Architectural practices are built on a foundation of skilled individuals, collaborating efficiently across a range of ages and experience levels. In order to pass on expertise and aid the professional development within our practices, we need to implement systems and strategies that bring professionals together.

Mentoring offers opportunities and pathways for both mentors and mentees to expand their knowledge base, build relationships and develop invaluable skills. Incorporating a mentoring program into your practice can have a substantial impact on individuals and practice culture, regardless of your size or scale.

Stepping Up on Mentoring

Mentoring accelerates professional development, building awareness, skills and personal confidence to experiment beyond an individual’s comfort zone. Informal mentoring takes place every day, usually witnessed in a supportive relationship that cultivates knowledge exchange between colleagues, consultant teams and even clients. Access to this type of mentoring is varied, influenced by individual biases, personality types, task affinity and timing. The risk of solely relying on informal mentoring is a practice culture with distorted access to opportunity. Practices within the Champions of Change Architecture Group are testing formal mentoring programs to scaffold inequities that may arise when we leave professional development via mentoring up to chance.

Mentoring is a natural process where an individual with experience encourages the development of others with less experience. Mentoring is multi-faceted; it can take place somewhere on a spectrum between formal and informal, able to change and evolve as the needs of the mentee develop. It can also be between individuals or in a group, where the group offers greater opportunities for varied discussion and fresh perspectives.

In a professional setting, mentoring sees individuals share information and guide careers by offering insight into the profession and the industry, taking time to listen and offer counsel, and give access to professional networks. Mentors help practitioners to grow and develop personally and professionally, assisting them to maximise their potential. At its best, mentoring builds agency in an individual to take an active role in shaping their career development, offering space for self-reflection and self-improvement in a trusting environment.

Equitable access to mentoring is a significant player in equitable access to career progression and a greater degree of diversity in practice leadership. Structured mentoring programs can identify and mitigate entrenched and unconscious bias, supporting individuals with navigating the unwritten rules of practice – those social norms that shape an organisation’s beliefs, values, behaviours and customs.

Mentoring has become more important following Covid-19 and the rapid move to remote and flexible working. The hybrid work model has resulted in fewer informal interactions with leaders and experienced colleagues, which in turn means reduced access to their working processes and methodology. Remote working may also mean that stressful work situations and their impact on individuals are less likely to be shared or even visible to other team members. These challenges can be offset by a structured mentoring program that not only supports career development but also plays a bigger role in practice health and wellbeing.

After 2020

Mentoring has become more important following Covid-19 and the rapid move to remote and flexible working. The hybrid work model has resulted in fewer informal interactions with leaders and experienced colleagues, which in turn means reduced access to their working processes and methodology. Remote working may also mean that stressful work situations and their impact on individuals are less likely to be shared or even visible to other team members. These challenges can be offset by a structured mentoring program that not only supports career development but also plays a bigger role in practice health and wellbeing.

This article offers an overview of mentoring. It is organised into three sections:

Types of mentoring

Mentoring is a wide field. This article proposes three broad types of mentoring: informal mentoring, which takes place through day-to-day work and life; semi-formal, through organised groups or training; and formal mentoring programs, which focus on mentoring relationships with a defined structure, outcomes and goals. All share the same motivation – to encourage the development of others with less experience.

Informal mentoring

Informal mentoring happens through daily work and social interactions. It is reliant on access to more experienced colleagues and professional contacts, either with a broad or specific skill set, and occurs through watching their behaviour, being guided and learning through doing. The success of informal mentoring is its authenticity, where the desire to share knowledge and experience is given and received naturally. This does, however, limit informal mentoring to an individual’s access to available role models. It can also create a lack of diversity in practice leadership, as it is susceptible to affinity bias, which is the tendency people have to connect with others who share similar interests, experiences and backgrounds.

Semi-formal mentoring

Semi-formal mentoring acknowledges those parts of personal development that fall between informal mentoring and formal mentoring, often in a group setting, facilitated to develop both soft and hard skills. Semi-formal mentoring is an active approach to learning, group directed and realised through discussion, collaboration, research, testing or self-discovery. It is distinct from training, which is the process of learning the skills you need to do a particular job or activity.

Semi-formal mentoring involves structured group sessions where a diverse cross section of employees is brought together for sharing experiences and offering advice. These sessions often involve curated groups and are focused on specific topics and skills. They can be one-off events, often to support a group of people with knowledge share or reaching consensus, or they can be continuous, such as leadership development programs. The success of semi-formal mentoring is the benefit it offers to team environments, where self-realisation is moulded within the context of a working group. The challenge with semi-formal mentoring is buy-in, often influenced by the timeliness of the event, the relevance to all the individuals in the group, and the agility of the session to customise to the group’s needs.

