Chief learning officers should consult as well as coach stakeholders while partnering with business units to develop learning strategies. But to improve their influence and results they’ll need to clarify the difference between coaching and consulting, and find the right balance for each initiative they lead.
Both coaching and consulting begin with a well-defined problem, challenge or opportunity that is causing pain for the other party. That pain — including the pain of not seizing an opportunity and enjoying benefits — is what makes the other party receptive to coaching or consulting in the first place. If there is no pain, partners, peers and clients are unlikely to take interest.
The fundamental difference between the two is that coaching is more directive, encouraging the other person to arrive at and develop their own solutions independently. In a consulting role, the learning leader probes to understand the situation, diagnose issues, and analyze data — all in order to make recommendations, share best practices, and suggest solutions. In a coaching role, the learning leader steps back a bit. They ask powerful questions, joining in an open-ended inquiry with the stakeholder or internal client, to arrive at new ideas, insights and action steps together. Coaching is more of a dialogue.
There is significant overlap between the two skill sets. The best consultants almost always use coaching skills, specifically by asking questions and probing to understand the client’s issues in-depth, as well as discerning how receptive the client is to potential ideas. This type of inquiry helps the consultant to shape a solution the client is most likely to accept and implement.
Coaches generally only become directive after exploring issues in-depth with clients, with permission or when the client asks, and only when the coach has expertise the client might value. Coaching competencies emphasize asking powerful questions, listening actively, driving the client to choose their own solutions, then confirming and supporting accountability with action steps. The art of coaching is fundamentally about helping clients grow and develop their own capacity. If the CLO is flexible about the ultimate goal and how to get there, coaching is a fantastic way to secure buy-in and commitment by asking open-ended questions and challenging clients to come up with their own answers.
Many executives in organizations, including CLOs, can fall into the trap of pushing their ideas too forcefully. As a result, their passion and enthusiasm for an idea doesn’t translate to buy-in. To mitigate that, start out in coaching mode and let stakeholders have more say in designing solutions; listening more actively; avoid the temptation to jump to answers too soon. This raises the CLOs chances of finding and keeping loyal supporters for their strategies and aspirations.
At the same time, coaching should be a tool and skill that CLOs spread throughout the organization. A culture of coaching enables and encourages managers and employees to give and receive feedback; have conversations about career goals and how to achieve them; and help employees become more proactive, creative, influential and effective. Coaching helps resolve conflicts, build working relationships, increase open and honest dialogue, and helps people be more receptive to change and new ideas. Consulting skills may or may not be required leadership competencies in an organization, but the best leaders use coaching to help develop their employees, instill leadership skills, facilitate collaboration and ultimately strengthen the organization.
Coaching also can reinforce learning programs by encouraging ongoing follow-up to help learners carry lessons learned during training into their work. This kind of follow-up ensures that knowledge and skills gained are retained, not lost within a couple of weeks.
Coaching and consulting are not mutually exclusive activities. Most CLOs use a blend of both. The question is whether or not use of the two finds that ideal balance to achieve buy in, support and results.
Andrew Neitlich is the founder and director of the Center for Executive Coaching, a coach training organization and author of Coach! The Crucial, Deceptively Simple Leadership Skill for Breakaway Performance. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.