Mentorship vs. Coaching vs. Directing vs. Modeling

Being intentional about learning.

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Around 2 minutes to read

As the design industry has matured over the past few decades, the importance of mentorship has grown along with it. However, mentorship seems to have become a catch-all term to mean “working with someone more junior than you to help them grow.” That’s fine, but the danger is that it leaves out all the different kinds of ways to work with someone and help them grow, of which mentorship is only one flavor.

In my work, I’ve found 4 distinct ways to work with someone to help them grow:

  1. Mentoring: telling someone how you’ve done it.
  2. Coaching: helping someone do it their own way.
  3. Modeling: showing someone how you’d do it.
  4. Directing: telling someone what to do.

For example, let’s say I was working with a mid-level designer to help them get a promotion at work to “Senior Designer.” Here’s what each of the different strategies would sound like from me to them:

  1. Mentoring: “I got promoted to Senior Designer by taking more of a role in the work of everyone on my team, not just my own personal work.”
  2. Coaching: “What are you most excited to do right now?”
  3. Directing: “Create a 1-paragraph description of what is and isn’t included in the role of a Senior Designer. Present that to your manager in your next review.”
  4. Modeling: “Sit in on my next client presentation so you can hear the kinds of words I use to talk about the design.”

Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive. Coaches can direct. Mentors can coach. Directors can model. The combination of approaches makes for a much more valuable experience on the receiving end.

Some people need direction and not mentorship. Others need mentorship and not coaching. Some people need modeling at the beginning and then mentorship later. It’s important to be intentional about which one is happening at any given time.

If you’re working with someone to help them grow, consider all of these 4 as individual tools in your toolbelt.

If you’re working with someone who’s trying to help you grow (a manager, a mentor, etc.), feel free to ask for a different approach when you’re stuck. Giving feedback to the person helping you like “can you tell me what to do here?" (asking for direction) or “can you show me how you’d do it?” (asking for modeling) can help everyone.

For even more approaches, check out Support Systems for Learning.

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