Contractors, Consultants and Coaches are often interchangeably used terms for externally provided people who help, and in some languages, the terms aren’t differentiated at all. However, they are different skillsets, involving a progressively changing focus of understanding from what we do, to how we do it, to why we work as we do.

In this introduction, I’ll look at the common basis for all three roles: helping clients.

Before we begin, let’s set a base understanding. I hope we can all agree that Resource is a fundamentally inappropriate way to describe skilled, intelligent human beings with hopes, dreams and feelings. Soylent Green may be Made Of People, but People Are Not Resources.

What all three roles have in common is that they are helping roles, brought in from the outside. Both of these factors are important, and play a distinct part in how the role works.

Brought From the Outside

Being an outsider is a tough challenge. You don’t know what you’re walking into, even if well briefed in advance. You’re essentially an immigrant, and need to learn the native culture to be fully accepted and respected, but at the same time, your outside knowledge and perspective is part of the value you bring. You’re not blinkered by the assumptions of We’ve always done it this way and are expected to know the difference between not done here and not doable/done anywhere.

Being brought in from the outside also gives you significant status – the situation is filled with a sense of we can’t do this with you cast as the hero who can. Now this is great for the ego if you let it, but that’s highly dangerous too; it’s a seed for resentment and rejection of every single thing you do. Because usually you’ve been commissioned by someone other than the source of the implicit failure – it’s nearly always a “help them” not a “help us” and your entrance is seen as a criticism.

Helping

That sense of being pushed onto a team is a direct route to failure, because one of the fundamental facts of a helping relationship is that you can’t help anyone who doesn’t want to be helped. It’s deep in our psychology that self-reliance is something to be aspired to, and dependence on others to be grown out of. You see this in the smallest of children – from very early after developing language, a child’s response to offers of help is to insist that they be allowed to do it themselves.

Asking for help is really hard for humans, and harder still is accepting help that we haven’t asked for. It makes us feel like that incapable child again, with the giant looming over us, telling us we can’t do our jobs. It’s a huge blow to our self esteem – no wonder people work to undermine help that’s imposed on us. And I have nothing but respect for anyone who accepts and works with help they didn’t ask for.

The way out of this is to rebalance the power relationship. Take the helper out of the looming parental role, and build up the helped. If you’re the helper, deemphasise your skills and knowledge. This is entirely counter intuitive, I know. You’re being brought in to bring your skills and knowledge to bear on a problem where the existing capability is assessed as failing. But – with the possible exception of the one individual who is signing your cheques – you absolutely cannot go around showing it. You’ll be introduced as The Expert; push that title away as hard as you can. Repeat after me I know a little from other places, but you’re the experts here – no-one knows this like you do. The point you’re aiming for is a relationship of equals, where the helped feels no shame in reaching out for a hand.

You also need to hold back on solutions. If your experience is strong enough to put you in a helping role, you’ll start diagnosing the problem really really quickly. The temptation then is to go into Doctor mode, and get out the prescription pad. Don’t do this. Firstly, until your clients are ready to accept your help – which we know needs redressing the power balance – your solutions aren’t going to be implemented and your help is going to fail. Secondly, it’s far too easy to prescribe generic solutions based on what works elsewhere. Take the extra time to further customise the proposals, better fitting the context.

Looking back at my experience, I can point to failure after failure from my impatience and not doing these. From playing The Expert. Or The Doctor. Satisfying my own ego at the expense of my clients.

And the thing is, I know that in this article, I’m doing it again. Being The Expert. Rushing to prescribe solutions to you. Which means you’re reading this in one of two modes.

Those poor schlubs
You’re likely reading along with a wry smile at those idiots who don’t get this. The poor failures who need this advice had better listen up. Yeah. The other people. Not you, no. C’mon Burns, get to the meat of the piece about Contractors, Consultants & Coaches. Which means you’re rejecting the help I’m offering, because you don’t need it. Well, I know a little, but you’re the expert in your own work. I can’t possibly know your context, and right now, you’re right. I’m no help to you.
Help Me ObiWan, You’re My Only Hope
Either you’ve come looking for help, or in the above, you’ve recognised a fellow practitioner who might have some insight into your situation.

This guy’s walkin’ down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, Hey you! Can you help me out? The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on.

Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, Father, I’m down in this hole; can you help me out? The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a friend walks by. Hey, Joe, it’s me. Can ya help me out? And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, Are ya stupid? Now we’re both down here. The friend says, Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.

Leo McGarry, in The West Wing

If you’re thinking of me as a peer – a friend even – my help might well be useful.

So now we’ve established you understand – either from your own capability or from the thoughts above – how outside help works (or doesn’t), in my next piece, we’ll start having a look at three common and easily confused helping roles.

Contracting, Consulting and Coaching are all helping roles, operated from the outside. To fulfil any effectively needs an effective understanding of the helping relationship, starting with being asked for it.

Bootnotes

  1. Tack to @marcusoftnet for the original insight that Contractor and Consultant roles use the same word in Swedish.

  2. Want to know more about how to make your helping relationships more effective (from either side)? Here’s your reading list
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Martin Burns

Transformation Consultant at CA Inc (formerly Rally)
Previously: Leader of software delivery portfolios in large scale orgs.
Specialism: Transforming complex delivery organisations to be more Lean/Agile.
Mindset: Continuous Improvement Obsessive
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CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Contractors and Consultants and Coaches (Oh My!) by Martin Burns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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