Leadership Coach vs. External Advisor

workteamcommitteeClients and potential clients often ask me what the difference is between a leadership coach and an external advisor.  Both provide an external perspective but in different ways that can be subtle at times:

A leadership coach is focused on helping an individual client address certain identified opportunities and challenges, where the client is typically an individual.  An external advisor is usually focused on a client that is a team, project, change effort, board of directors, organization or community and making the client successful in whatever they would like to achieve.

This distinction may seem subtle, but it’s actually a crucial one for a practitioner since it establishes the practitioner’s priorities and defines her or his ethical obligations.  If coaching an individual, the coach’s role is to support the client’s development in agreed-upon areas.  If serving as an external advisor for a team, project, change effort, organization, etc., the the role is the same, but the composition of the client group usually makes the task much more complex.  These two divergent orientations can produce very different answers to the following questions:

  • Who is the client?
  • What’s best for the client?
  • What does the client want to accomplish?
  • How will all parties know when the desired state of affairs has been reached?

Take the example of a board of directors who wants to resolve longstanding conflicts between different subgroups of board members.  While a successful resolution agreeable to all parties is possible, in reality it is unlikely.  The conflict may be so deep-seated and intractable that a better resolution might be for some board members to resign, or in more bitter conflicts, for the board to actually remove members who are unwilling to work with others to resolve the conflict.

In reality, these two orientations — leadership coach and external advisor —  are actually two ends of the same continuum and work with some clients and projects may fall in the middle ground with features of both. Since I’ve expanded on the role of a leadership coach in other posts, I’d like to provide additional examples that include the external advisor role as well:

  • A CEO seeks help regarding a specific effort to improve his organization’s climate and performance. In this case, a practitioner will operate in both leadership coaching and external advisor roles, since the client is simultaneously the CEO and her or his organization.
  • A business association seeks the assistance of an external advisor in hiring, supervising and periodically evaluating its first paid employee, an executive director. Although the external advisor works with a committee to accomplish these ends, the client is clearly the organization.
  • A director at a national non-profit asks a practitioner to critique his a plan for a large change project aimed at improving the fund-raising culture and performance of more than seventy chapters that raise funds for the national non-profit. If the task is solely to critique the plan, the focus is on the external advisor role, since the objective is to make this change project successful. If, however, the client wants a continuing relationship with the practitioner to assist him or her with the plan’s execution, the leadership coach role also emerges.
  • The executive director of a hospice seeks assistance from her leadership coach in working through the process of a merger with two nursing organizations. Since the leadership coach is now adding an additional client, the merging organizations, the coach is also working as an external advisor.
  • A large employer asks an external advisor to work with a team attempting to assess the extent of bullying in the organization and also take steps to reduce its incidence. Although the external advisor is working with a team charged with moving this effort forward, the client is clearly the organization.