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Effective Mentoring Elements Upwards, Downwards, and Sideways

Updated: Jan 9, 2022

(See original publication in ChicagoNow written by Lira Luis and Jason Boyle)

“Your goals, no matter how colossal and overwhelming they are, will predominantly be achieved through working smarter, not harder.” -Jason M Boyle

At every phase in your journey as an architect, having a mentor is an effective way towards career progression. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright chose his mentor, Louis Sullivan, when he applied at the partnership firm of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan (famously known as Adler & Sullivan). The mentorship dynamic between the two resembles a close teacher-disciple relationship with a reverence from Mr Wight to Louis Sullivan, calling him his “Lieber Meister” (German for “Dear Master”).

Although Mr Wright was not a pupil of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, a philosopher and spiritual teacher of The Fourth Way, he was greatly influenced by his wife Mrs Olgivanna Wright who was a Gurdjieff pupil. The strength of Mr Wright’s organic principles and Mrs Wright’s philosophical ideas from Gurdjieff’s spiritual leader-pupil ideology, were foundational in the kind of mentoring The Taliesin Fellowship had. Arguably, the Taliesin Fellowship could not have grown as strong as it did — mentoring apprentices worldwide since 1932, without their combined strengths, as opposed to their individual efforts. Their mentorship produced the likes of Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, FAIA, Edgar Tafel, FAIA, and Vernon Swaback FAIA, FAICP, to name a few. In reverse, the energy of their young apprentices brought inspiration to both which can be described as symbiotic mentoring where the mentors could become the mentees; and it took them to new heights, resulting in work worthy of a UNESCO World Heritage inscription.

While some say they don't have a mentor, what most people don’t realize is, it is your job to choose your mentor, and not a mentor choosing you. There is also a misconception that anyone who holds a position of power or seniority status are cut out to be mentors, and most are eager to receive advice or insight from them. Mentoring is not dependent on hierarchy or rank or even geographic location. At any phase in your career trajectory, it’s important to choose mentor/s with the right qualifications, experience, or expectations, in order to avoid any long-lasting damage that a well-intentioned bad mentoring could bring.

The good news is, Jason Boyle, Founder of Global Architect Alliance (GAA), understood this need and its challenges. He made it his mission to unlock the potential of everyone — at any stage in your career, by giving you the keys to succeed in life. His forward-thinking ways and an open-minded attitude to technology add to the strength of his mentoring. Find out ways on how you could benefit from such kind of mentorship or mentoring others in this interview with Jason.

LL: Where is the best place to find a mentor or a mentee and how do you handle mentorship hierarchies - upwards (superiors), downwards (direct reports), and sideways (colleagues)?

JB: This is difficult to answer, as work seems like the obvious solution at first. Often young people are assigned a mentor within their company and that person is typically a superior so it's unavoidable that power dynamics will eventually come into play. This is not always a healthy way to be mentored. Often work mentors are highly focused on purely work-related development but have little to no mentoring experience. To further compound things, established hierarchies present difficulties whenever office politics or a lack of open feedback promote restrictive mentoring. In these situations, I would say that the mentee should take the initiative to seek out a mentor to whom they do not directly report. My first mentor was a client at my first architectural practice. He took me under his wing while I was working on a project for him and made time to get to know me and challenge my way of thinking. I admired him because he had many successes in his life.

I believe the best way to find a mentor is through your extended network of friends, colleagues, and connections. You will soon discover there are people within your reach who have mentored successfully. Another bold option would be to approach people you look up to on LinkedIn and ask them for help. In the two years since I launched my mentoring company, many have approached me through social media platforms and it has worked well.

In short, the best mentoring relationships happen when a mentor is not your work superior but is independent of your organization because you will get so much more from an unbiased approach.

LL: How would you handle over-mentorship and under-sponsorship?

JB: Mentoring is a two-way relationship mutually formed on a principle of equality and respect. The mentor must be able to ask questions of the mentee but then also truly listen when they respond, which is a skill in itself. If mentoring is built on this basic foundation, then over-mentorship can be avoided. Getting the right balance is a challenge most mentors face, but it can be achieved by seeking feedback from a mentee. Giving structure to a mentoring relationship is critical and can consist of goal tracking and holding a mentee to account when goals are not met. The emphasis should always be on expectations, making sure they are clear and established at the outset.

