Consultant, advisor, coach or mentor?

The world needs more Sparring Partners!

In a corporate world where terms like consultant, advisor, coach, and mentor pop up everywhere, it's often hard to make a clear distinction between them. So, let’s start with the definitions, which I take from here in abbreviated form: | Kobus Louw

  • A consultant has resources, expert knowledge and experience and provides professional services to complement our own efforts. His focus is not to improve our skills, but to get work done without us having to do it ourselves.
  • An advisor has specific expertise, experience or connections that can help us in a very particular way. As a rule, the advisor is not expected to do any work. He offers his knowledge, some of his time and access to his network. Unlike a coach, who asks questions and listens a lot, the advisor asks few questions and talks a lot.
  • A coach works with a client to unleash the client's potential and improve his performance. The coach does not necessarily have all the answers, and the coach does not do the work for him. He or she brings an unbiased and unemotional perspective and provides insight, commitment, and support so that the client can achieve the goals him of herself.
  • A mentor has a relationship with his mentee that is different from any other professional or personal connection. A mentor cares about a mentee's development without having any agenda of his own. Even though mentoring programs exist in companies and in universities, they are mostly personal in nature and without compensation.

So far, so good. Each individual definition in itself is clear. But if you look at all four, the overlap feels large, and the terms become correspondingly fuzzy. Add to it that none of these four terms is protected as a job title, and anyone and any institute can claim them. It's no joke, I spent a few hours trying to figure out which was my correct designation when I was looking into my own self-employment: Consultant, Advisor or Coach? At some point I felt overwhelmed with this question and called myself «Consultant, Advisor & Coach». I don't care under which «title» I provide my services, the only thing that counts in the end is the result, evaluated by the client.

My experience and opinion of the consulting industry

I have a lot of experience with consultants and advisors. In the legal and tax field they mostly call themselves advisors, in all other fields they tend to be consultants. In my perception it is the same, I understand the conceptual distinction only in theory, practically they are all specialized in a certain area and bring their knowledge in meetings, phone calls, and at the end almost always with something written (expert opinion, PowerPoint). In the following, I would like to highlight three aspects:

  • Purpose: Of course, the main purpose is to buy specialized knowledge in a certain area. Legislation and tax regulations, especially in international business, can no longer be mastered by all-rounders. The same is true in the digitalization, who can stay in the game here without specialized knowledge? But at the same time, it's also about the name and reputation of the consultant: The expert opinion of a renowned consulting firm has a much higher status with authorities than the exact same opinion from a company's own specialist, because it’s a third-party opinion with the seal of approval of a consulting firm. And, internally it is similar: presenting a transformation initiative to the board without the involvement and blessing of a renowned consulting firm and getting it approved is just as difficult!  
  • Quality: Here, not surprisingly, there is everything: from excellent to insufficient. Over the years, I have acquired the habit of dividing consultants and advisors into two groups: On one hand, the «real experts», those who truly know an area, have studied it in depth for years and with passion, and can address any question in depth. On the other hand, the «trained experts», i.e. those who only know their field theoretically and pass on learned knowledge. You can recognize them by the fact that they work with standardized checklists/questions and create these incredibly comprehensive slides crammed with all the common keywords. It is usually enough to ask about 2-3 keywords, what they mean in a specific case, to identify them as trained experts. In these cases, I know: the value of their work is to summarize conventional knowledge and provide me with an overview without me having to educate myself or delve into common literature. But to build a sustainable solution on the basis of that, it is then usually not enough.
  • Costs: My opinion is clear. Real experts are almost priceless, their value is immense and can hardly be expressed in numbers. If, for example, you implement the right processes, systems and software for the realignment or automation of a business unit from the outset, resulting in a solution that works sustainably, what is the worth compared to a concept based on half-knowledge that leads you astray and whose «repair» afterwards costs untold amounts of time and money? Or if you start a company in a new country, do everything legally and fiscally right from the start, have full compliance and the solution fits your company culture? Priceless!
    On the other hand: The trained experts are very expensive, purely judged in terms of the content. There are always at least two levels of hierarchy involved, firstly someone who writes the expert opinion and secondly someone who signs off on it. Sometimes, if the approving consultant is «only» a trained expert, there are even three consultants at three levels involved. And because the client is usually charged for all the hours, he is in a way paying part of the internal training. This arises from the fact that someone can only develop from a trained to a real expert through experience, and that the customer often pays for the value of the logo on the letterhead.

I also have my experiences with coaches, but not to the extent that I could give a well-founded opinion on the industry in general. Just this much: I don't support coaching bashing and slogans like «If you become nothing, you become a coach». The value of a coach is judged solely by the client. I congratulate every coach who finds his field or niche and can successfully build a client base. It is a very competitive market, and those who hold their own here need to prove themselves every day.

I myself was once an «official» mentor in an IKEA program that supported selected talents in the company. We mentors were selected by the mentees, the difference to coaching I remember is that we were always available to them, but the initiative had to come from the mentee. Even if it was successful, this program was not repeated, the results are very individual, hardly measurable and difficult to evaluate.

Why and how I mutated into a sparring partner

It wasn't until I started my repositioning and took a deeper look at my role that I came across the Sparring Partner. Let’s start with the definition:

  • Sparring is about the argumentative and friendly wrestling to find the best solution to achieve a defined state or objective. Literally, sparring means «to grapple with someone». The term comes from boxing.
  • The sparring partner wants to make the athlete, in the business sector the customer, as fit as possible so that he can compete and succeed. Not writing expert reports, not standing by and giving smart advice, no, going the extra mile and standing on the mat with the customer in training (for example, facilitating a workshop), challenge and support him, for example, play the role of the opponent, take a critical stance on a solution, approach or play the «Advocatus Diaboli» and thus challenge the concept. But always focused on ensuring that the customer is «fit» at the end and appears in the best light. In this sense, a sparring partner is an advisor, consultant and coach all in one!

It clicked with me right away, «This fits, that's me». So:

Why I became a Sparring Partner: The world is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Especially those who deal with the future cannot remotely provide an expert opinion or make a recommendation based on a remote diagnosis. The examination of the customer and his concrete situation in his concrete internal and external environment is match decisive. Questions, insights, answers and queries must flow back and forth and insights and provocations from outside the company must be brought in. This is the only viable way the future can be addressed in today's complex and disruptive world.

A Strategic Foresight project, for example, as I approach it, consists of 5 workshop days (2 days «Open the Future», 1 day «Structure the Future» and 2 days «Imagine the Future»). To this I add 15 days for preparation, sharing, post-processing and working out the final outcome. I make sure that the «right» external experts and inputs flow in, guide and moderate the process in such a way that the participants themselves develop relevant and high-quality scenarios, that the crucial elements emerge for a future-ready strategy and that the participants are ready to tackle the future in creation- rather than in adaptation mode.

How I see my role: The key to success is that, as a sparring partner, I immerse myself in the client's world over the course of the project, engage intensively with the company's representatives, and thus enable the scenarios and conclusions that are individually relevant, the extra mile included. It is not enough to conclude with a paper or a PowerPoint. A project is only successful if the customer himself is «fit» to shape his future and he assesses the value of the project as priceless.

What are your experiences with consultants, advisors, coaches and mentors? What do you think of the Sparring Partner concept? I am interested in your feedback, be it as a comment, by connecting on LinkedIn or during a complementory discovery call.

PS Let the future guide your way - the best in life is yet to come.