There are many ways to connect to others and contribute to a person’s professional and personal growth.
Mentorship is critical to every professional’s success and can occur in many ways. After much self-reflection, especially through the last year of the pandemic, I realize how instrumental mentoring has been to my career. I have consistently been surrounded by great mentors – whether they knew it or not. In the more traditional sense, the novice apprentice learns from the wizened sage. That is one modality for mentorship, but there are many more ways to connect to others and contribute to a person’s professional and personal growth.
When, as a recent graduate, I joined an 80-person architecture firm, I needed guidance to understand the profession and my path through it. A few of my colleagues stepped up and stood out from the office full of people to become my mentors. My direct manager was a leader in the firm, and we worked together on many projects. In his senior position, he influenced what projects were assigned to me and he kept his ears open for new opportunities. He also kept me away from tasks that were not going to advance my professional growth. He was my mentor-advocate.
I also learned a vast amount from another colleague who had about five years more experience than me. While I was still a young designer creating renderings, he was running large, complex projects and was seemingly light-years ahead of me. What proved to be more important than working on projects together, we sat near each other. I overheard all his conversations – whether on the phone with contractors or in-person with colleagues. As a result, I learned how he handled difficult conversations, his use of technical terms, and what was most important to keep projects moving ahead. He was always willing to discuss any topic and answer my questions, and I looked up to him as an example of where I could be in a few years. His organization, rigor, and persistence came through in everything he did. He was my mentor-by-example.
As I progressed in my career, I soon discovered that I had knowledge to share with others and could become a mentor. I built upon my first experiences and learned some new mentoring modalities.
As a project manager, I find it critical to share the inner workings of the project with my team. For example, giving every member of a team an understanding of a project’s contractual obligations and its financial performance is critical to success. Everyone can then take ownership of their time, tasks, and the project. They understand their roles and their obligations clearly and are often inspired to think of new and more efficient ways to work. This is project-manager-as-mentor.
We run a formal mentorship program at FXCollaborative that connects employees at all levels to colleagues. Critical to this relationship is the pairing of mentees to senior mentors with whom they do not typically work, which serves a wide range of objectives. In some cases, the employee is studying for the ARE and wants to understand how this relates to the project they are working on. Or, they are looking for guidance on how to work through a difficult project or team member situation. Sometimes, it allows an architect to learn more about marketing or another part of the business with which they are not typically involved, and vice versa. Mentors and mentees typically meet once a month, ideally over coffee or lunch, or by Zoom this past year. In an ideal arrangement, this is the mentor-friend.
While much of mentoring happens at work, I have found it valuable to connect with academia through mentoring in a few different ways. Formal mentorship programs arranged with local schools are an excellent place to start, especially those that foster diversity in the profession. I have connected with both students and recent graduates through Pratt Institute’s mentorship program. In addition, The City College of New York and FXCollaborative set up a program through their National Association for Minority Architects chapter that paired me with a current student. In both programs, I meet with mentees on a monthly basis to discuss a wide range of topics, including projects that we are working on, our experiences in the profession or school, and work-life balance. These conversations are especially energizing, as I can see firsthand these future leaders developing their critical thinking, often with an optimism that can’t help but affect the profession and change the world for the better.
Recent graduates are focused on getting a job, so I review their resumes, portfolios, and cover letters. We discuss navigating the job search and interview process. I’m able to act as the mentor-advocate and have connected students with my friends and colleagues at other firms for possible positions.
In all the styles of mentorship described, the mentee is not the only one benefitting from the relationship. It has been immensely rewarding and inspiring for me to work with students and junior staff and witness them develop in their careers and personal lives. It also allows me to reflect on how I arrived at the place I am in my career, and helps me refine my goals as an architect.
Michael Syracuse is a partner with FXCollaborative Architects. Connect with him on LinkedIn.