In the 1980s, when architect Leslie Moldow, AIA, was mulling over a job offer from another Boston firm, she knew where to turn for trusted advice—a senior member of the firm where she worked who had taken an interest in her career. Among other things, Moldow and her mentor discussed her long-term goals and whether or not the new position would meet them. With her blessing, Moldow accepted the new job. Another pivotal point in Moldow's career came when she was exploring how to blend teaching with her passion for architecture. Again, a frank discussion with the mentor gave her the confidence to land teaching positions at the Boston Architectural Center and the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston.
"She was a role model," Moldow says of the seven-year relationship. "She had a lot of energy and an insatiable curiosity, and really cared about people." Once the purview of the old boys' club, mentoring is no longer about power or plum assignments. The 21st-century model is democratic and grass-roots. For those who seek it out, mentoring happens partly by osmosis at residential firms. Interns work in teams with colleagues who represent a broad range of experience and technical expertise. Office design crits solicit feedback from all points of view. And in a studio setup, there's a day-to-day, across-the-desk exchange of information, whether it's how to detail flashing on a roof edge or how to communicate with a client or senior partner. Rarer are firms who have formal mentoring programs. But as the still reasonably healthy economy continues to consume the brightest and best employees, that may be changing as managers are forced into higher gear.
For architects, the tight market in general is compounded by another problem. "There are an awful lot of graduates coming out of school who are going into nonarchitectural related fields such as graphics and computer programming," observes John Merkle, AIA, TMS Architects, Portsmouth, N.H., who recently lost a good employee to a dot-com. "They don't want to intern for five or six years." Mentoring and a proactive approach to continuing education—call it professional development—is viewed increasingly as a strategy for attracting both employees and clients.
"A lot of graduates coming out of colleges today expect organizations to have formal mentoring programs in place," says Jan Logan, of the Minneapolis-based Menttium Corp., which specializes in mentoring programs for Fortune 500 companies. Blackridge Ltd.'s Jean Valence, AIA, Boston, has come to a similar conclusion. "Research has made it clear that a practice is more profitable and more effective at retaining clients and staff if it offers a professional development process," she says. "It strengthens their own internal culture."
MITHUN in Seattle, where Moldow is a principal, has a 50-year legacy of mentoring. Its founder, Omer Mithun, was a professor at the University of Washington. "Coming to this firm, you still have that sense of the value of education and mentoring junior staff," says Moldow, who shows the ropes to three protTgTs. Each of them approached her for help in different areas. At MITHUN, mentoring is entwined in the company culture. A written policy makes clear that one-on-one coaching is part of the responsibility of senior staff. "No one will look askance if they're spending time talking to someone," Moldow says. "It's not the business that makes it hard, but a sense of shyness on the junior person's part."
After an unsatisfactory experiment in formally pairing people up, MITHUN began encouraging protogés to choose their own mentors. But they're given help with the process. During annual reviews, for example, employees are asked to define their professional interests and goals. In the discussion, the supervisor will frequently offer to approach a particular architect about being his or her mentor. "The protTgTs can ask their coaches to go for coffee, have lunch, or simply walk over to their desk when they're feeling lost about something," Moldow says. "The relationship can be about getting access to professional information, as well as a greater understanding about how the firm works."
creating the culture
Mentoring is a more fluid affair at The Miller/Hull Partnership, another Seattle firm. "The word mentor is one of those overused droners, like the word synergy," says Bob Hull, FAIA. "It sounds like you're wearing a cape and felt hat, which is not the idea. It's to transfer information and be a source for questions that come up." New hires are assigned a seasoned architect to help them get the lay of the land. But it doesn't take long before knowledge gaps become more specific. Then, senior staff tries to stimulate discovery by pointing people in the right direction.
"Coaching in architectural firms used to happen mostly around technical issues, but now staff need management skills more than ever," Hull says. "We need to be able to talk well, listen well, and level well, especially in the public arena, where we get barraged by opinions. We may say to an employee, 'You need to talk to Norm about getting your process down on this job.'" Nor does Hull hesitate to involve the novice architects in competitive interviews with potential clients. "It rings true with clients that you've got this range of people involved," he says. "A little bit of youth adds spice."
