How do mentoring programs work in practice? Four Champions of Change practices share there insights to complement the guidance offered through the Stepping Up program.


COX is a design-focused architectural practice with studios in every major Australian city and a history spanning 60 years. The practice employs some 500 talented architects, urban planners, interior designers, researchers, and digital visualisation experts.

Why did you set up a mentoring program?

COX management in Sydney gather annually at our Advance Day to plan and discuss future initiatives that are to be implemented within the Studio. Several years back, as the Studio saw significant growth, the topic of mentoring and coaching was highlighted as an opportunity. We saw it as a way to increase office engagement on a different level as well as coach and guide staff to achieve personal or professional goals.

How many people have been mentored since the commencement of the program?

We are moving into our third year of the program with approximately 80 mentees within the Studio benefiting from the program. Many mentee/mentors have continued with their session past the ending of the formal engagement.

How does your mentoring program work?

The program runs for 12 months with approximately 10 months of formal sessions. Senior designers through to directors volunteer to be mentors and are provided with formal training through an External Coaching and Mentoring Company.

A survey is distributed to all staff within the Sydney Studio. It has questions to ascertain why the staff member wishes to join the program as well as their commitment to the process.

The Mentoring Committee consists of Associates, who review the survey results from mentees and match them with their prospective mentors.

Once this process has been completed, we inform all mentees of who their mentors will be and set up a formal training for mentees to help them understand the process and how to get the most out of the program. Our program is mentee-led; we expect the mentees to schedule the monthly sessions and guide the discussion.

After the 10 months all participants complete a simple survey to help identify any issues or successes.

What are the benefits of the program for individuals and for the practice?

The benefits are sometimes hard to identify as all sessions are confidential. The feedback we have received from individuals has been overwhelmingly positive, with many noting that it has given them a forum to champion their goals and also meet new staff and form new relationships. There are enormous benefits for the Studio, from the new professional relationships formed, the goals of the mentees coming to fruition, as well as the cross fertilisation between mentor and mentee.

What are the challenges of the program and how have you addressed these?

With all programs in their infancy, challenges are inevitable. Some of the challenges have been unsuccessful pairings due to other commitments or personality clashes. All mentors and mentees are able to contact the committee to discuss their concerns and we then review and implement a plan to resolve the issue.

What advice would you share with another practice about to set up their own mentoring program?

With all new endeavours it’s a challenge to resolve all the teething issues before beginning. It’s best to be open and honest with the staff and have processes in place to ensure you can respond to issues as they arise. My best advice is to jump in and give it a go. The benefits of a program outweigh the hiccups along the way. My other advice is to use a mentoring and coaching professional to train and guide you. As designers, this isn’t a field we are experts in. Ensuring that mentors are trained and mentees understand how mentoring works ensures a strong foundation to the program.

Bates Smart

Why did you set up a mentoring program?

We identified several issues or opportunities within the studio that led to the implementation of a mentoring program. These included:

  • Senior staff within our leadership group whose expertise was not being leveraged as much as it could
  • A cohort of senior staff who were seeking more opportunities for leadership, greater involvement in the studio, and perhaps felt their expertise may not have been as valued as it could be/should be
  • A stretched Director and Practice Manager Group who were struggling to get to every employee in the studio and spend the time with each individual to nurture their careers
  • A lot of eager junior and mid-level staff seeking support and growth – the more recent graduates all expect a high level of engagement from the studio in their career growth
  • Senior staff seeking advice on how to push forward or pivot in their careers, feeling like they may have reached a limit

How many people have been mentored since the commencement of the program?

At Bates Smart, the Mentoring Program is mandatory within both our Sydney and Melbourne Studios, so we have approximately 280 participants.

How does your mentoring program work?

This commenced with the implementation of a broader Career Planning Framework that includes:

  1. Goals: Every employee completes their Goals in our HRIS System.
  2. Mentorship Training: We undertook mentorship training for all staff, using an external consultant. This was a two-hour session undertaken in small groups, so we had to arrange around 12 sessions over two studios.
  3. Mentor Guide Document: We created a Mentor Guide in consultation with the external expert, which was issued to all staff to use as the basis for their Mentoring.
  4. Nomination Options: We gave people an opportunity to nominate mentors / mentees or state what they wanted to get from this pairing based on their goals.
  5. Pairing of Mentee/Mentor: Practice management reviewed and paired everyone – they were given an opportunity to disagree with the choice and to change their pairing immediately or in the future if their situation changes.
  6. Introduction meeting: The responsibility lies with the mentee who is to arrange the meetings, reach out to their mentor, and make the most of the time they have. The goals completed ideally formed the basis of their discussions.
  7. Ongoing Check-ins: These are driven by the mentee. We suggested minimum quarterly check-ins, although we have left this up to individuals to decide.
  8. Peer Reviews: We facilitate Peer Reviews at project milestones and encourage employees to discuss their peer feedback with their mentor.
  9. Evaluation of program: So far it has been operating for one year and we are just about to ask staff for their feedback on how it is going via an Employee Engagement Survey.

