Defining roles

Based on the nature of my work since 2002, I define myself today as being three things to design firms – a consultant, a mentor and a coach. In doing so, design firms (and brands) sometimes ask me to clarify the differences in these roles, so here’s a simple description for each which may well be obvious to most but useful to some.

Consulting – a consultant is someone accomplished and experienced in their field, offering a great deal of knowledge or skill in a particular area, that is called upon for professional, specialist or technical advice and/or opinions. Essentially, they are relied on to understand the problem and present solutions. Consulting is unlike coaching because with pure coaching, the answers come from the client.

Mentoring – a mentor is an experienced and trusted guide/advisor. Mentorship is a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person (the mentor) helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person (the mentee). The mentor may be older or younger than the person being mentored, but she/he must have a certain area of expertise. The focus of mentoring is to develop the whole person and so the techniques are broad and require wisdom in order to be used appropriately. 

Coaching – coaching can be defined as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential.” The coach is the subject matter expert at coaching, not necessarily the subject matter expert of the client’s coaching topic.

The challenge with each individual client engagement can be determining (in the contracting and scoping phase) which of these three hats needs to be worn, and knowing how and when to ‘switch’ and strike the right balance between these roles to best serve a client or situation. On reflection, most client engagements require all three hats to be worn, just at different times, during the course of working with them.

The common thread that runs through these roles in working with design firms and brands (based on experience and client feedback), seems to be the tangible value design firms say they derive from; 

  • the ‘design sector specialism’ of teer,
  • the ‘ideas and initiatives’ that are brought to the table,
  • the ‘understanding of business function’ and ‘services offered’ to clients, and
  • the ‘external perspective’ of working with designers since the mid 80s that have focused in; graphics, products, furniture, interiors, experiential and events, wayfinding and environmental graphics. 

There is an additional role worth mentioning – that my experience lends itself to and which borders on the hats I wear – that can ‘blur the lines’ somewhat further….the Non-Executive Director.

Non-Executive Director – often abbreviated to non-exec, NED or NXD, the NED is a member of the board of directors, but is not part of the executive management. NEDs typically stand back from the operational running of the business and act in advisory capacity only. NEDs have the same legal duties, responsibilities and potential liabilities as their executive director counterparts, but they do not have to be shareholders in the business. NEDs attend board meetings to offer the benefit of their advice, and they are usually paid a fee for their services but are not regarded as employees.