In the effort to nurture well-rounded architects, Cottle Graybal Yaw, Aspen, Colo., throws into the pot not just architects at all levels of the office hierarchy but also diverse projects. Every commission begins with an on-site charrette that involves the principal and the project designer, as well as staff immersed in other kinds of work. "If a project architect and principal are working on a long-term project, we might make that project architect a candidate to go on a charrette or be a design or production consultant on another job," explains John Cottle, AIA. "We strongly believe in the cross-fertilization of one kind of job to another, from master-planning town design, to mixed-use commercial projects, to residential design, custom furniture, and lighting design. People love going from one thing to another."
The firm's flexibility extends to its employees' recreational lives, too. On a snowy day, a third of them might be out on the slopes. "Then they'll work until nine at night," Cottle says. "We think that's fabulous." "Those are our strongest drawing cards," he adds. "People like to be respected and have a well-balanced life in addition to a challenging intellectual atmosphere that stresses creative thinking."
At Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Minneapolis, intellectual curiosity is ingrained. The three partners--Tom Meyer, AIA, Jeff Scherer, FAIA, and Garth Rockcastle, FAIA--have all taught architecture at the University of Minnesota. Rockcastle currently leads the continuing education program there. "People like the blurring of the academic and practice worlds that exists here because of our teaching," says Meyer.
Every few weeks, part of an afternoon is set aside for a small group of people to review a project they haven't been involved with. It's a chance for those who are new to practicing architecture to voice their ideas early on. "They often bring a voice from their academic experience that's a little purer and more idealistic," Meyer says, "but they also hear the more experienced voices critiquing the project."
Teaching and learning are also inseparable at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, based in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "Every architect who joins us does both, imparting a point of view and their own intelligence even if they're a junior in experience," says Bernard Cywinski, AIA, of the Philadelphia office. Because there's collegiality, new hires can prove themselves quickly. "It's very interactive," he says. "Young people enjoy that for its own sake. And seasoned architects who join us can contribute in a major way immediately."
At MITHUN, architects at all levels also contribute their knowledge through a series of groups that meet monthly on interest areas such as technology, project management, and design. "It's not so much teaching as a mutual discussion," Moldow says. "The computer group might be working on a better way to set up our plotting guidelines. People in the trenches will have very good ideas about that." Through these groups, people often find their mentors. And the process also nurtures leadership. Certain employees will rise to the challenge of taking on a project, or acting as a coach or mentor.
Annual performance reviews typically formalize the discussion of an employee's goals and knowledge gaps. But at BCJ there are few surprises. "When you have a dialogue environment all the time, these sessions tend to be a verification of what you know rather than new news," Cywinski says. The reviews are seen as a chance to have a more complete discussion of long-term goals and personal concerns. It's a way to document, say, an architect's interest in going after the Rome Prize, teaching in some capacity, or taking a continuing education course.
Cottle Graybal Yaw's reviews aren't just top-down. Once a year all the employees write constructive criticisms of each other. During the review session they hear not just the management group's evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses, but comments from the entire staff. "It's a good way to im-prove," Cottle says. "People will then talk about the kinds of projects they want more experience with. Or they'll say, 'I don't know enough about the financial management of the firm.' A fair number ask to take courses--and there's an equal amount of steering by us."
With more and more states requiring continuing education credits for architects to maintain their licenses, architecture firms are expanding the pool of time and money for employees to earn those credits. Twice a month, NBBJ International, Columbus, Ohio, hosts brown-bag lunches covering AIA continuing education coursework. Equal time is devoted to Intern Development Program seminars. Under the IDP, even one-on-one mentorships earn points.
