In the past I have described myself as a coach, a mentor, an advisor a consultant and a non executive director.  And I’m sure others have called me lots of other things!  But what is the difference between these roles?

Firstly let me make clear, I don’t intend this article to be about rigorous theoretical academic definitions.  Instead my intent in describing the differences is to provoke you, as the business leader I’m writing this for, to think clearly about exactly what support you need, whatever title you and your supplier choose to give it.  The descriptions I use are those I believe to be the most commonly used, but I do recognise the boundaries are blurred and in some cases (eg Coach and Mentor) I have heard people passionately explaining the titles as having exactly the mirror image meanings to those I describe here.  SO I state again, the titles aren’t important; it’s the role clarity that is important.  So discussion of what both parties mean by the title cannot be avoided.  And feel free to use a link to this blog to ask which is meant by the title being used in your situation.

So here are my descriptions:


A coach is someone who is expert at asking great questions that draws out of you what is already in your brain.  Quite often a great coach is professionally trained either in coaching or Psychology and may be accredited, although I would add many great coaches are not.  Two of the best coaches I know are simply business leaders who have great skill in asking the very tough questions that put you on the spot. And that’s where the value comes from.  Getting you to face up to something you are subconsciously avoiding. (By the way one of those two Gareth Chick is a MD2MD speaker and Masterclass presenter – He’s more a choach mentor by my definitions but see more here)

The key thing with coaching is though that the pure coach NEVER contributes their own ideas and opinions.  With accredited coaches that is a clear No No from the training. And that is very logical.  A great coach may know nothing (really) about business. They may be a highly qualified psychologist who has never lead a business or even a team or any significance.  So they can’t give advice (or answers) based on their own experience.  But they ask can brilliant questions based on their understanding of your psychology. As a result many pure coaches are from a HR type background.

And to clarify by contrasts, the poor coach, in my eyes is someone who doesn’t stick to asking questions and does, like the bar room advocate, give their opinion and advice, but does so without having actually walked in your shoes – without having actually run a business themselves and understood the unique challenges of that position. Anyone can pontificate about ‘what one should do’ in theory.


A mentor, by contrast, is someone who has been there and done it themselves.  They have walked in your shoes.  For the purposes of my business leader readers, they have run a business themselves and felt the pain of the challenges that brings. Their role is to contribute answers from experience.  “When I was faced with that situation I did this and this happened … and I’d recommend you do / don’t do as I did”

Clearly it is unlikely they have been in your exact position, but they have been in a similar situation sometimes many times and can share what they have learnt from experience.

And again to clarify by contrasts, the poor mentor is someone who hasn’t been there and done it, but still sells themselves as a mentor to business leaders.  As a believer in the importance of real world, practical experience I don’t believe someone who has never led a business themselves can really mentor a business leader on business leadership (but see my definition of advisor later).

And in this case I’d add a second description of a poor mentor.  And that is someone who has been there and done it.  They have run a business very successfully.  But they think there is only one formula for success – theirs!  I have seen and experienced that sort of mentor.  And the problem is their success makes them very confident that they know the answers that apply, even in a very different business, in a very different state ion a very different market.  So for me, if you are selecting a mentor, be very careful about someone who is too formulaic.  No two situations are identical and their experience needs to be broad enough to be able to explore and address the differences between situations.

Coach mentor

A “Coach mentor” or “Mentor coach” is what I find most preferable for myself.  I do have experience in running businesses – a few actually – and over the last ten years have worked with over a hundred Managing Directors in a vast range of businesses.  So I do have the experience to be a mentor.  But I am at the extreme end of being wary that my experience never exactly fits the situation my client is in, and indeed my beliefs, values and goals are not theirs.  So I also try hard to deploy the coaching ethic.  I cannot possibly know the right answer for you.  I’m not living in your shoes and I’m not you. Whilst I can and will offer an opinion as to what I would do “If I was in you shoes I would”, that isn’t the only answer and may not be the right answer for you.

Peer mentoring

Which leads me nicely to Peer mentoring.  Which is, in my view and if done well, simply the same principles as I’ve just described for Coach mentor applied by a group.  ie Instead of just one person understanding the situation and then giving their view form experience, it is many people.  Which has the great advantage of providing the recipient with a range of possible ‘If I was in your shoes’ … such that they can choose the shoes that fit them most comfortably – to extend the analogy a little.