What are the benefits of the program for individuals and for the practice?

For practice:

  • We now have more staff coming to speak to us either about their own career plans or advocating for their mentees, which is great. I think the mentoring program has put a focus on career planning for all.
  • Employees now seem more able to articulate their goals to their project leaders or practice management when coming onto a project, which is largely due to ‘coaching’ or encouragement from their mentors.
  • The program enables senior team members to demonstrate their leadership skills, feel more engaged and valued for their expertise.
  • It leverages the expertise you have in the studio, enabling knowledge sharing.
  • It adds a layer of support for employees that management (Directors / Practice Management) may not be able to provide due to time constraints. It alleviates some time for management.

For individuals:

  • They have a clear and available platform for career guidance.
  • There are possible connections with someone they may not otherwise have access to or would have otherwise engaged with. This increases networks within the practice.
  • The program creates confidential relationships within the workplace to discuss workplace/career challenges or opportunities outside of project work.
  • It provides an opportunity to give back and share expertise, increasing satisfaction.
  • It allows individuals to gain respect and recognition within the practice by having more reach or exposure.
  • If on a career break, it’s a good way to stay in touch with the business.

What are the challenges of the program and how have you addressed these?

  • People not feeling they are paired well. We have given everyone the opportunity to change at any time but I’m not sure how comfortable people may feel to do this. We will find out the success rate in due course but it’s not always perfect.
  • People not meeting regularly. We remind everyone but I can appreciate everyone is busy. We have made it clear that supporting the mentoring program does form part of our evaluation for promotion to incentivise, but it’s unknown how effective this is.
  • There were suggestions we provide a coffee allowance to encourage people to meet but we haven’t proceeded with this.
  • There is ongoing administration needed to pair new staff or make adjustments in the program when people leave, which is difficult to stay on top of.

What advice would you share with another practice about to set up their own mentoring program?

  • Get external training. Great architects and designers are not always great mentors, and training helped set the program off in the right direction and gave it more of a professional or official status.
  • Provide a framework and suggestions for discussion. Even if everyone doesn’t stick to it, for those who may be a little awkward or don’t know where to start, having some structure is a great help to get things going.
  • Mass attendance. We used to have a voluntary program, but with limited success. I’m not sure whether making it mandatory is the answer, but having a lot of people utilising the mentoring program is helpful. It makes it part of the culture, gives the program momentum, makes it immediately part of people’s roles or monthly tasks, and employees talk about it together, which keeps it in everyone’s minds.

It would be great to answer these questions after we get our staff survey and we may have a more comprehensive idea of the challenges and how we are tracking. It’s early days!


SJB has implemented two mentoring programs to cater for different preferences and needs – a less formal program called SJBuddies and the more formal SJB Mentoring.

Why did you set up a mentoring program?

We implemented two mentoring programs following a survey to understand the type of mentoring needs across the practice – a ‘less-formal’ mentoring program, known as SJBuddies, and a ‘more-formal’ mentoring program, SJB Mentoring.

Our mentoring programs are set up to provide an additional means of connection and/or career development outside of formal performance reviews. We appreciate that the formal review process may not always be the most conducive environment for every individual, and wanted to offer a safe and trusting environment for growth to occur.

We also saw this as an opportunity to translate the research and strategies from our continuing work with the Champions of Change, and begin to put these actions into practice.

How many people have been mentored since the commencement of the program?

Currently 48 individuals are involved in SJB Mentoring for this cycle, either as a mentee, mentor or both.

How does your mentoring program work?

SJB Mentoring is a mentee-led program, providing agency to those seeking guidance in their careers. This starts from the initial selection process, continuing through to the structure of the mentoring program itself. Mentees are given the opportunity to nominate their own mentor, guided by preferences ranging from business and client management, down to more technical skills such as design or compliance.

The mentee is responsible for setting the direction, location and agenda of each meeting, with a focus on goal setting. The aim is to scaffold individuals as they work towards these goals, identify obstacles and problem-solve. The mentor takes on a less active, listening role, asking questions and offering constructive advice that prompts mentees to think critically about their approaches and decisions.