"Although interns meet with their mentors informally, they're asked for some type of documentation on a quarterly basis," notes NBBJ's Quentin Elliot, Associate AIA. "It can be just a piece of paper that says you've talked about what you're doing on a project or an issue that relates to your career path. If you set short-term goals, it keeps you focused." After a year of employment at Cottle Graybal Yaw, employees are granted three days off and full tuition for outside classes, whether it's to learn new design or technology skills or take a Dale Carnegie course. They request permission in a written proposal; when the class is over, they present what they've learned. Alternatively, Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle typically pays for tuition costs but only half the time off.
"We've found it's a way for them to take it seriously," Meyer says. "It's also a way for them to pursue their career honestly. But we're in the process of expanding our education resources." James, Harwick + Partners, Dallas, is also stepping up education efforts. Rather than a scattershot approach to attendance at workshops and conventions, the firm is focusing on interest areas that match up with people's strengths, weaknesses, and where they're headed. Mark Wolf, AIA, says he's figuring out how best to measure a program's success. "We want to get people to grade the quality of the seminar or workshop so we don't repeat a weak class with another person," Wolf says. "After six months, has it been productive? If not, did we not give them the right follow-up within the firm? If I send someone to a presentation workshop and put them in working drawings for the next six months, I've stunted the opportunities." The renewed effort is motivated by JH+P's goal to grow and to provide more opportunities for young people to advance in the firm.
Modern-day mentoring isn't just a relationship. It's a way of thinking that makes teaching and learning a priority. "In most firms, promotion is partly dependent on leadership skills, and helping people grow professionally is a very important leadership skill," says Blackridge's Valence. "So there's a real incentive for people to learn to be good teachers. Those who can never make the time are probably not leadership material."
a mentee: mithun's elizabeth macpherson
Firms that actively promote mentoring also make it easy for ambitious employees to rise in the company. Those interwoven elements are what attracted interior architect Elizabeth MacPherson, IIDA, ASID, to MITHUN five years ago. MacPherson, who oversees the interiors department, chose principal Leslie Moldow, AIA, to be a mentor. "I went to her for help in pursuing the next steps of my career, but also for help facilitating MITHUN's next steps," MacPherson says. "I wondered, what does MITHUN need to attain a higher level of interior design, and how could my skills be a part of that plan?"
MacPherson was drawn to Moldow both for the ways they're alike and the ways they're different. Like MacPherson, Moldow enjoys working on big-picture problems. "There's an analytical and a business part of our world, and she has an inclination toward that," MacPherson says. "She's a great problem-solver." But MacPherson also coveted Moldow's communication style. "She's exceedingly direct, refreshingly so," MacPherson says. "When I first came here that was something I felt like I needed to work on in dealing with other people."
A while back, MacPherson was concerned that the larger firm didn't fully understand the role of the interior designers. Moldow encouraged her to push for education between the two divisions. "I took that as a challenge and did an interiors week, where every day we had something to share with the office," MacPherson says. She invited speakers to give talks on the interior design process and vendors to display their products. The interiors team also pinned up design boards explaining what was involved in a project. "The thing I appreciate about her," MacPherson says, "is that she gave me a challenge but didn't tell me how to get there."
MacPherson has also diversified her mentor portfolio. For sage advice on supervising staff, she turns to principal Bruce Williams, AIA, head of the firm's personnel department. "When there's a human resources issue, he's been instrumental in helping me to move our group forward in a positive way," she says. "As busy as he is, he's always incredibly available. He's a good sounding board and just wise." Effective mentors have the interests of the firm in mind, but also want the best for their protégés. "Leslie would want the best for MITHUN, but she also really cares about me," MacPherson says. "People can read that. And in a sense, that creates loyalty for MITHUN."
mentoring by the book
Looking for a mentor? Check out "Initiativs," a do-it-yourself package from Menttium Corp., Minneapolis, marketed to people at all levels of a firm. Using two books and a video, the authors walk individuals through the process of finding a mentor and growing the relationship. "Circles" is another Menttium product, designed for 15 to 25 people. It's geared toward a group of one mentor and mentees with similar objectives. Go to www.menttium.com, or call 952.814.2600.