February 8, 2008
Mentoring for Architects

by Michael Meehan, AIA
BWBR Architects

Summary: If asked several years ago, I would have said I don't have any mentors. Not since IDP have I been in a formal relationship in which I met with someone regularly to discuss my career. As I think back, I've actually had many mentors, even if I haven't thought of them as such because the relationships were less formal and broader than a single topic. Perhaps I didn't consider these people mentors because they also wore other hats—as friends, managers, clients, peers, and other leaders. Today, I realize I have had many mentors, each with his or her own style and unique mentoring relationship.

The Young Architects Forum has learned from young architects that mentoring is a top issue about which they want to learn more. They see it as crucial to their growth and development. My task with the YAF is to champion our efforts regarding mentoring and identify how we can best support young architects in their search for information on the topic. I approach this not as an expert, but as a person who is learning about the issues.

It starts with IDP
For many of us, our introduction to mentorship is through the prescribed relationship defined in the IDP Guidelines. A mentor, for the Intern Development Program, is someone who offers advice and guidance on your career growth, reviews and signs your paperwork, and is hopefully not a coworker. The minimum terms of the relationship are spelled out. Your mentor's signature is required on every employment verification form. The challenge for all involved is to make this mentoring opportunity more than a simple reporting and accountability transaction. Many times, when IDP is complete, the regular meetings stop. IDP provides a structured, focused mentoring experience, but it often comes to an end when interns complete the IDP process.

IDP provides a structured, focused mentoring experience, but it often comes to an end when interns complete the IDP process

After IDP and licensure, young architects can be cast adrift without the structure they have experienced as interns. This is, I assure you, both a great thing and somewhat confusing at the same time. What an achievement—a license pinned up over the desk, no more reporting forms, and no more exams! It's a relief, but it also means that new goals need to be developed. Charting the course to the new goals can be confusing, and we need to tap the experience of those around us by seeing them as mentors.

But what kind of mentoring comes next?
In 2007, YAF hosted the YAF 15 Summit, a strategic planning meeting in which more than 50 young architects and stakeholders gathered to examine possibilities. Mentoring rose quickly to the top of the list. This was surprising only because it was number one by a large margin. Through discussion, we realized young architects have different mentoring needs than interns, as mentoring issues shift away from licensure and the registration exam to areas of personal and professional growth. Professional development becomes a focus as architects strive to learn skills that will advance their careers to the next level. Personal support issues and balancing the demands of careers and family become more acute.

To supplement our discoveries at the YAF 15 Summit, we started to collect information from young architects about the style and content of preferred mentoring relationships. There are interesting stories to share. For example, many young architects claim to have a mentor. Many times, architects with mentors have received encouragement from others to seek mentoring relationships, but maintain the relationships because they find value in the experience. This suggests that architects need encouragement to start the relationship, but the energy and benefits of mentoring are self-sustaining once under way. Understanding this series of ideas will help us to encourage architects to begin mentoring. Getting started might be the most difficult part.

Concerning the style of mentoring relationships, young architects prefer informal mentoring arrangements, in contrast to carefully defined and regulated mentoring experiences. Two-way discussions are more valuable than top-down instruction. And it is most beneficial when mentoring discussions cover more than one issue. Young architects seem to crave advice on life issues in addition to work. In short, young architects are searching for the next goal after licensure. They (we) want to hear about how to navigate the intertwined issues of work and life, and strike a balance between the two. We want to know how to become better architects, as well as better people and citizens. It's all connected. Mentoring resources for architects will be most helpful if they are specific to architects and respect these preferences of the stakeholders. These factors also suggest that the national organization needs to work closely with local components, providing models and tools for local use.

It's easier to begin and sustain mentoring relationships when both parties are from the same geographic area

Finally, we've heard that location is everything. It's easier to begin and sustain mentoring relationships when both parties are from the same geographic area. Furthermore, to sustain the relationships, regular meeting times and locations and agreed-upon goals are important. Like IDP mentoring relationships, the best mentors seem to be from outside our own offices, but from the same region. Face-to-face meetings are very important to a successful mentoring experience. But too close isn't comfortable, either.

Young architects make good mentors
Young architects are uniquely positioned to be mentors. I recently read that the best mentor is someone who is only a few steps ahead of you on the learning curve. Recent lessons and personal discoveries are fresh in our minds as we talk with those who are just behind us in experience. I've noticed a similar behavior in new managers or project architects as they work with their teams. If a person is new to a role, there is a tendency to spend a lot of time talking with team members about process. Engaging young architects in mentoring relationships can harness that energy and attitude towards the profession.

The Young Architects Forum has only started to harness this energy. We've started by identifying the issue of interest to, and relevant and urgent for emerging professionals. We also know talented young architects and interns are difficult to find and retain, and we think mentoring can be a tool to keep the brightest and best engaged as architects. YAF is gathering more information about the issue and working to bring programs and resources to the AIA. At the 2008 AIA National Convention in May in Boston, we will sponsor one of several programs on mentoring in which we will showcase different styles and types of mentoring programs that can be replicated in your area, firm, or chapter.

We are keenly aware of what we don't know, and we have questions that need answers

Young architects need mentoring because we are in the middle of our journey. We are keenly aware of what we don't know, and we have questions that need answers. Young architects see many options and often need help deciding in which direction to focus their abundant energy. Young architects are often not specialists or principals, but see the need to carve their own special place in our world. Sometimes we know where we want to go but don't know which skills we need to develop first. Often, we know our options but need help choosing the best one. We seek structure and find it greatly enhanced through the guidance of others. Mentoring provides the mechanism to clarify our next steps.

Tapping into the core
Apprenticeship has been the taproot of the profession for hundreds of years. Only in recent decades have young architects been masters of technology that our mentors rely on for their livelihood; experienced architects depend on the hard technology skills of the young. Young architects depend on the soft skills of experienced architects. Mentoring bridges the gap in both directions. To capture the power of mentoring, we need to understand a modern definition of mentoring specific to architects.

Apprenticeship has been the taproot of the profession for hundreds of years

On a personal level, I suspect I did not identify many of my past mentors as such because I did not think about mentorship broadly enough. Formal mentoring is only one type of relationship; informal mentoring can also be beneficial. My challenge for the New Year has three parts. I need to:

  • Nurture the mentoring relationships I have and did not recognize
  • Identify how mentoring can help me acquire new skills and reach out to people who can help me with those skills
  • Reach out to people who want to learn, and share the experience I have.

All three goals can be served with the same tool: mentoring.

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Michael Meehan is past chair of the Young Architects Forum Advisory Committee. He is the professional development manager at BWBR Architects in Saint Paul and a 2008 AIA Young Architects Award recipient.

Listen to the Latest Podcast
The YAF has just posted a new podcast on mentoring. To access the MP3 file, click here.

Mentoring in architecture can:
· Diversify our profession
· Address attrition of women and minorities early in their careers
· Support the AIA strategic plan
· Provide a gateway to future involvement for emerging professionals
· Transfer knowledge across generations
· Lead interns to licensure
· Increase personal networks.

YAF 15 Summit Top 10 Issues for Young Architects
1. Mentorship
2. Human Capital
3. Leadership/Interaction Skills
4. Practice Management
5. Credibility of the Architect
6. Responsibility of the Architect
7. Outreach
8. Work/Life Balance
9. Integrated Practice
10. Technical Skills

Read the YAF 15 Summit outcomes.