SJBuddies is compulsory and sees individuals randomly paired with two other individuals – one as a guide, the other as a guidee. Pairs are encouraged to catch up fortnightly, sharing experiences, workshopping issues and reflecting on lessons learnt over their career.

What are the benefits of the program for individuals and for the practice?

Our program hopes to provide an environment for mentees to talk freely and confidentially, without the concerns of repercussions in the workplace. This aims to take individuals from a zone of comfort to growth, as they are offered a safe space for reflection and self-improvement. Ultimately we hope that mentees will walk away with a greater sense of self-confidence, self-awareness and self-reliance; and for mentors, exposure to new perspectives, opportunities and experiences.

From a practice perspective, mentoring may help to support and foster the talent identification process, as well as improve overall quality within the studio by facilitating trust.

What are the challenges of the program and how have you addressed these?

We recognise that it may be challenging to know how to set realistic goals and start productive conversations. To guide individuals in the formal program, we produced a Mentoring Handbook that provides an optional structure for mentoring sessions, including a framework for goal setting (the SMART method) and reflection questions for each session.

Maintaining momentum with SJBuddies has been challenging, especially after the implementation of SJB Mentoring. We take the approach that it will suit some and not others. We still feel that the offering is important, as it gives people choice and an avenue to workshop their day with an understanding colleague.

To help refine the program for future cycles, we have also committed to distributing a survey for program feedback, and for SJB Mentoring, a mid-program check-in for candid discussion about what has or hasn’t been beneficial.

What advice would you share with another practice about how to set up their own mentoring program?

Take the time. Take the time to listen to the needs of your practice from all perspectives – the most beneficial way forward may not always come from the loudest voices in the room, or those with the most experience.


Hassell case study

Emerging from a survey of graduates in 2021, the mentoring program running in the Hassell Brisbane studio has encouraged new relationships and collaborations within the practice, building different knowledge, experiences and networks. The People Coach program is another new initiative, which is available to all staff globally.

Why did your practice set up a mentoring program?

We decided to conduct a survey with our younger staff cohort in Brisbane to better understand their priorities. Around 50% of the people who responded to the survey said they’d find a mentoring program really beneficial for their professional development. So, that was the impetus for developing a mentoring program in our Brisbane studio.

When did you start, and how many people have been mentored since the commencement date?

The Brisbane studio mentoring program kicked off for us in November 2021. It was a voluntary program. We had around 35 mentees across our disciplines, from architecture, interior design, landscape architecture and our BIM team. Initially, we approached about 25 people, but a few others came to us and said they’d like to be a part of it too. They were in the cohort of 5 to 10 years out of university. So, we expanded the program to about 35 people.

We had about 15 to 20 mentors, with some being paired with two mentees. We decided to give the mentees a couple of options, so they could choose who they’d like to build that mentorship with. Overall, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience, with over 90% of participants stating they learned something from this mentoring journey.

When did you start the program and how long does the program run for?

We did a pilot, which was planned as a six-month process. Within that, we set up an introductory session in November 2021, followed by four sessions for January, February, March, and April. It culminated in July. One of our collaborators, Mott MacDonald, had a similar program, so we invited them to our office for a celebration event. It was a chance for our mentees to meet them, share their experiences of the respective mentoring programs, and start a networking process.

How does your mentoring program work?

The mentoring program was deliberately organic. We didn’t say, “you will do this, you will do that, and here are some KPIs, and you’ve got to write a report at the end of it”. Rather, there was freedom between the mentee and mentor to structure the mentoring in a way that suits them both.

We encouraged the mentees to take ownership of it. We made it clear that we didn’t expect the mentors to drive it. We would set up the program, but then we wanted the mentees to be responsible for the ongoing catch-ups – to determine the best times to meet and establish what they wanted out of the program. Is it goal setting? Career advice? Is it to discuss next steps of what’s coming up in their projects or professional career?

Another important thing we did was to try and separate the mentees and mentoring process from their team leaders and projects they were working on. We tried to find a mentor who was independent in the studio, who they might not necessarily have worked with previously. It was an opportunity for mentees to get to understand and know that person better in terms of networking with someone beyond their current discipline or their role within Hassell. This has been beneficial, particularly for some graduates who were one or two years out and were purely in project work with the same team. It helped to increase their network and develop relationships with others in the studio.

The nice thing about the program was that everyone got behind it. When the mentors/mentees met for the first time, the leadership team shouted the first round of coffee. That small gesture made a huge difference. As a studio, everyone was committed to seeing this happen and getting some positive outcomes out of it.

