The Merits of Mentoring

Michael Smith , 8 May 2017

When it comes to creating a motivated and well-supported architectural workforce, mentoring is a no-brainer, argues Michael Smith. 

At first, a director of a small architecture practice may seem an unusual person to be talking about the merits of mentoring. After all, we don’t have the challenge of managing an office with 50+ staff. However, having seen firsthand the benefits of being both a mentee and a mentor over the last few years, it is somewhat baffling that our profession hasn’t yet fully embraced mentoring.

As every architect knows, the generalist nature of the profession requires the practitioner to possess a great deal of knowledge and skill. This intellectual tool kit has a variety of different components, which come from a variety of sources. Our education is acquired from universities, while our training is acquired from on-the-job learning and experience. But where do architectural ‘street smarts’ come from? Where can you get tips on wrangling complex situations, dealing with difficult individuals or negotiating towards preferred outcomes? These are the kinds of real world issues that are best addressed through mentoring.

The benefits to the mentee can be profound. Research in the United States has found those under mentorship are 20% more likely to have a pay increase and are five times more likely to have a promotion than those without a mentor. At key times in a career – such as preparing to register, returning to work after a break, or indeed setting up a small practice – mentoring can provide clarity, support and advice that is invaluable to the recipient.

Practices that don’t mentor their staff are not only letting their staff down, they are also relinquishing ground to their competitors. In 2016, a Deloitte research survey found that Millennials planning to stay with their employer for more than five years are twice as likely to have a mentor (68%) than not (32%). Architecture practices are only as good as their staff. If you have a high rate of staff turnover, or if your practice does not have a culture of continual improvement, it is far more challenging to deliver high quality architecture for your clients.

Ultimately, if you are not investing in your staff, you are effectively standing still. This is one of the key underlying themes of the Parlour Guide on mentoring. If employers link their mentoring efforts to the practice business strategy, there is an even greater benefit to the practice.

In 2015, our practice initiated a mentorship program for final year architecture students. Having ourselves received mentoring from several very generous leaders within our profession, we thought it only right to pay that generosity forward. Our targeted goal was to make a difference, even in a very small way, to the problem of talented women graduates leaving the profession early in disproportionate numbers. Though it is not up to us alone to fix this problem, we felt that the least we could do is play our part and contribute to a positive culture.

Now in its third year, the program has had unexpected benefits for us as mentors as well. We now have a far greater understanding of the concerns of the next generation of architects as they begin their professional journey. Our practice can demonstrate to new staff that we take their professional development seriously, making our small entity an attractive employment proposition for up-and-coming talent.

For all the information you need on mentoring in the architectural context, remember to take a look at Guide 10 of Parlour’s guides to equitable practice.

Happy mentoring!

Michael Smith is Deputy Chairperson of the Australian Institute of Architects' National Committee for Gender Equity and Director of Melbourne-based practice Atelier Red+Black. This article is part of a series of articles being written by the NCGE and published on Parlour. The ACA is very pleased to republish this series with permission.

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