Mentors Coaches & Consultants

Mentors, Coaches and Consultants Compared

By Matt McDonald
9 Min Read

One of the common questions that I’ve heard as a business adviser recently is: what are the real differences between mentors coaches and consultants ?

Over the course of my career since the mid 1980s I’ve had many rewarding opportunities to receive terrific mentoring coaching and consulting advice from some amazing professionals and other experts – and I’ve also had many opportunities to help others in that way too.  What I’ve learned from those experiences to help answer our starting question is to focus on how the services provided by mentors coaches and consultants will require or create inherently different structures, risks, rewards and accountabilities – noting, however, that all three share one common accountability: for the quality of their outputs, but not for their clients’ own outcomes.


In the business world, mentors are almost always very experienced and highly esteemed people who take an interest in developing others who may be less experienced and may be seeking professional knowledge that the mentor may have to offer.  Unlike coaches and consultants, mentors will often choose their own mentees and there may not even be any use of those formal role names.


A mentor will often convey that knowledge to a mentee in a generally unstructured way, eg through the occasional coffee conversation where the mentor shares stories and opinions.  The mentor rarely receives financial or other tangible compensation benefits – they will often provide their advice free of charge as a way of “paying forward” the help that they have previously received in their own careers.


Of course it’s not really fair to expect a mentor to take on risk as a consequence of providing that unpaid advice, let alone hold them accountable if the mentee then makes a big mistake if they put that advice into action in unforeseen circumstances, and in my experience mentees seem to accept that limitation without question.


Professional coaches prefer to operate in a more structured way, where the nature of the advice to be given is scoped and agreed in advance, typically delivered in more formal settings (such as a private office) and paid for by the client at commercial rates.


In both coaching and consulting relationships, advice given will tend to be more focused on the client’s specific needs and so the coach’s advice might need to be more focused and their personal opinions might need to be checked somewhat, to ensure that the services provided remain fully relevant to the client for their stated or discovered needs.


However, coaches – unlike consultants – will not generally provide “hands on” help with specific issues – if we use a sporting analogy, a coach can’t run out on the playing field, even if they feel a strong urge to do so.


Clearly fee earning coaches will be more accountable for the quality of their advice than mentors, and the sporting world once again gives us examples every week of how coaches who are not helping individual competitors or teams enough to win at an acceptable rate will soon be sacked.


Consultants in the business world will almost always provide at least some coaching to their clients, because that increases the strategic value of their work, eg through helping clients to learn.  However they will frequently also be asked to deliver some specific “outputs”, eg they may be asked to work on an urgent client project in a hands on drafting capacity, where the client lacks sufficient capacity or current expertise.  This may require a consultant to have formal qualifications or more specific subject matter expertise than many coaches.


Consulting engagements should therefore be carefully planned, well structured and be paid for at commercial rates.  Like coaches, consultants must accept the risk that they may be fired if the coaching and any project based services provided are not “fit for purpose”, so they will always be accountable for the quality of their advice and other outputs and should be prepared to provide warranties, generally backed up by Professional Indemnity insurance policies.


In many cases consultants can actually charge more than coaches because they can “do” as well as “advise”, which makes them more valuable when a client’s business needs immediate help.

One Common Accountability: For Outputs, Not Outcomes

While mentors coaches and consultants might each have varying accountability for the quality of their engagement outputs, they can never be held directly accountable for the outcomes that their clients may or may not achieve after their advice has been given.  This is because only clients will have the capacity to make the full range of decisions that will almost certainly be required to put any mentoring coaching or consulting advice given into full practice – just as the sporting team in our earlier analogy has to make its own tackles and kick its own goals.  Its the captain on the field who gets to lift the trophy, just as the CEO of a business gets most of the credit when it is doing well.

Don’t get me wrong – I fully agree that the best mentors coaches and consultants will help clients to become more accountable for their subsequent actions, all other things being equal – but even the most gifted mentors coaches and  consultants can never compel their clients to do what might ultimately be necessary for success, so they should never guarantee the client’s outcomes.  Which is only fair – after all, most of the rewards earned from fully implementing good advice will generally be retained by the client, not by the adviser.

Matt McDonald

Matt McDonald

Matt has worked as a CFO, Acting CEO, Company Secretary and Head of Sales and HR for 30+ years.

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