Some roles I take on - and what they are

· January 27, 2017

The other day I heard someone distinguish between a few roles that I take on from time to other. I’ve never made the different between those roles clear to myself and as a consequence I end up doing them all at the same time, in my consulting.

This can sometimes be confusing for me, and my clients but makes me also ineffective in the role I’m trying - or is expected to play. I actually wrote about this in a post a few years ago - without really knowing what kind of problem I was addressing.

In this post I wanted to share a few thoughts on these different roles and hopefully

Without saying each of the following headings could easily fill books. I’m just jotting down my current understanding of the concepts here, that helps me to clarify it for myself. If you find it useful it would make me very happy.


Yoda the mentor - Luke the mentee

A mentor is someone that has more experience and knowledge about a certain area than the mentee.

Mentorship is a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person


This means that there’s a clear difference of levels between the mentor and mentee. The mentee seeks the advice of the more experienced mentor, within that area.

The mentee seeks the advice of the mentor. It’s still advice which means that the mentee needs to decide if and how to apply the advice in his/her current context.

For me this relationship reminds me of parent-child or older-wiser-person and a younger person that wants to learn.


A teacher instructing a student from Pixabay

An instructor all about teaching and instructing someone on how to do things. There’s a very clear difference in levels here. But the focus is more narrower, me thinks - it’s solely about teaching this topic at hand. An instructor is here to teach me one thing, one area. We’re in this class to learn about TDD.

If the student has questions the instructor should (most often) have the answers. That’s why he is the instructor.


a practical skill encompassing the ability of an individual or organization to “lead” or guide other individuals, teams, or entire organizations.


A leader points to the goal for the people she leads. Again there’s a clear division of roles here; she’s the leader and consequently I’m a follower of her.

To get people to follow there’s a number of different leadership styles but that is a topic that is much bigger than this simple post allows to handle. Although one interesting aspect is how much of the how that a leader leaves up to the followers. In many modern organisations a lot of the how is left to lowest level of the organisation. One interesting way to talk and find out about this is Delegation Poker, by Jurgen Appelo.

There’s many different types of leader that comes to mind, but the type I want to be is the ones that are heavy on the Why and light on the How. Simon Sinek talks a lot about this type of leaders.

Simon Sinek leadership style starts with Why - From Wikipedia


A coach is on the same level as the focus person. He has no formal authority over the focus person and offers advice, consultancy, in the question at hand.

What I find fascinating and a bit challenging (for me personally) is that the coach doesn’t claim to have more or deeper knowledge in the area that is being discovered. It’s more about a mutual exploration of the topic, where both will learn and in the common exploration both will learn.

Often the coach is the one asking questions (could be using powerful questions) and the focus person is giving answers. In this conversation more knowledge is discovered.

I’m particularly bad in only asking questions and keeping my instructor-side calm, but when I dare to do so I very often discover a deep knowledge, that is the foundation for coaching:

The focus person is full of potential — together we will discover it

Two young friends crossing the scary river - From Pixabay

I come to think about friends sitting down, talking over a situation or problem. Or maybe a group of people learning together.

Quite interesting is to experience when the coach and focus person is shifting back and forth in the group, sometimes becoming totally seamless. This sometimes happen in tightly knitted teams or groups - try mob programming and you might see it in action.


When I started to think about this post I thought that I would end up with a line or diagram with the different roles from right to left. I hoped that my clients could help me to point to the type of role they wanted more or less of…

Now that I read the descriptions above, that I’ve just jotted down here, I realise that these are roles that I take on more or less in the different relationships we are in.

I’ve always been almost ashamed for not listening and asking enough questions as a coach, but now I start to think that this behaviour could stem from a sense of the team (or person) needing a mentor or instructor.

The trick of course is to know when to be what and when to switch. I’m thinking that going in with a coaching mindset suits me best; it’s a humble and curious approach of discovery and trying to help others to improve while learning. I want to be like that.

This was useful for me to write down - I hope you found it a bit interesting too.

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