What’s the difference between a business strategist, consultant, mentor, coach, advisor, and trainer? They all help you achieve company goals in different ways.

This guide compares and contrasts the role of each business expert, to help you understand who you need to hire (and who you don’t).

Note, this guide talks about business coaching (focused on the business itself).

This is different from performance coaching (focused on the entrepreneur / team running the business).

Why We Need This Guide

It’s tough to know who to hire for help with your business challenges.

business-strategist-consultant-mentor-coach question mark

Some business experts work outside their main role because they enjoy it, and/or they’re trained in several roles. For instance, I’m a Performance & Wellness Strategist, Business Advisor, and Wellness Coach for 30-plus entrepreneurs. So the role I assume depends on the client and the service I’m providing.

The challenge comes mostly in “unregulated” industries. Industry certifications and degrees are optional in unregulated fields.

For instance, the coaching industry is unregulated.

This means anyone can claim to be a “business coach” because they want towithout formal training.

It’s great that the Internet has leveled the playing field in this way. It lets people from all countries and all walks of life create our own opportunities.

But it also makes it frustrating to know when to hire which expert, and who’s qualified to help with your specific business challenge.

Also, some professionals adopt completely unsuitable titles without understanding their implications. (Ex: A person may use the title “Business Coach” because they want to give endless opinions on how others should run their companies.)

You’ll see below that’s the exact WRONG thing for a coach to do, if following standard definitions of coaching.

This whole thing is unnecessarily confusing!

The table below explains the “standard” role of each provider.
Since roles can overlap, we checked a box if
the professional performs that role at least half the time.

(
Get more details under the table.)

Business Expert Comparison Chart

Coach Advisor Consultant Mentor Strategist Trainer
Provides answers & direction x x x x
Provides process x x x
Is the expert x x x x
Provides structure x x x x
Long-term relationship x x x
Offers emotional support x x
Project-based x x x
Partners with you x x x
Informal relationship x
Tailors approach to/for you x x x x
Builds specific solution for you x x
Takes broad, strategic view x x
Takes narrow view x x x x x
Spots, defines, & highlights problems x x
Teaches you to implement x x
Guides you to implement x x x
Works w/you until mastery x x x x
Draws from personal experiences x x
Does some/all work for you x

The Different Roles of Business Experts

Role of a Business Coach

The business coach presumes you are the expert on your own situation. They may not have business consulting or management experience. (And according to the strict definitions of “coaching,” they don’t technically need it.)

It’s a very common myth that the typical coach provides clients with answers. They don’t.

In fact, the International Coaching Federation (ICF) won’t certify coaches who make it a practice. Their Core Competencies Comparison Table1https://coachingfederation.org/app/uploads/2017/12/ICF_Competencies_Level_Table_wNote.pdf reads:

Applicant will NOT pass this competency if applicant focuses primarily on telling the client what to do or how to do it (consulting mode).

While there are many “coaches” who do exactly that, this is not industry standard. The standard dictates that YOU, the client, are the expert. The qualified coach simply offers powerful questioning, reflective statements, and other strategic tools to help you develop goals, resolve challenges, strengthen skills, and hold yourself accountable.

Interestingly, the coach may not have experience in, or knowledge of, your specific industry. And since they’re not subject-matter experts, they may not have experience making the types of business decisions you need to make.

Of course, finding a coach with knowledge of your industry or role is often best. But again, it’s not expressly needed.

What is needed is that the coach be an expert at active listening, asking the tough questions, communicating directly, working with different personality types, and guiding clients toward resolving their own problems.

The main role of a business coach is to ask different types of questions to help YOU decide how to approach a goal or apply a strategy. They build trusting, professionally intimate, long-term relationships with clients, offering judgment-free emotional support.

Coaching is a vehicle of SELF-discovery and self-mastery for the business client, to help you develop the soft skills you need to succeed.

I primarily start in the role of coach with new clients, asking strategic questions that help us both see your strengths, areas of improvement, opportunities, and threats more clearly.

Why?

Only after intimately understanding your unique needs does it make sense to function as a consultant, advisor, strategist, or trainer.

DO Hire a Business Coach if You:

  • Need help developing your soft skills to make doing business easier
  • Need someone to hold you accountable to do the work you’ve planned to do
  • Need a sounding board to help you clarify your goals and priorities
  • Need to structure/organize many ideas and/or thoughts
  • Need some degree of emotional support as you work through your goals

DON’T Hire a Coach if You:

  • Need hard and fast answers to important company decisions
  • Need help planning exactly what work to do, or to prioritize
  • Aren’t ready/willing to dive deep into mindset and personal blocks
  • Expect someone to tell you what to do*

Role of a Business Advisor

A business advisor is a resident expert who provides guidance for you and/or your team long-term. Unlike coaches, they draw from extensive small business management and/or consulting experience2https://www.ziprecruiter.com/career/Business-Advisor/What-Is-How-to-Become to help you make high-level company decisions.