LL: What are lessons to be learned from less than ideal mentorship dynamics?

JB: Understand that you are both individuals and that even with mutually good intentions, a rapport may never develop. It may be the right thing to do to end the mentoring relationship early with a ‘no blame’ separation. I tell people if they are not comfortable with my method of mentoring (which is a holistic approach) then we can end the relationship at any time, but I would ask for feedback so I can learn from it. However, to avoid having a bad mentoring relationship, there are some strategies to employ. To start, agree to a contact schedule as either the mentor or mentee may want to meet more frequently and it can cause excessive time commitments that may become unworkable. Unrealistic expectations in this context can harm the relationship.

Not everyone will make a good mentor and while they might be a source of support and feedback, a common problem can often be the mentor’s ego. Mentors must remind themselves that the relationship is about the mentee, not them. Likewise, not everyone will be a good mentee. A common problem here is when a mentee resists accepting personal responsibility for their own decisions or actions and redirects fault to a mentor. In these situations, the mentor should ideally have had some form of structured training and a coach they can turn to. My professional institute, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) offer mentor training and also offer mentee programs.

LL: How do you handle mentorship across geographic locations, genders, time zones, age, culture, and career phases?

JB: I’m based in the UK and yet I’ve mentored people in Egypt, Italy, Greece, and even Iran. It’s all about agreeing to times that work for both parties by factoring in time zones. I use software to enable a video conference, so I can take into account body language. Gender and age are not an issue because culture and career phases are the focus. The mentor must seek to really understand, and initial meetings may be heavily weighted with questions to establish goals and expectations with the mentee. Because I only speak English, it's helpful if a mentee has a good command of the English language, but even falling short of this, we can work to understand each other. Regardless, communicating across the internet is not as good as face to face mentoring.

What has also worked for me is group mentoring. Seven of the people I mentored during a recent 12-month program met up in person one weekend. I set exercises so that each mentee could also try mentoring another mentee and that was a rewarding experience for everyone. One of the biggest successes I’ve had with mentoring happened when I was invited to mentor and lecture at a university in Rome, Italy. I instigated group mentoring sessions with students and professors within the AEC subject field. After doing several exercises within the group, people who thought they were good at listening discovered they were very poor at listening. I teach the principle that before you can improve yourself or anyone else, you need to understand your weaknesses first.

LL: What results can the AEC industry expect from GAA?

JB: The AEC industry is in a constant state of change and there are a plethora of challenges on the horizon. There is greater pressure to understand emerging technologies such as AI and a demand for more diversified skill sets combined with the reality of reduced budgets. It means everyone within the industry needs to be open to and able to manage changes. Within my business, the approach is to look at individuals holistically. One can’t easily separate work life from a personal life outside of an office. I have worked with people through 6-month and 12-month mentorship programs and I have been amazed at how well people develop when they recognize their potential and develop a plan. The GAA helps people unlock their potential, and this can only be good for the AEC industry as we support the development of individuals trained to cope with change. When mentees attain the confidence and skills needed to understand the many ways to meet and overcome existing and future challenges, we all win. I also encourage the AEC industry to consider external mentors to enhance the cross-fertilization of ideas. Bringing in independents to help mentor staff can often be a great investment resulting in better-motivated staff and a happier pro-active workforce.

Jason M Boyle, BA(Hons)Int. DipArch, ARB, FRSA, FRIBA is an innovator and divides his time between practising architecture and mentoring a range of professionals. He is an Architect by profession and in 2018 was awarded the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA) for his contribution to the Arts through Architecture. In 2017 he was also awarded Fellowship status of the Royal Institute of British Architects (FRIBA) for his services to civil engineering & infrastructure and became an RIBA ambassador, the youngest Architect ever to achieve this status in the profession's history.

Lira Luis, AIA, FRIBA, FRSA, NCARB, CeM, LEED AP is a graduate of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and member of the Taliesin Fellows. She is recipient of the 2019 Most Innovative Businesswoman in Diverse Architecture-USA award. In 2010, she is recipient of the American Institute of Architects ATHENA Professional Leadership Award for professional excellence, community service, and actively assisting women in their attainment of professional excellence and leadership skills.

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