams want the consultant and get the coach which seems to drive them a little bit up the wall sometimes.

I thought it would be fun to share some insights about how I choose the hat I decide to wear.

The hat of the consultant

Clients typically hire me because I am a subject matter expert around company culture and agile software development practices. When I wear the hat of the consultant, I am the so-called “expert” which at times can create a lot of safety for clients.

When I wear the hat of the consultant, I am typically more concerned with things like being clear on what we are doing and why, overall performance and results (be it short term or long term results). I am also concerned about structure, how things are done and how they impact the business as well as the people. and I worry about making sure the client is getting the results they are looking for.

One of the dark sides of wearing the hat of the consultant is that it is often easy and fun for me to actively participate in solving a problem and have an active voice in the solution. The challenge for me is that when I get too involved, I sometimes forget to be the coach and it also makes it way too easy for clients to take a back seat and just let me lead or provide the solution. The problem is that it creates a dependency on me being around for things to happen which is not what I want to happen.

The other dark side wearing this hat is that there are times where the mere presence of the expert consultant (no need for me to say anything, just be perceived as the consultant) can feed resistance to change in some people. In these situations, I focus more on engaging people and co-creating solutions with them because I understand engaging people creates engagement and promotes lasting change.

In extreme cases, as an expert consultant in general, the biggest trap of all is when you start believing (or your actions lead others to believe) that you have all the solutions, that you are always absolutely right and the opinion of others does not matter.

The hat of the coach

When I wear the hat of the coach, I become a lot more curious and ask a lot more questions by default. I try to see what else is happening in the conversation we are having. What are you needing? Are you needing advice or validation? Is this a decision you can make on your own and what is preventing you from making that decision? How can I help you see that? Are you asking leading questions because you are trying to convince me of something or because you need me to give you permission to do something you really want to do?

Because as a coach I ask a lot of questions, I also create more uncertainty and discomfort for people. There are times as a coach that I will intentionally toy with people to help them discover something new or see a different perspective.

For example, when I give training courses and I see people speak using absolute certainties, I often interject with a lot of "or not's..." to disrupt their pattern of certainty. When I see people seeking perfect answers, I will often answer with a lot of "maybe's" and "it depends" to encourage people to be comfortable with knowing there sometimes is no perfect answer and they need to learn and adapt as they go.

In these situations as a coach, I admit there are times I do some of these things consciously and intentionally and I totally see how it can be maddening for the people involved in that moment. As I said, I do it for a reason though and if you ask me, I will usually tell you.

As a coach, I also seek to empower people to make decisions. In situations where people propose solutions to a problem, I will often talk about the pros and cons of the decision or will help them think through it but I will let them decide what is best for them.

My little secret is that the consultant in me often evaluates the impact of the solution and if there are no bad consequences that I can foresee based on my experience, I will tend to let it go or build on it to allow people to learn from what they are doing. If something can go drastically wrong, then I make the choice to speak up and help them see what I could see as a consequence. When I do not speak up though, it is often because I feel the solution is at a minimum a learning opportunity and a step in the right direction.

I do this because as a coach in these situations, I feel my role is to help people think through their problems and find their own solutions. I feel this approach helps build their confidence, their capacity to make decisions and slowly raises their level of empowerment. It also help them take ownership of their own solutions instead of deferring to others.

So who comes first?

This is such a hard question for me to answer because it really depends on the context. I have clients that know I will probably ask questions first and in certain situations they make it clear beforehand to me they want to speak with the consultant and not the coach. When they do that and explain why, I can more rapidly put on the hat of the consultant, at last initially, then decide according to the conversation that emerges which hat I really need to put on.

Personally when I start with a new client, I initially tend to put on the hat of the consultant in the early stages to accelerate results then I tend to slow back down and fall back on the coaching role to help increase the capacity of people and build longer lasting change.

The part teams or individuals often do not understand, is that while they sometimes focus on getting solutions from me, I understand there are no perfect solutions I can give and there are many different ways to approach the same problem. So I focus on building capacity instead because I care more about helping them learn to talk to one another and move in the right direction rather than being the expert.

I also sometimes hear the perception that as a coach, I just asks a bunch of questions and never provides definite answers. Often, I ask the questions to get a fuller understanding of the perspective of the person speaking to me before I provide an answer. Sometimes the answer is not to provide an answer at all but to provide a different perspective instead to help people see the situation from a different angle they may not be considering.


So hopefully this gives you some fresh insights on who comes first: The consultant or the coach. I shared my personal perspective on the topic and how I address the issue. For full disclosure, I worked with a few coaches over the years that ask questions in order to avoid giving answers they do not have but for me, I would rather say I have no idea than ask questions in self-defence.

It is important to remember the consultant and the coach have different goals that usually complement one another and most of the time, it is a judgement call to decide which hat I need to wear in certain situations. You will often get the one you need though if you make a direct request for either the consultant or the coach.

So tell me, as a leader in your organization, which perspective do you work from the most? The consultant (or expert leader) or the coach?