They can offer direction and guidance for specific problems in particular areas of concern. But one key benefit of an advisor3https://quickbooks.intuit.com/r/trends/how-to-find-a-qualified-small-business-advisor/ is their broad, strategic view. With your long-term success firmly in mind at all times, they intuit and help rank your company’s truest needs and goals. They can also help you understand where to focus when you feel lost in the weeds.

The advisor-client relationship is typically formal, although a strong rapport is built over time. Due to their intimate familiarity with your brand, operations, team, and priorities, the advisor tailors guidance to your specific situation at all stages.

Business advisors don’t do the work for you. Instead, they guide you in designing action plans, troubleshooting roadblocks, and preempting problems. The well-qualified advisor has many years of business experience. But they often specialize in particular areas, like finance, sales, marketing, HR, or operations.

A skilled business advisor is a strong asset to have in your corner.

DO Hire a Business Advisor if You:

  • Need a long-term partner to help guide business decisions
  • Want a professional who’ll learn your business intimately
  • Want skilled guidance and advice in a specific area of business
  • Want skilled guidance and advice to help make far-reaching company decisions

DON’T Hire a Business Advisor if You:

  • Need emotional support
  • Want a professional to perform work or research for you
  • Need a strategic plan organized into small, specific action steps

Role of a Business Consultant

The business consultant is another expert with significant business experience and expertise. They advise or service4https://www.britannica.com/dictionary/consultant you or your company–often on a short-term, project basis–to resolve specific problems.

While an advisor has wide-reaching experience, the consultant’s field of expertise is often narrow, concentrated in one or two select areas. These subject-matter experts apply their deep knowledge to help create the processes, structure, and solutions that help you reach specific business goals.

Depending on the consultant, they may guide you in doing the work, or they may do it for you. Often, business consultants have set, proven processes they can apply across organizations.

To do their job, business consultants often collaborate with several team members, depending on the size of your company. (In 1- or 2-person microbusinesses, the owner often shares their knowledge, skills, and time to collaborate on the project.)

Unlike coaches or mentors, consultants don’t offer emotional support. And they often work on shorter-term projects with defined end dates. Your job as company owner is to support your consultant’s work5https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/coaching-vs-consulting so they can fulfill their obligations. Once the consultant’s work is complete, the contract ends.

DO Hire a Business Consultant if You:

  • Need a subject-matter expert to solve an existing well-defined problem
  • Have a specific type of work that needs to be done (or taught)

DON’T Hire a Business Consultant if You:

  • Need help understanding/prioritizing which work to do
  • Aren’t clear on the goal you need met or what area to focus on
  • Are unsure of the problem you need resolved
  • Need emotional support or a long-term relationship

Role of a Business Mentor

A business mentor is a seasoned professional you can consult for advice or moral support. The mentor is typically older and/or has more professional experience6https://www.britannica.com/dictionary/mentor. But in this informal long-term relationship, neither party is viewed as “the expert.”

While you may meet with your mentor regularly, the relationship is also unstructured. There isn’t usually any set process, strategy, or action plan discussed. The mentor is there more broadly, for your personal and/or professional growth.

Business mentors often give you advice to overcome challenges they’ve already tackled, or helped others tackle, like their team or other mentees.

The mentor-mentee relationship is also typically offered at no cost to you. Top reasons mentors offer free support are to give back after they’ve reached a certain level of success, to help a specific community of people they identify with, or sometimes to build coaching/consulting confidence before signing paid clients.

Since the mentor-mentee relationship is unpaid and unstructured, it’s not the best place for strategic action planning. Rather, your business mentor is there to empathize with your challenges and offer emotional support.

DO “Hire” a Business Mentor if You:

  • Want to learn from others’ experiences in handling specific situations
  • Need completely free guidance while your new company gets into profit
  • Need a similar professional to relate to your struggles or offer emotional support

DON’T “Hire” a Business Mentor if You:

  • Need ongoing support on a regular, timed schedule
  • Need a structured, formal relationship with specific goals and milestones
  • Need a provider to track your progress from week to week
  • Need up-to-date strategies or tactics for solving specific problems
  • Expect specific advice, strategies, or action steps to resolve a business challenge

Role of a Business Strategist

A business strategist is a high-level expert who builds tailored solutions to company challenges. They have strong analytical and organizational skills.