Since then, we have also implemented a new program within the practice called the People Coach program, which is open to all staff. Everyone at Hassell is now paired with a People Coach, who is a consistent leader that they can talk to about their career aspirations, goals and professional development generally. The concept stemmed from the observation that design professionals move from project to project and do not always have a consistent leader to talk to in relation to their career aspirations. The role of a People Coach is to help us better support our people with developing and growing their careers including conversations about career aspirations, performance goals, development planning, actions they could take, and support they need from leaders.

A People Coach is an additional person to talk with about development and career plan aspirations. Coaching is about supporting someone to develop awareness and find solutions to manage their day-to-day working life and future growth potential. It’s about helping them come to their own conclusions rather than giving directions.

This is different to our Brisbane studio mentoring program with slightly different objectives, but this is a unique program that Hassell has since developed to further enhance the employee experience at Hassell.

What are the benefits of the program for individuals and the practice?

We prioritise people’s professional development. We invest in our staff. People are our number one asset, and we want them to be here long term. By offering programs such as the mentoring program and by extension the People Coach Program, we’d like to think that this is something that compares favourably to what our competitors may or may not be doing. I think it demonstrates to the younger cohort that when we do these surveys, we listen to them and take action.

And then, for the actual participants themselves, the mentees, it is an opportunity to mix with others in the studio. We have a big studio in Brisbane. We have over 120 people. The mentees are getting to meet and collaborate with others who are more senior in practice or from another discipline altogether. We really try to cross-pollinate the disciplines. It is a chance for mentees to strengthen those relationships and appreciate different design disciplines. It also was about hearing different perspectives and learning and developing through more experienced professionals The mentors have found it to be quite a fruitful exercise as well. They’ve enjoyed the process of upskilling in that area, as they become future leaders of the practice.

With the People Coach program, it is about: facilitating conversations around career aspirations, goal setting and development planning; helping unpack issues or explore ideas; being a sounding board for feedback received from leaders or team members; helping identify the right project leaders or Principals who could help grow experience and career; and advocating for the person around career and project opportunities.
Overall, both programs help to create a feedback-rick culture where people can belong, grow their careers and excel within Hassell.

What are the challenges of the program and how have you addressed these?

A lot of time went into lining up the mentees with mentors. The pairing process was like a giant matchmaking exercise, and it took several weeks to get this right. We had this huge spreadsheet and would return to the mentees several times through the process.

It’s not just a conversation between two or three people. You need to speak to others who might know that person a little bit better to understand what they’re like, how they operate, and the way they think. Getting the right alignment is important so everyone gets the best value out of the process. There’s no point getting two people together who aren’t going to click. So, a lot of effort went into that. Similarly for the People Coach program, we have spent a lot of time in the matchmaking process globally.

Who is the program for and would you open it up fully to all practitioners in the practice?

Initially, the Brisbane Studio’s mentoring program came from our Emerging Designers Collective, which we’ve had running for a few years. This group provides opportunities for emerging designers to be part of a network, to be mentored, to learn skillsets and gain career advice, and to look for opportunities for professional development. We encourage those in the group to come to networking events or out to building sites to talk to contractors and have a sense of appreciation about what happens on the building sites, as opposed to being at the desk, documenting or designing all day. It is about giving them more exposure to what actually happens as they get further into their career, and what they can look forward to and come to expect.

Initially, we rolled the Brisbane studio mentoring program out to the emerging designers, but then a few more senior members of staff wanted to be involved as well. Hassell’s People & Culture function have since rolled out the People Coach program, which is available to all staff globally.

What advice would you share with another practice who is about to set up their own mentoring program?

I’d encourage other practices to invest in a mentoring program, but it’s essential to have faith in it. It is hard work. It took us a few months leading up to it before we launched the program. A few times along the way we heard people say, “We’ve tried this before. It doesn’t work.” But it’s important to listen to your staff and show that everyone has a voice and respect that and do your best to try and see it through. It’s been worthwhile for us – and we’ve got a lot of happy mentees that have come out of this program who are keen to maintain these relationships.

The value-add is key. The world has changed quite significantly in the last two and a half years. Having a great wage is just one thing. Embracing things like hybrid working, showing that the care is there, having mentoring programs – all these things are even more critical now. If staff are working from home, they need to feel they can reach out and talk if they are having a tough time or just looking for advice on their next career move. I think the more that we can learn from each other, the better.

For more information on mentoring programs, watch Stepping Up on Mentoring and read How to create a mentoring programOn Mentoring Resources, Mentoring Q & A, the Parlour Guide to Mentoring and other articles on mentoring.

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