Image-wise, consultants perennially rank just a few notches above patent medicine salesmen and journalists. Following a two-year frenzy in which e-consultants promised the moon and delivered green cheese, its safe to say that the industrys reputation has fallen another peg or two.
It will take years to repair their credibility, but, as the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, Marcia Reynolds offers one small suggestion that might help browbeaten consulting firms reclaim the high ground: add "coaching" to their service offerings.
"Coaching is a nice addition to any consultants repertoire," says Reynolds, the former president of the International Coach Federation and head of her own coaching firm in Phoenix, called Covisioning.
How does coaching differ from consulting? The consultant typically weighs in with all the answers in a neat, little bag of tricks and a mission to fix the clients problem. Thats fine when those answers are the correct ones and the consultant accepts responsibility for implementing and guaranteeing the solution. But, as weve just witnessed, when the answers are hot air and the clients are too far gone to benefit from even the best advice, then the whole industry suffers.
"There are many consultants that are more attached to their processes [methodologies] than they are to the clients," says Reynolds.
The coach, by contrast, comes in with no allegiance to a process and no answers. The coachs job is to persuade the clients that they possess the answers to their own problems. The clients are ultimately accountable, whether the problems occur in the planning or the execution stage.
"My role is to be a partner, to help the clients fix themselves," explains Reynolds, who does most of her work on the telephone. "As a coach, I dont have to be an expert in any particular business. Im there to bring out the brilliance of my clients, to be a sounding board, someone who can frame the issues and provide peripheral vision."
But even when a coaching relationship ends in failure, she insists, the client can take away lessons that it would not gain under a consulting engagement.
"Because it was their solution, not ours, the clients learn more … they can go back and say, Heres what didnt work and heres what well do the next time."
One of Reynolds recent jobs illustrates how the coaching function should work: A company hired her on a six-month engagement to coach a sales rep who had been identified as a candidate for a district manager spot. However, because of the reps problems in prioritizing and her poor interpersonal skills, the company didnt feel she would be qualified for management for another year or more.
Reynolds helped the rep deal with her disappointment over not getting the job, and then began to tackle the underlying issues.
"I can look at the clients whole life, which is something a consultant never does," says Reynolds. "In this case, the reps life was in chaos. I helped her get organized, at home and at work. Things she was tolerating in her life, like having to clean the house, were draining her energy. We worked on getting her focused and bringing everything into alignment."
The upshot: The rep became a district manager in three months. Reynolds spent the last three months of the engagement working on her hiring skills and helping the new manager envision what kind of leader she wanted to be.
"Instead of being freaked out over stuff like deadlines, she learned to step back and focus on what she needed to do to have her people see her as a leader," says Reynolds. "None of this required me to be an expert in sales management."
On another engagement, Reynolds helped a CEO recognize that his disillusionment at work was an outgrowth of his reluctance to begin a new social life after a wrenching divorce. "Coaching is not therapy," cautions Reynolds. "But balancing your personal and professional life is critical to success."
For consulting firms like Accenture and Blanchard that have added, or are considering adding, coaching to their service rosters, the potential rewards also include longer-term revenue streams. Coaches tend to work with clients for anywhere from six months to five years. Also, coaching yields solid margins, with fees ranging up to $100,000 for a long-term, CEO-level engagement. Group coaching, too, can be a profitable business, although it tends to be more goal-oriented, and thus shorter term.
Coaching also can drive downstream revenue. If the clients need concrete answers, coaches may recommend their own consulting arms, or may bring in business partners to do the heavy lifting.
In short, its no coincidence that individual membership in the International Coach Federation has grown 165 percent in the past three years to more than 4,000, and that coaching schools and certification programs are popping up all over.
"The public doesnt get all the distinctions yet," concludes Reynolds. "Sometimes they get what they think is coaching, but its really consulting. However, thats changing, too."