Through research and teamwork, they gain deep knowledge of your situation. With this familiarity, they help guide your actions and decision-making.

The business strategist takes a bird’s-eye view of the competitive landscape and your company’s resources. With these, they determine the best strategy for achieving your goal.

Like coaches, strategists ask probing questions to clarify where you are, how you got there, and what can help you advance fastest and easiest.

Unlike coaches, business strategists do provide answers and concrete guidance. They support their recommendations through experience, expertise, and data.

Their informed guidance helps you make high-impact decisions.

The business strategist helps you decide between competing priorities to devise a specific action plan7https://www.britannica.com/dictionary/strategist. That plan is a customized or bespoke set of processes that support your company’s goals, challenges, and growth stage.

While you can work with business strategists long-term, it’s usually in distinct short- to mid-term projects. But you wouldn’t look to them for emotional support like you would a mentor or coach. A performance strategist supports the entrepreneur. A business strategist supports the business.

DO Hire a Business Strategist if You:

  • Want specific action steps to surpass a company hurdle or reach the next level
  • Need to determine exactly what elements are slowing/stopping company progress
  • Need to stop wasting resources (time, energy, team, money) and improve efficiency
  • Are driven and ready to outline a growth plan and take action

DON’T Hire a Business Strategist if You:

  • Aren’t focused / ready to focus attaining on a specific company goal
  • Want “feelings-based” conversation and/or emotional support
  • Aren’t ready to funnel resources into the provided strategic action plan
  • Are resistant to dive deep into numbers, processes, and/or team to optimize company growth

Role of a Business Trainer

A business trainer pulls from a toolbox of proven tactics and processes. Then, they teach you to implement them to strengthen a skill, solve a problem, or boost performance in a particular role.

The trainer transfers their skills and knowledge to you(r team) through teaching, but also often through practice. Trainers may work with the business owner one-to-one, or train your entire company.

In one-to-one training, the trainer often works with you until you master the skills. In group training, you’re more likely to have a set number of weeks or sessions, after which the training ends. At minimum, the trainer may offer assessments at the start and end of the training process to measure its effectiveness.

The relationship isn’t so much project-based as it is “goal-based.” The training process is often quite regimented with a defined start, middle, and end. The trainer does provide answers and direction to help your company achieve the desired outcome. But they’re often more “in-the-moment” answers than “long-term strategic.”

Training can be instructor-led (delivered in live-class format) or on-demand (accessible anytime).

With on-demand training, team members access pre-recorded/pre-written content through an online platform. There are no live instructors and classmates to keep pace with. So training is often completed on their own schedule.

The exception is paced learning, where content is released or “dripped” on a predetermined schedule. The student can still access it any time of day.

Hybrid delivery, or “blended learning,” is a combination of live and pre-recorded content. Some content is delivered live, often in a group Q&A format. Other content is accessible any time by the student.

DO Hire a Business Trainer if You:

  • Need a structured, organized curriculum to build a skill (hard or soft) or resolve a problem
  • Want guidance or instruction to build a specific skill/set of skills, or solve a problem
  • Are willing to take specific, predefined steps to learn and practice a skill
  • Want continued support until you master the skill (1:1 or ongoing training only)

DON’T Hire a Business Trainer if You:

  • Need emotional support
  • Are unsure what skills you or your company should build
  • Lack the time, energy, focus, stamina, or resolve to follow a training program

The Bottom Line

Hopefully your head has stopped spinning and you know exactly which provider your company needs.

The important thing is not to overthink it. You don’t need to get this (or any other) decision perfect. Now, at least you have a clearer idea of who to hire, so you can adjust your search queries and get closer, faster.

Please leave us a comment below to share what professional you’ve decided is best for you. (If you still have questions on who to choose for which purpose, just leave a question!)

SOURCES:
  • 1
    https://coachingfederation.org/app/uploads/2017/12/ICF_Competencies_Level_Table_wNote.pdf
  • 2
    https://www.ziprecruiter.com/career/Business-Advisor/What-Is-How-to-Become
  • 3
    https://quickbooks.intuit.com/r/trends/how-to-find-a-qualified-small-business-advisor/
  • 4
    https://www.britannica.com/dictionary/consultant
  • 5
    https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/coaching-vs-consulting
  • 6
    https://www.britannica.com/dictionary/mentor
  • 7
    https://www.britannica.com/dictionary/strategist