Coaches, Mentors, Advisors, Consultants and Non-executive directors

In the past I have described myself as a coach, a mentor, an advisor, a consultant and a non executive director. I’m sure others have called me lots of other things!  But what is the difference between these roles?

Firstly, I don’t intend this article to be about rigorous theoretical academic definitions.  Instead, my intent is to provoke you by describing the differences to think clearly about what support you need, as the business leader I’m writing this for. The descriptions I use are those I believe to be the most common, but I do recognise the boundaries are blurred. In some cases (eg Coach and Mentor) I have heard people passionately explaining the titles as having exactly the mirror image meanings to those I describe here.  SO, I state again: the titles aren’t important; it’s the role clarity that is important.  Discussion of what both parties mean by the title cannot be avoided. Feel free to use a link to this blog to ask which is meant by the title being used in your situation.

Here are my descriptions:

A coach is someone who is expert at asking great questions so that you can expand on your knowledge. Quite often, a great coach is professionally trained either in coaching or Psychology and may be accredited. Although, I must say that many great coaches are not.  Two of the best coaches I know are simply business leaders who have great skill in asking very tough questions which get you thinking. That’s where the value comes from: getting you to face up to something you are subconsciously avoiding. (By the way, one of these coaches is Gareth Chick – an MD2MD speaker. He is more of a coach mentor by my definitions.)

The key thing with coaching is that the pure coach NEVER contributes their own ideas and opinions. In training, accredited coaches will tell you this is a clear ‘no no.’ This is very logical.  A great coach may know nothing (really) about business. You may be a highly qualified psychologist who has never lead a business or even a team or any significance.  So, you can’t give advice (or answers) based on your own experience. However, you can ask brilliant questions based on understanding of one’s psychology. As a result, many pure coaches are from a HR type background.

To clarify by contrasts, the poor coach, in my eyes is someone who doesn’t stick to asking questions and does, like the bar room advocate, give their opinion and advice. Yet, they do so without having actually walked in your shoes – without having actually run a business themselves and understood the unique challenges of that position. Anyone can pontificate about ‘what one should do’ in theory.

A mentor, by contrast, is someone who has been there and done it themselves.  You have walked in their shoes.  For the purposes of my business leader readers, you have run a business yourself and felt the pain of the challenges that brings. Your role is to contribute answers from experience.  “When I was faced with that situation I did this and this happened … and I’d recommend you do / don’t do as I did.”

Clearly it is unlikely you have been in their exact position, but you may have been in a similar situation and can share what you have learnt from experience.

Again, to clarify by contrasts, the poor mentor is someone who hasn’t been there and done it, but still sells themselves as a mentor to business leaders.  As a believer in the importance of real world, practical experience, I don’t believe someone who has never led a business themselves can really mentor a business leader on business leadership (but see my definition of advisor later.)

In this case, I’d add a second description of a poor mentor: even when someone has been there.  They have run a business very successfully.  However, they think there is only one formula for success – theirs!  I have seen and experienced that sort of mentor. The problem is their success makes them very confident that they know the answers that apply, even in a very different business, in a very different state, in a very different market.  So for me, if you are selecting a mentor, be very careful about someone who is too formulaic.  No two situations are identical and their experience needs to be broad enough to be able to explore and address the differences between situations.

Coach mentor
A “Coach mentor” or “Mentor coach” is what I find most preferable for myself.  I do have experience in running businesses – a few actually – and over the last ten years have worked with a few hundred Managing Directors in a vast range of businesses.  So, I do have the experience to be a mentor.  But, I am wary that my experience never exactly fits the situation my client is in. Indeed my beliefs, values and goals are not theirs.  As a result, I try hard to deploy the coaching ethic.  I cannot possibly know the right answer for you.  I’m not living in your shoes and I’m not you. Whilst I can and will offer an opinion as to what I would do “if I was in you shoes I would,” that isn’t the only answer and may not be the right answer for you.

Peer mentoring
Which leads me nicely to Peer mentoring.  In my opinion, if done well, this is simply the same principle as I’ve just described for Coach mentor applied by a group. It is not just one person understanding a situation and offering their point of view from experience, but many people. The great advantage of this is that it provides the recipient with a range of possible ‘If I was in your shoes…’ such that they can choose the shoes that fit them most comfortably – to extend the analogy a little.

Above, I have implicitly criticised people who mentor business leaders without ever having run a proper business themselves.  I feel there are too many people who do so without the proper qualification of having been a business leader.  Yet, that is not to suggest they don’t have a role they can play, and a very important one too.  For me their role should be as an advisor.  If someone has many years of experience in HR and really knows how to manage HR, then they can be invaluable to the business leader dealing with HR challenges.  Likewise, the experienced Finance person, Marketing guru, Sales director, or even the experienced Managing Director.