And of course that is the most unique element of what MD2MD does …. But that’s a different story you can read about here if you wish.


I have above implicitly criticised people that mentor business leaders without ever having run a proper business themselves.  I feel there are too many people who do so without the proper qualification of having been a business leader.  But that is not to suggest they don’t have a role they can play, and a very important one too.  For me their role should be as an advisor.  If someone has many years of experience in HR and really knows how to manage HR, then they can be invaluable to the business leader dealing with HR challenges.  Likewise the experienced Finance person, Marketing guru or Sales director, or even the experienced Managing Director.

I always said that as a business leader, I was a jack of all trades and a master of none – other than being the leader.  My HR director knew more than me about HR; my Finance director more than me about Finance etc, etc.  Whilst I know enough about each discipline to be able to understand their challenge and their advice, they were more expert than me in their field.  So all of them were great advisors, an indeed managers, of their speciality within my business and could equally provide such advice externally if they went independent.

So for me an advisor is someone who hasn’t necessarily run a business, but is expert in a specific field and can advise you as the business leader on their own speciality.  And that is a very important role too.


So what then is a consultant? “Someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time” is the old joke.  And there is an element of truth in that.  For me a consultant is someone who is good at managing the process of helping you to move your business from place A to place B and you are commissioning them to help you do that.  They are more than an advisor in that whilst they may be less expert in the detail of what you should do, they are more expert in providing services to help you get it done. Indeed they may not be much of an advisor; their expertise is in managing the process of getting you and your business to where you need to be.

So a marketing advisor will in my view, listen to what you say you want to do and give you expert advice on the merits of the alternative ways of achieving that outcome and help you decide which is the best way forward for you.  By contrast a marketing consultant will research the market for you, analyse the options, present them to you and help you to decide what to do and then if required put together and implement the plans to deliver the results.

Likewise a HR advisor can explain the merits of different ways of handling a people situation.  A HR consultant can guide you through the process, perhaps giving HR advice on the way, or maybe utilising a HR lawyer as an advisor.

Advisor and consultant

As with the idea of a ‘Coach mentor’ the roles of advisor and consultant can be combined.  For me, as I said at the start, what is important is the clarity about what it is you are buying.  Are you buying expertise that can help you understand the merits of the different approaches such that you can make the right decision and get on with it yourself.  Or are you buying someone, possibly with less detailed expertise but who knows enough about the topic but who’s real value is in understanding and being able to manage the process of getting you to where you want to be.

To revert to the original metaphor.  The advisor will tell you the time.  The consultant will realise you need to use your watch, find it and then tell you what it says.

Non-executive director

And finally the Non-executive director.  And the answer here is not clear.  With the important exception of taking on the legal duties of a director, the subject of another blog soon, the value and purpose of a Non executive director can be any or all of the above – perhaps with one exception.  Again the critical thing for me is for the board to be clear what they are looking for when they make the decision to appoint. Sometimes the primary value of a non executive to a company is their contacts and network.  Sometimes they may bring specialist expertise and be an advisor.  Often they will be a mentor or coach to the Chief Executive / Managing Director.

The only exception is, I feel, that a Non executive cannot, as a Non executive be a Consultant.  The consultant is a doer. Someone who’s role Is to manage a process of getting something done.  In managing that process they are working in an executive role. They are doing and responsible for getting done and not simply deciding. So whilst one person may hold two roles as Non executive and as a consultant, it is important to be clear about the distinction between the two.  As a consultant they are working for the Chief Executive and accountable to them.  As a non executive they are technically at least holding the Chief Executive to account on behalf of shareholders.

Personally, my experience is that most Non executives fall into two different camps.  Those that are there primarily to support the Chief Executive and guide them to ensure the company succeeds, and those that are there primarily to represent the shareholders and hold the Chief Executive to account for the success of the company. Clearly the interest of both is the success of the company and both have the legal duties to do what they need to do, but in my experience those challenges are usually approached from one or other of these two opposite directions.

Role clarity

So, in conclusion, the question of this article is “What is it you really, really want from this role?” Be clear about whether you are looking for a coach, a mentor, an advisor or a consultant. Or an agreed combination.  And if it’s a Non executive director you are considering, what approach do you want them to use and are you expecting them to also contribute in one of the other roles?