Formal mentoring

Formal mentoring tends to be a one-on-one relationship between a more experienced individual and a less experienced individual. This type of mentoring is structured around agreed objectives and a set time frame, with careful consideration of the mentor and mentee pairing. It may be the result of an organised program that establishes these relationships or it may grow naturally following an informal introduction. The most effective formal mentoring is mentee-led, where the mentee sets the agenda for the relationship, exploring personal goals or building professional understanding. Structuring the sessions in this way supports the mentee to align learning and self-discovery with real world experiences. The success of formal mentoring is its customisation, with relevant and timely content. This builds agency in the mentee to set achievable goals, persevere, solve problems, and find success. Customised pairings boost knowledge share within a group and go a long way to tackling affinity bias

The role of the mentor in a formal relationship is different to that in an informal relationship. The role shifts from being the imparter of knowledge to one that nurtures the discovery of knowledge in another. The mentor develops skills in listening, using questions to prompt change and refining feedback. The challenge with formal mentoring is maintaining the relationship past its peak, which can often happen before the agreed timeframe concludes. Another challenge is finding a successful pairing.

Mentoring modes

There are many ways to mentor. Below is a limited list of mentoring modes, of which new versions are only limited by imagination. A practice may choose to offer a blend of mentoring types across their business, each serving a different need.

  • Speed mentoring
  • One-on-one mentoring
  • Group mentoring circles
  • Just-in-time / Flash / Spot mentoring
  • Mentoring walks
  • Reverse mentoring
  • High potential mentoring
  • Cross sector mentoring
  • Peer mentoring / ‘buddies’
  • Online mentoring

The case for mentoring

Fostering a strategic approach to career planning is a recurring theme in the Champion’s Listening and Learning sessions. Participants of all genders describe an opaque and ad hoc career progression process. Careers are often unplanned, with little transparency around the steps needed to secure a leadership position or how to authentically elevate one’s personal profile. Mentoring can support individuals with filling this gap.

From a business perspective, practices thrive when individuals are content, engaged and involved in productive, meaningful work that is aligned with personal and professional development. Mentoring can support businesses to thrive by sensitively syncing individual growth with a sustained and viable practice growth.

A 2006 study of Sun Microsystems in the US revealed that mentees were five times more likely to receive a pay increase or a promotion than those without a mentor. This was taken from a sample of 1000 employees over a five-year period. In the same period, mentors were 5.6 times more likely to receive a pay increase and six times more likely to receive a promotion. For the business, retention rates for mentees were 23% higher than those not mentored, and 20% higher for mentors. These statistics reveal positive outcomes from many viewpoints in favour of mentoring.

Understanding the benefits of mentoring is best viewed from the perspective of the three main participants: the mentee, the less experienced individual; the mentor, the more experienced individual; and the practice or organisation that coordinates a formal mentoring program.

Benefits for the mentee

The benefit of mentoring is most transparent for the mentee. With the guidance and encouragement of a trusted mentor, a mentee can gain clarity, advice and support, gaining confidence to seek promotions and career advancement. Benefits for mentees include:

  • Increased confidence and self-esteem
  • Support and empathy in a non-judgemental setting
  • Advice on how to respond to new challenges as they grow through the practice
  • Greater visibility into the workings of a practice
  • Further insight on the culture of architecture and the unwritten rules of the profession
  • A better understanding of professional networks
  • A chance to discuss the issues of work-life balance and wellbeing
  • A supported opportunity to develop a career plan and set personal goals
  • The development of skills in the practice of architecture, management and business plannin

Benefits for the mentor

The mentor relationship isn’t a one-way street. It also offers multiple benefits for mentors prepared to invest their time and skills into the development of another professional. For mentors, there is an opportunity to improve communication and leadership skills and explore new ideas from emerging professionals. Benefits for mentors include:

  • Being seen as a leader within the practice
  • Improved listening skills and reflection, which develop and strengthen critical thinking ability
  • An opportunity to share hard-earned knowledge and experience
  • Fulfilment in helping someone else and contributing to their success
  • An opportunity to engage with and learn from the challenges faced by another person’s experience
  • Satisfaction in taking active steps to shape the future of the profession
  • Improved connections with a broader cross section of the profession, even another generation
  • Opportunity to practise providing relevant feedback at the right time
  • Exposure to new perspectives and alternatives to conventional ways of working
  • Staying connected with new technologies and innovations in the industry

Benefits for the practice

From a business perspective, mentoring helps to build a culture of growth and to encourage shared behaviours and attitudes. It can improve staff morale and staff retention, assist in performance appraisal procedures and keep employees engaged and energised. If a practice can link their mentoring efforts to the business strategy, there is an even greater benefit for the practice. Ultimately, mentoring helps to develop a pipeline of future architecture leaders who understand the attitudes required to succeed within the industry. Benefits for practice include:

  • Growing staff in alignment with the business goals and practice culture
  • Encourages diversity and a broader range of skill sets in the practice
  • The preservation of skills employed by experienced generations
  • Promotes a culture of design excellence and leadership
  • Enhances the value of knowledge transfer and giving back to the team
  • Improves leadership skills and team performance
  • Promotes cross-generational knowledge-share, communication, networking and testing of ideas
  • Supports all forms of diversity in the profession, ensuring all talent is supported and encouraged
  • Closes the gap in training in those areas not universally covered in academic study
  • Empowers future leaders and supports innovation

Enhance the benefits of mentoring with sponsorship

Sponsorship, described as profile-sharing, sees individuals with credibility and a respected profile advocating on behalf of individuals with a smaller profile. Mentorship, described as knowledge-sharing, sees individuals with more experience act as a trusted advisor to individuals with less experience. Ideally, mentoring and sponsorship work alongside each other, one increasing the visibility of individuals with decision makers, the other accelerating an individual’s professional growth and performance.:

Meeting the challenges

Establishing mentoring within a practice creates many opportunities, but it also comes with challenges. The following strategies address common hurdles experienced with an inhouse formal mentoring program.

Power and trust

If we know that mentoring is a trusted relationship between individuals, then the elephant in the room with a practice-run mentoring program is the role that power plays in disrupting a trusted relationship. Power can’t be removed, but you can build trust around it. An open, honest discussion that labels the tricky space being traversed is a good place to start and is often mandatory in formal mentoring programs. Also, the setting of appropriate boundaries and agreed protocols for the relationship gives confidence that positive mentoring outcomes are shared and wanted by both the mentor and the mentee. Finally, cultivating a practice culture that is comfortable with being open and constructive when discussing power and privilege breaks down fear and guilt, shrinking that elephant to a manageable size.

Reinforced cultural norms

Reinforced cultural norms define acceptable behaviours, expectations and standards between groups of people. Every practice has their own cultural norms and they are sometimes referred to as the unwritten rules of practice. They can be enormously positive when they shape a healthy workplace that is thriving, productive and inclusive. Yet they are often vulnerable to the influence of a dominant group, which may reinforce known and unknown biases, see the emergence of haves and have-nots, or result in less positive behaviours, especially at the interface with power.

Embracing diversity can help manage the influence of less positive cultural norms, and mentoring can play a powerful role in doing this. By avoiding grouping people by their ‘likeness’, a mentoring program that promotes ‘clashing’ encourages a wider field of knowledge share and diverse approaches to challenges. Where possible, avoid mentoring relationships within teams, opting for cross-sector or even cross-discipline knowledge share. For smaller practices, be open to the idea of pairing with another small practice to widen the field of mentors and mentees.

The mentor mentee match

The success of mentoring is closely linked to how well mentors and mentees are matched. For a partnership to flourish, it’s important that both the mentee and mentor:

  • Share a mutual respect for each other
  • Accept each other
  • Are prepared to invest time and effort into the relationship
  • Are prepared to take risks
  • Agree upon and work towards specific goals
  • Understand their responsibilities in the partnership
  • Establish boundaries within the partnership
  • Set clear, realistic expectations on what the mentee needs from the mentor
  • Deal effectively with unmet expectations or objectives

Should unreconcilable challenges arise, a practice must offer an opt out clause to the mentoring relationship, with continued support to navigate complexities that may arise when it doesn’t go to plan.

One size does not fit all

The best mentoring is timely, where the mentee receives the information or skill needed when they need it. It is relevant, with the content covered having real world meaning to the mentee. It is also open to customisation, with relationships adapting and changing to meet the evolving needs of the mentee and the mentor. A great mentoring relationship has trust, respect, support and constructive encouragement, with the mentor and the mentee sharing, learning, reflecting and growing together. To achieve effective mentoring relationships across a diverse group of individuals, a practice must be open to the idea that a one size fits all approach to mentoring may not be that effective. Offering a blend of options, giving choice to both mentors and mentees, will build a mentoring culture within a practice, ensuring that each individual finds at least one mentoring experience that is fit-for-purpose, personalised and hits just the right spot.

For more information on mentoring programs, see How to create a mentoring programOn Mentoring Resources and the Parlour Guide to Mentoring.

This article was written and compiled by Monica Edwards as part of a set that draws on the mentoring toolkit, created by the Champions of Change Architecture Group, with editorial support from Susie Ashworth and Justine Clark.

Contributors to the mentoring toolkit include Ben Green (at the time Tzannes), Thihoa Gill (Grimshaw), Eeshenn Wong (Hayball), Darryl Suttie (DesignInc), Rohan Wilson (DesignInc), Clare Barclay (DesignInc), Rebecca Champney (Nettleton Tribe), Gemma McDonald (DKO) and Raffaele Camuglia (DKO).

Stepping Up is a collaboration between Parlour, the ACA and the Champions of Change Architecture Group.