As a business leader, I always said that, I was a jack of all trades and a master of none – other than being the leader.  My HR director knew more than me about HR; my Finance director more than me about Finance etc, etc.  Whilst I know enough about each discipline to be able to understand their challenge and their advice, they were more expert than me in their field.  So, all of them were great advisors, indeed managers, of their speciality within my business and could equally provide such advice externally if they went independent.

For me, an advisor is someone who hasn’t necessarily run a business, but is expert in a specific field and can advise you as the business leader on their own speciality.  That is a very important role too.

So what then is a consultant? “Someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time” is the old joke.  There is an element of truth in that.  For me, a consultant is someone who is good at managing the process of helping you to move your business from place A to place B and you are commissioning them to help you to do that.  They are more than an advisor, in that whilst they may be less expert in the detail of what you should do, they are more expert in providing services to help you get it done. Indeed, they may not be much of an advisor; their expertise is in project managing the process of getting you and your business to where you need to be.

In my view, a marketing advisor will listen to what you say you want to do and give you expert advice on the merits of the alternative ways of achieving that outcome. They will help you decide which is the best way forward for you.  By contrast, a marketing consultant will research the market for you, analyse the options, present them to you and help you to decide what to do. Then, if required they will put together and implement the plans to deliver the results.

Likewise, a HR advisor can explain the merits of different ways of handling a people situation.  A HR consultant can guide you through the process, perhaps giving HR advice on the way, or maybe utilising a HR lawyer as an advisor.

Advisor and consultant
As with the idea of a ‘Coach mentor,’ the roles of advisor and consultant can be combined.  For me, as I said at the start, what is important is the clarity about what it is you are buying.  Are you buying expertise that can help you understand the merits of the different approaches, such that you can make the right decision and get on with it yourself?  Or are you buying someone, possibly with less detailed expertise but who knows enough about the topic but who’s real value is in understanding and being able to manage the process of getting you to where you want to be?

To revert to the original metaphor: the advisor will tell you the time.  The consultant will realise you need to use your watch, find it and then tell you what it says.

Non-executive director
Finally, the Non-executive director.  The answer here is not clear.  With the important exception of taking on the legal duties of a director (the subject of an upcoming blog soon) the value and purpose of a Non-executive director can be any or all of the above – perhaps with one exception.  Again, the critical thing for me is for the board to be clear what they are looking for when they make the decision to appoint. Sometimes the primary value of a non executive to a company is their contacts and network.  Sometimes they may bring specialist expertise and be an advisor.  Often they will be a mentor or coach to the Chief Executive / Managing Director.

I feel that the only exception is, that a Non-executive cannot be a Consultant.  The Consultant is a doer. One who’s role is to manage a process of getting something done.  In managing that process they are working in an executive role. They are doing and responsible for getting done and not simply deciding. So, whilst one person may hold two roles as Non-executive and as a consultant, it is important to be clear about the distinction between the two.  As a consultant they are working for the Chief Executive and accountable to them.  As a Non-executive they are technically at least holding the Chief Executive to account on behalf of shareholders.

Personally, my experience is that most Non-executives fall into two different camps.  Those that are there primarily to support the Chief Executive and guide them to ensure the company succeeds, and those that are there primarily to represent the shareholders, holding the Chief Executive to account for the success of the company. Clearly, the interest of both is the success of the company and both have the legal duties to do what they need to do, but in my experience those challenges are usually approached from one or other of these two opposite directions.

Role clarity
In conclusion, the question of this article is “what is it you really, really want from this role?” Be clear about whether you are looking for a coach, a mentor, an advisor or a consultant. Or an agreed combination.  If it’s a Non-executive director you are considering, what approach do you want them to use and are you expecting them to also contribute in one of the other roles?

Brian Craig

Managing Director - Indium Corporation

"MD2MD, it’s no longer lonely at the top they said.. Before MD2MD, sharing my business discussions and challenges were largely limited to people in my own company, and to lesser degree people in my own industry. Then I saw the light. The diversity of views, opinions and experience I was able to get from the peer group sessions on a multitude of challenges took my capabilities to a whole new level. My greater surprise though was just how my own experiences were able to help others. "
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Bob Bradley

Bob is a specialist in running high value added service businesses, having run five such businesses as General Manager, Managing Director or Chief Executive. His last employed role was as Chief Executive of a £16M, 200 person family owned business having previously been Chief Executive of an AIM listed company for which he raised £5M funding and which he grew from £4M to £12M in three years through two acquisitions and organic growth, and a corporate PLC subsidiary where he was Managing Director responsible for delivering £10M profit on £45M turnover through 450 staff.

Bob is now following a portfolio career providing entrepreneurial business leaders with mentoring and coaching around business leadership, business growth, merger integration and exit planning.

Core to his portfolio is MD2MD. Having experienced for himself the value of having a strong sounding board of fellow Managing Directors he founded MD2MD in 2004 to provide groups of business leaders with a confidential environment within which they can support and challenge each other to raise their game as leaders and by doing so improve the success of their organisation.

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