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Mentorship

When I graduated from architecture school, I quickly realized that I almost had no clue what practicing architecture was about. I had interned at a firm every summer since enrolling in college, but after each internship, I always retreated into my “design safe space” where anything was possible.


Almost ten years later, I have an entirely new perspective (thankfully), but I have also developed pretty strong opinions about the shortcomings of so many firms with respect to the way they mentor and train junior staff.


There are four main takeaways that I would like to share:


GRADUATES ARE YOUNG AND GREEN, BUT THEY ARE NOT STUPID


So many firm owners, project managers, and other “experienced” professionals confuse inexperience with incompetence. This is a very flawed perspective. Many graduates complete academically rigorous and demanding programs and are quite book smart. However, their academic training, which is often divorced from the pragmatic problem solving that architectural practice requires of professionals every day, often does not nurture a technical stamina. Students are used to spending all night thinking about “creative” solutions to “theoretical design issues” in college, but have not developed the design libido to bring a project to completion. Students are often told that their end-of-semester assignments are only a snapshot of an incomplete exploration, whereas in reality a project must not only be built but also “legally signed-off”.


And while this might be frustrating to firm owners who are trying to make a buck and also limit their liability, they have to remember what being young was like: they too were once full of unrealistic dreams and enthusiasm. But that is where leadership and motivational skills come into play: the “tough love” attitude and “constant criticism” can demoralize to the point of constant questioning of one’s own work and lack of care for accuracy due an expectation of endless dissatisfaction. The demand for perfection ought to be tempered by support and explanation. Lack of mentorship leads to repeated mistakes and ultimately an impression of incompetence and feeling of distrust on the part of the manager or firm owner.


This is not to say that some employees do not fundamentally have a bad attitude or that there aren’t any less-than-bright employees, but more often than not, for all who want to learn, the number one thing to remember is that good mentorship starts with constructive criticism that is balanced with selective and measured praise.


JUNIOR STAF HAVE A TREMENDOUS THIRST FOR PROVING THEMSELVES


Call it ego; call it arrogance; call it insecurity: new graduates and other junior staff have a tremendous desire to prove their worth.


Whether one admits it or not, there will come a time where he/she feels overwhelmed and humbled by how much there is still to learn. However this just as true for anyone at any point in their career. An Architect with 30 years of experience doing residential work might feel like a junior if asked to design a skyscraper for the first time.


The best approach to dealing with an over-confident junior is to harness their enthusiasm by letting them sink or swim in it. You cannot expect that a junior architect may have the same technical skills as a 30-year architectural veteran. However, he/she may have the talent to find the answers he/she needs and communicate well-enough to become an effective project coordinator. Don’t underestimate your junior staff’s desire to prove themselves!


PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE


How many times do you have to fail or make a mistake in order to get something right? Is the third time really the charm?


Indeed we would all love it if no one made mistakes. However, if we expect that to err is human, the next best thing is if we fail as little as possible. But how many failed attempts are too many? When does a boss give up on his employee? There is a fine line between being patient and being taken advantage of. After all, as business owners, we pay people to do a job efficiently and well.


I can write a whole book on patience, but for the purposes of this post, patience is about realizing that your junior employee has what it takes to connect the dots, but has not connected them yet, whereas giving up on your junior employee is an expression of your lack of confidence (lack of trust) in their abilities in general.


Having patience is not easy, but it is imperative, especially when money is involved. Hiring junior staff is truly an investment and if you aren’t patient, you may just throw your money out the window.


Patience must be balanced with mentorship, similar to how a farmer waits for his crop to grow after caring for it for months on end. Patience should not and cannot exist in a vacuum without mentorship.


QUALITY OF EXPERIENCE VS. QUANTITY OF EXPERIENCE


So many Architects confuse quantity of experience with quality of experience. Would you believe that someone who has five years of experience could in fact be just as effective as someone with ten years of experience?


So many juniors are hired as cheap production hands with the sales pitch that they will get “experience” that counts toward their license. They spend 100 hours on a photoshop assignment for a programming study (for example), but don’t do any actual architectural programming. The real “architectural programming” is done by a specialist programmer who hands off their work to the junior team with little to no explanation, often in the spirit of not overrunning the fee. This results in a junior team that believes they have programming experience because they recorded time doing it, but who actually have no hands on experience with actually doing it.


CONCLUSION


So if you are in a leadership role in a firm, and your are serious about retaining good junior staff, do the the following:


- Actually mentor your junior staff; don’t think that time will somehow self-train them.

- Don’t treat junior staff as idiots; they are smarter than you think.

- Be patient with their growth; provide constructive criticism, but also praise when warranted.

- Harness their desire to prove themselves by recognizing that they may not ever have all the answers, but may know how to effectively get and make use of them.

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