It’s been no secret that, when it comes to adequately preparing students with the complete range of necessary skills for private practice, design schools have failed miserably…

It’s been no secret that, when it comes to adequately preparing students with the complete range of necessary skills for private practice, design schools have failed miserably. Larger firms, seeking to narrow the gap between what staff needed to know and actually did know, identified a long list of skills and subjects and a new entity was born—the firm university.

Within the last five years, there has been a movement afoot to both centralize and internalize training. Beginning with “intern” level professionals and continuing upward to principal level, whole curricula were organized to ensure firm professionals were not only better trained in the mechanics of project delivery but in essential people and management skills.

Such firms as Payette, Hillier, and EYP invested heavily in organizing, staffing, monitoring and tracking the content for and results of these “universities” within their firms. In some cases, the programs took on the trappings of traditional universities with their own identities emblazoned on sportswear, supplies and course materials, accompanied by graduation ceremonies with diplomas and certifications.

One of the troublesome aspects of the firm university trend is that it’s based on two premises: one, that the fact that design students paid upwards of eighty-thousand dollars for a deficient education is acceptable and, two, that the design firm accepts, without question, responsibility to correct the programs’ inadequacy. It seems that instead of developing another program to address this issue, firms need to reflect back on the profession’s historical roots and return to the original system which prevented this problem– the mentor.

In architecture’s infancy, the master builder surrounded himself (there were no “herselfs” yet in the business) with an apprentice. Over the course of seven years or so, the apprentice(s) would learn not only the design and technical aspects of the profession but the marketing and operational issues as well, much as a son did from a father. With the fragmentation of the master builder into the discrete professions of architecture, interior design, engineering, landscape architecture and construction, the mentor’s value and emphasis diminished. As design professionals further specialized into functions, the mentor’s traditional role has weakened almost to nonexistence.

Yet, there still remain scattered examples where great architects surround themselves with apt proteges vying for the chance to “sit at the feet of the master.” Some which come to mind include Sir Norman Foster, Raphael Vinoly, Renzo Piano, Michael Graves and James Polshek. To a certain extent, that role is perpetuated by talented architect/mentors within larger firms: Alan Chimacoff, who leads Hillier’s education studio; Michael Winstanly, in Leo A. Daly’s Washington, DC office and Ralph Johnson at Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck at Perkins and Will. The key difference in all of these situations, though, is that the mentor-student ratio has far exceeded the original one-to-one, moving in some cases to as high as one-to-seventy. At that scale, it becomes impossible for the mentor to sufficiently invest himself or herself in one individual so as to have the necessary impact.

With all the buzz going around about mentoring, why isn’t more actually being done? One reason may be that no one really knows what to do. Most design professionals are notorious in their loathing of hiring outside consultants to advise them.

According to Leigh Kibby of Kinematic, one mentoring consulting firm based in Great Britain, “Any CEO or manager truly interested in change and/or improving workplace performance must also become deeply committed to the mentoring process. In fact, mentoring is fast becoming the most efficient and cost-effective way for delivering corporate outcomes and achieving corporate growth. It enables more effective management while assisting the ease of enacting, and speed of, strategic moves.”

Yet, according to David Jensen of Search Masters International, “some supervisors do little to spread their knowledge through the ranks because they mistakenly believe that holding on to knowledge represents a sort of power. There are few things as depressing, particularly for creative and highly technical employees, as the drifting sensation created when a supervisor decides to withhold information. Although it is true that knowledge is power, those who do not pass it on and plan for their replacement may find themselves on a career plateau.”

“One other concern usually heard from the weakest supervisors,” continues Jensen, “is that it is possible to shoot yourself in the foot by training and mentoring someone who can end up being your boss. The greatest compliment that can be paid a manager is for those who were training under him or her to succeed in the company.”

For those who acknowledge and accept this fact, how, then, can firms establish an on-going program of tutelage and instruction with existing resources, cognizant of the fact that the plates of most firm members with mentor potential are already quite full?

Dr. Linda Phillips-Jones, an internationally recognized expert on mentoring and president of The Mentoring Group based in Grass Valley, California, advises the following if you are going to plan a new mentoring initiative:
Start small. You want to be successful in all respects, so focus a pilot effort on a group that is likely to do well. Two good targets are new hires and budding leaders.

Consider postponing a formal program (with matched pairs or groups) in favor of what “Enhanced Informal Mentoring.” Conduct orientations on what effective mentoring looks like, make mentoring self-study materials available, provide some informal coaching for people seeking mentors and to be mentored and circulate anonymous examples of effective programs.

Plan ahead. Take at least six months to plan your initiative and get “buy in.”

Link goals to the mission and values of your organization. Mentoring efforts that aren’t linked to the goals of the organization will not be taken seriously and will fail.

Don’t do everything yourself. Create a dynamic task force that’s excited about mentoring. Be sure everyone has a key role and set of tasks.
Don’t re-invent the wheel. Good materials for designing programs and for training mentors and mentees exist. Check out listings on the Web. Consider bringing in one or more consultants to help you think through your strategy, train everyone, and evaluate the impact of the mentoring effort.

If you opt for a program with mentor-mentee pairs (or mentoring circles), plan a great deal of structure. Have a formal application process, clear roles for participants, competencies on which mentees will focus, forms to turn in, formalized training, materials, scheduled ongoing activities, etc. You can always loosen up, but it’s harder to tighten up if a formal program begins with a too-casual approach.

Evaluate everything you do. Don’t wait until the year is over and try to pull together some results to decide if you’ll do it again. Go beyond “feel good” data that say the training was enjoyable. Try to get some baseline data before you begin on mentees’ competencies, knowledge, attendance, satisfaction with the organization, etc. Then measure changes.

One of the mistakes many firms make is that they emphasize the program’s structure more than the pairing of participants. Dr. William Gray, founder and president of Corporate Mentoring Solutions, Inc., a British Columbia-based mentoring consulting firm, was among the first to recognize that, for optimal success, the appropriate match between mentor and protege needed to occur. The four mentoring styles Gray identified in his Mentor-Protege Relationship Model represent different ways mentor-protege partners can relate and work together. Integral to Gray’s Model is a series of mentoring behaviors that characterize a particular style. The goal is for proteges to become capable of functioning without mentor help.

Informational and Guiding Mentoring Styles focus on equipping proteges by passing on needed skills, values, and knowledge.

Collaborative and Confirming Mentoring Styles are meant to empower proteges to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, and develop their own Mentoring Action Plans. Mentor assistance decreases as proteges become increasingly more capable. Both equipping and empowering are needed for maximum effectiveness.

As Dr. Phillips-Jones wrote, “Mentoring initiatives (and formal programs) take much time and effort. They look deceptively simple, yet they’re not. Mentoring isn’t rocket science, and yet it’s far more than common sense.”

Firms spend a great deal of time and money identifying and attracting the right candidates. Spending as much, if not more of each to enable them to reach their full potential will ensure that, over the long term, the investment return pays off.