Mentoring: everybody talks about it but nobody really does it. Design Forum Architecture, led by Ludinda Ludwig, is an exception. Here, she reveals how to make the program work.

To most firms, mentoring is a lot like IBM’s philosophy about service: everybody talks about it but nobody really does it. There are some exceptions. One of those is Design Forum, a 100-person retail design and architectural consulting firm, headquartered in Dayton, Ohio. Lucinda Ludwig, president of Design Forum Architecture, reveals how to make the program work.

When I arrived for my first day of work at Design Forum seven years ago, my name was on my office door, business cards were in my desk, as was a monogrammed brief case, pen and notebook. The office was impeccably clean and organized. After having had experiences at other firms inheriting ex-employee’s messy workstations with little or no orientation, Design Forum made a wonderful first impression.

The firm began its Mentoring Program to build on a tradition of welcoming and orienting new employees. Bruce Dybvad, Senior Vice President, explains “our biggest investment by far is our talented people—it’s extremely competitive finding them and even harder keeping them. We make every effort to give our employees a thorough orientation while making them comfortable in new surroundings, with new faces. Our Mentoring Program helps new employees contribute quicker, feel more at home, and give us a competitive advantage by retaining the valuable people we’ve trained and invested in.”

Prior to a new employee’s arrival, their workstation/office is cleaned and made ready for them, appropriate software is loaded on their computer and the staff is made aware of the new employee’s role and background. A volunteer from the staff—the mentor—is assigned to greet them on their first day and introduce them to everyone, explain roles and responsibilities and give them a thorough tour of the office. One of our more creative mentors discovered that a new recruit (a recent interior design graduate) was going to be in town with her parents looking for an apartment a week before her scheduled first day. The mentor invited the whole family to join the firm for our annual Labor Day Cook Out, and convinced the recruit to attend the annual company canoe trip the following weekend.

During the first week of employment, procedural issues and benefits are thoroughly reviewed, such as insurance, vacation, personal days, time sheets, and security codes, using a checklist so that nothing is forgotten. These issues are documented in an Employee Handbook. Each employee is also given a Procedures Manual that covers everything from graphic and cad standards to leadership and management issues (currently being converted from hard copy format to Intranet). More subtle cultural issues are discussed as well, typically by the department head at a local restaurant during a casual new employee lunch. Managers and future leaders are encouraged to read books such as The One Minute Manager, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and How to Win Friends and Influence People. If the employee’s position involves the use of technology, the cad manager or system manager will schedule evaluation and training sessions.

Ongoing mentoring includes discussion of professional goals, encouraging questions with an open door policy, involvement in the IDP program and internal training seminars on topics such as communication skills and project management tools. Our emphasis on customer service and design quality, as well as speed and efficiency, is communicated in various ways, including design pin ups and redmark review sessions. Twice a year, Lee Carpenter, the firm’s founder and President, leads a New Employee Luncheon focussing on the firm’s 22-year history of projects and clients.

When Design Forum’s new cad manager joined the firm two years ago, his impression was “everyone is so friendly and enthusiastic. They take the mentoring program to heart and are very serious about it.” Now that he has become a mentor, he says “people here seem to enjoy sharing their knowledge and they recognize the company as a place where you can definitely learn a lot.” Staff turnover has decreased over the last few years, in part due to this innovative and focussed effort to orient and mentor staff.