The difference between an Executive Coach and a Consultant

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

“Imagine a world where we ask questions with sincere interest and curiosity versus telling others what to do.” – Fran Fisher

What is the difference between a coach and a consultant?

This is a question on the minds of many managers and executives when looking to solve problems of teamwork, office politics, harassment and bullying behavior, organizational change, and employee engagement, it can be confusing to make decisions that produce the desired end results. To add to the confusion, most decision makers lack adequate resources to hire the right person for the job.

In one case, a client was referred who caused a great deal of conflict in the workplace and began a coaching engagement. After her contract expired, the boss refused to extend her coaching, causing the client extreme worry about her future employment. After a few discussions with HR, I learned the entire culture of the organization felt toxic and the root of the problem was the boss himself, and he was not open to any form of coaching to improve the environment.

How a coach could help:

When acting as a coach for this organization, the coach would approach the organization’s issues by assisting it in finding its own solution to this pressing challenge. With the built-in resistance of the CEO, offering advice would most likely fall on deaf ears. Any suggestions of what he “should” do (“You should stop shouting at people”, “Employees should not be threatened with being fired”, “Employees should be paid for overtime”) could create resentment and opposition. The CEO would dig in and we’d get nowhere.

On the other hand, a coach helps create perspective so that the client independently sees on his own what “should” be done. For instance, asking this boss to describe a time when he was shouted at, and then asking him how that felt to him, might provide him with the impact of his actions. Similarly, by appealing to his imagination, a good question might be “What would it be like for you if your job was threatened when an uncomfortable topic comes up?” With these types of scenarios, the boss could realize how he’s coming across without being told, because he does not want or like to be told anything.

The coach makes it clear that he/she is not the expert and is not there to tell the CEO what to do.  A resistant boss, like this one, may benefit from an assessment tool such as EQi-2.0 which measures emotional intelligence.  The data reflects an objective analysis of his behavior. To someone like him, numbers and graphs are equal to the truth.

What a Consultant Might Do:

A consultant, using his/her subject matter expertise, will work with the organization to direct it towards a specific solution, with various inputs from specific team members to focus on the issues. The consultant works from the perspective of having specific answers to specific problems, whereas the coach works from the perspective of offering guidance and deep inquiry into how the team can form its own satisfactory outcome.

What’s the Difference?

In a coaching scenario, the organization owns the results, based on the ability to internalize change, through strategic inquiry and objective assessments. No “shoulds”, “ought tos” or “musts” are proposed. The team or CEO comes to his/her own conclusions.


The consultant presents his own final results to the team, after observations and analysis. Then the team decides the course of action based on the report. If the recommendations of the report do not have total buy in by key members of the team, the report could be rejected, wasting company time and money. On the other hand, if the consultant’s work is accepted and is successful, most likely that consultant will have secured himself a very long-term contract. However, the organizations role is passive. The one taking action is the consultant.

With coaching, the team has created its own agenda, and designed its own vision, plans, actions, timetable, accountability and results. The organization identifies how well the actions align with company values and forms a plan to move forward with the guidance of the coach. The coach does not bring any answers to the table.

Sample Approaches for each disciple are shown in the below Table:

What is the desired outcome?Your competitors’ bookings are 10% higher than yours this quarter. A plan of action needs to include answers to closing that gap.
What does success look like?Competitor X used Y methodology to increase sales, bookings, profits and cash. I recommend Y methodology, and Z person is the best implementer of that plan.
What is blocking or stopping you from making the changes you want?I recommend a personnel overhaul in the marketing department. Sales and bookings have decreased by 5% each quarter for the last 6 quarters under the current leadership there.
What are the first steps you may want to take to change X?My staff checked product placement in 10 sample regions around the country. Your product placement is below eye level in 20% of key outlets. You need to hire a product placement strategist to increase eye level visibility.
Which option makes the most sense?My partners and I have connections in most major chains. We can help get you in to see their CEOs to discuss improvement in product placement and the influence of point of sale decision-making.
What are the consequences of taking no action?You need to get with your contacts on Wall Street to personally speak with your investors and inform them of your plan to increase your bottom line.
How do these changes align with current company values?You need to hire a communications consultant to help you craft an announcement that aligns with your value system, but achieves the proper messaging regarding potential actions which may impact all employees (layoffs, reorganizations, voluntary layoffs, retirement, etc.)
How will this team ensure accountability for this plan?I’ll keep a list of all action items, with goal dates, actual dates and note the deltas. Specific individuals from this team will have responsibility to report to me progress on their actions on a weekly basis until this project is completed.

Through use of this table, the contrasts between consulting and coaching are evident. The coach does not direct, provide answers or tell the organization what to do, but encourages exploration and experimentation with various solutions to form the outcome they desire. The consultant directs the team and has the job of making a plan and helping to execute and monitor its progress. The organization and its leadership are accountable to the consultant, rather than to themselves. The consultant provides immediate solutions, with little or no input from the team. The team is being told what to do with each problem the consultant solves.

The coaching process may take longer, but since the organization owns the answers, coaching rather than consulting could be far more effective in making and maintaining change, especially in resistant cases.

Say you’re learning how to ride a bicycle. A consultant would ride the bicycle for a while and write you a “how to” manual. A coach would have you get on the bicycle and walk alongside you, guiding you through the process until you felt confident enough to ride on your own.” – Forbes Coaching Council

Connect with Mary: [email protected]

Biography: Mary T. O’Sullivan

Mary O’Sullivan has over 30 years of experience in the aerospace and defense industry. In each of her roles she acted as a change agent, moving teams and individuals from status quo to higher levels of performance, through offering solutions focused on changing behaviors and fostering growth. 

Mary has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership from Quinnipiac University. In addition, she is also an International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, a Society of Human Resource Management Senior Certified Professional and has a Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Coaching, from the University of Texas at Dallas. 

In her leadership and executive coaching, she focuses on improving the executive behaviors that slow down performance and lead to growth, such as soft skills, communication, micro-bias awareness, etc. She has successfully helped other professionals, such as attorneys, surgeons, pharmacists, and university professors, make career decisions to lead to success in their chosen careers.  In addition, small business owners have sought Mary’s services to bring their companies into greater alignment, working on their culture, vision, mission, values and goals as well as organizational structure. Mary’s executive coaching has been mainly with large organizations among them: Toray Plastics America, Hasbro, Raytheon Company, Lockheed Martin, CVS Healthcare, Sensata Technologies, Citizen’s Bank, Ameriprise, BD Medical Devices, Naval Undersea Warfare Center, (Newport, R.I.), General Dynamics, University of Rhode Island, Community College of Rhode Island, etc.

Mary has facilitated numerous workshops on various topics in leadership such as, emotional intelligence, appreciative inquiry, effective communication, leading in adversity, etc. She has also written extensively on similar topics.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from the Society of Human Resources Development. Mary is also an ICF certified Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner, and a Certified Emotional Intelligence assessor and practitioner.

In addition, Mary holds a permanent teaching certificate in the State of New York for secondary education with Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, State University of New York at Oswego and Syracuse University.  She is also a member Beta Gamma Sigma and the International Honor Society.

Mary dedicates herself to coaching good leaders to get even better through positive approaches to behavior change for performance improvement.