Coaching, mentoring & riding a bike

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“What is the difference between Coaching, Consulting, Mentoring and Counselling?” – this is a question I regularly hear.

There is an increasing awareness of personal development in business and private life and in choosing to improve, to develop. It makes sense to take advantage of the third party help that is available rather than depend only on reading.

People talk about having ‘hired a consultant’ or ‘been working with my mentor’ – all good. But is the outcome what you were expecting? Was it as you had hoped? Were the changes achievable and if so, sustainable? If not, did your support actually reflect what you needed? Did you analyse, assess and understand what you actually needed? You need to start with realising what makes you tick.

So, how do coaching, consulting, mentoring and counselling differ, what are there differentiators and how and where do the complement each other.

To answer that I am minded of an article I read several years ago where each was defined by comparing them with learning to ride a bike.

The Consultant

two wheeled bicycle leaning on a yellow wallThe consultant is an expert in riding bikes. They’ve already learned and mastered the bike riding process and from their skills and experience have figured out the most efficient way to ride that bike. They will assess what you’ve been doing so far and provide you with a detailed plan on how to do it correctly, complete with a step by step process. They get paid to provide you with ‘how to ride a bike’ answers. They focus on that requirement.

The Counsellor 

The counsellor is most interested in why you are unable to ride your bike. What is it in your past, or previous experience that is acting as a barrier to you riding your bike? Its it psychological? They get into your head to uncover the underlying root cause and work with you to deal with that – the therapist is focusing on why the problem is there.

The Mentor

The mentor has been riding a bike for many years and wants to share with you their experience, how they learned and how they ride their bike. They want to see you be successful and are willing to spend time with you. It could be compared to learning by observing, possible learning from their mistakes, experiences, solutions found, etc.

The Coach

A coach offers a different type of relationship altogether with more questions of you than provision of answers. The coach is your ‘champion’, helping you achieve your goal of riding your bike by asking thought-provoking questions and highlighting your strengths and weaknesses. The coach works with you to tap into what you already know, and help you take stock of that, improve on your knowledge and understanding and runs alongside you, holding the bike steady whilst you’re learning. He or she is encouraging you on, letting go of the bike when you achieve your momentum and riding solo. The coach therefore is focused on you, what you can and could do.

All of the above roles, albeit different, do often overlap each other. There are consultants who have embrace and use coaching methodology into their advice and guidance. There are professional coaching courses who are attended by counsellors, adding that extra skillset and knowledge for use with their patients.

As much as I personally like the above learning to ride a bike analogy, no matter how many definitions one reads on-line, in my opinion there is no clear cut separation of these roles as they are all complimentary. I am pleased and honoured to have been able to provide advice and guidance to many business owners and managers in the past, sharing with them my experience, the lessons I learned myself, and from others whose advice and guidance I sought.

Based on my own experience and lessons learned, I have to say that in my opinion there is a time and place for all four of the above roles. And would strongly advise against selecting and running with just the one in preference to another. It is good to get input from others with different experiences to those you have enjoyed. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all solution, I don’t believe that a single individual has all the answers, but several people, all aware of and complimenting each other and not stepping on each other’s toes, is the way ahead.

Let’s take mentoring as an example. How successful do you need to be in order to not need mentoring anymore? In my research in 2016 into the loneliness of the position of directors and senior managers, I came across an interview by Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, one of the most successful CEOs in the world. He admitted in his interview with the Washington Post that he felt lonely and it came with the job. Looking into this further I discover that he himself has five mentors outside of Apple, all in different industries, and he only has one person inside Apple, an old friend who he talks with in a mentoring capacity.

My advice and guidance?

There is a time and place for Coaching, Consulting, Mentoring and Counselling – they can complement each other and maybe even work together to help you achieve your aims and objectives, those results you seek. You don’t necessarily have to do what you’re told but you would be crazy not to consider what they are saying. You should invest in your well-being and take heed of the advice from others who have already been there, done that, and wear the t-shirt.

I hope sharing my thoughts helps clarify your thinking in identifying obstacles and barriers, overcoming them and putting them behind you whilst you concentrate on moving forwards – with welcome help of course.

Next steps


Blog written with CMI Southern Mentoring Champion, Daniel Carey

Daniel Carey enjoys a career in training and developing business owners and managers in various aspects of business administration and in management knowledge transfer and best practice. He is a member of the Chartered Management Institute’s Southern Regional Board and has the responsibility for championing mentoring.