What Does Mentoring Mean?

2014-15 Corvus Design Holiday Party

Mentoring takes many forms. Many of our growth interactions with people are informal, and have only the structure of the conversation. There is value when we engage into mentorship in a more rigorous fashion, either through our own planning of our growth… or through defined relationships with specific people.

This blog post takes a loose look at our growth as designers, and how the importance of our learning changes over time. I certainly hope that it stresses finding the right people to interact with as we grow and change. The challenge is targeting the right interactions at the right time, to prepare us for the challenges we will face next. Bring out the crystal ball!

The First Stage of Professional Development

When we first graduate, we have been exposed to a wide variety of things through our schooling. We might be lucky if there are a few areas where we have reasonably advanced skills. Likely, we’re about to develop more applied skills in three months than we acquired in school. These will be technical skills. To maximize your own success, you will benefit from finding technical mentors or finding self-guided pathways through the plethora of online education that is accessible to you. In other words, bond with the nerd in the office who knows the keystrokes for obscure commands. When you appreciate that these obscure commands have a useful place in your life, you will be on your way to goodness.

Did the creative part of you just die a little bit? You have to keep on feeding it. At the back of your mind, please remember that the firm you work for needs to make money in order to keep you in work. As a new landscape architect, you will need to be a well-functioning member of the team. If you have sharp technical skills, you and your team will have a higher chance of success. To keep your soul fed, you will need to make sure that you are within an atmosphere of mentoring. Some people are lucky to have elder professionals who are good mentors, and some are not. Learn how to engage with those around you so that you get to plug into the things that feed the designer in you. While you may not get to be lead designer on projects for a while, you WILL get to influence and shape the process… and design elements within it. People underestimate how much control is possessed by the person with CAD mojo and good design sensibilities. If you draft up a plaza that has a good underlying geometric basis that lends itself to a simple and elegant paving design… you will now get to do that for me from now on. You just took something off my shoulders. Seriously… this kind of detailed design skill makes my world go round.

So… at a minimum make sure you have the mentoring you need for technical development, and ideally it’s delivered to you within the context of what it contributes to design. See if you can go the extra step and engage with others for design mentorship that goes beyond the technical. If options are limited, I just can’t emphasize how important initiative is. If you find a meaningful community project that your firm would benefit from, you could bring that to your team as something you’d like to contribute. If it’s your passion, it will feel natural for you. Your firm might even adopt it and pay you for some of your time. Be crafty about choosing things that relate to your firm’s business plan. Business plan? Make sure you know your company’s mission, vision and all of that jazz. Use that (nicely) as a way to benefit yourself when you show that what you do is a shared pathway between your growth and your firm’s success.

The Second Stage of Professional Development

So… now you are sharing obtuse keystrokes with new staff. You’ve grown within your firm where you are engaged into peer learning, and guiding the new guys. You have the core skills of a landscape architect, and are now expanding into the the first bits of the business of design: project management and a wee bit of client development. You have the technical skills where you can successfully complete work on a project. You’re now learning how to improve project profitability and increase the level of quality that is delivered to your clients. You are a honed blade efficiently slicing the fruit before you.

Along the way, you’ve also developed design mojo from learning from those around you… or have you? Have you been mentored? Or have you developed the core skills of a landscape architect, but you need more.

We all hope that our firms have the staff and leaders who will be ready for your next phase of learning. In a large enough firm, that might be the case. But at some point you will need to find the voices that aren’t immediately present. When you go out for drinks with old classmates and old co-workers, you’re using your existing network to your benefit. This is an organic approach to exposing yourself to their assistance. As our network of relationships experience new things, you get to be exposed as well when they tell you about them. Your network is now a critical component of your growth, and will continue to build value until the day you die. Seriously. Your network is now one of the most valuable things that you own, and it’s a wonderful long-term investment.

How do I invest in my network you ask? Get involved! A fantastic target for you is to be involved with your national professional organization. You’ll probably have to start with their local chapter. It’s a great way to learn about what’s happening locally, and be involved to learn the things they didn’t teach you in school. How to run a good board meeting. How to get along well with others. How to try to learn from people that you are likely in direct competition with. Hmmm… the last one is a challenge to your desire for mentorship! That’s why I love being involved with other organizations… or interacting with my peer professionals who don’t work in my region. Go to national conferences and engage with anyone you find. You’ll see that we love speaking with one another, and we’re even more free with information when we know it won’t reappear in a competitor’s proposal.

If you haven’t yet… get involved with your professional organization, and go to its national conferences!!!! For you landscape architects… I’ll make it as easy as sending you to their membership pages:

Your goals for this stage of your professional development will likely relate to discussions about project management, facilitation, communication, human resources. These are all things that you’re experiencing since you have more client contact and are becoming an involved person in your community. What? You say, “I’m not a landscape architect and I’m in the same place.” Bingo… you can now have interesting business conversations with anyone at any event who is at a similar stage of their careers. You can now easily expand your network to include a whole bunch of people. Buying a magazine at the corner store? Ask the owner what his challenges are and I bet that a few of them will resonate with you. How about the challenges of efficient communication to clearly define a task… and have both people actually understand each other?

To summarize so far: In our careers we begin with fairly basic things we need to know. These prepare us for the next steps where we need to know more, and it’s less about getting things done than it is about knowing how or why to get things done. Access to this kind of mentoring should be relatively straight-forward. The next phase is about finding the people who are equipped to have more complex discussions about the how and why. When it comes to the business of design, the key is to step back to understand what the concern/problem really is, and choosing one of many potential strategies to apply to it. Your direct experience helps, but when you can apply the combined knowledge of your network… wow.

The Third Stage of Professional Development

Congratulations. You are now a self-guided learning machine. You’re a leader of your own entity, or an (emerging) leader of an established entity. Stages One and Two hopefully had people that would benefit from grooming and mentoring you. You are now in a place where no one has mentoring you in their job description. You have a good network in place, and you have peers that are in similar places in their careers.

Be warned. You will go absolutely certified crazy if you don’t validate your need for the growth that mentorship has and will provide you. As a leader, you are the person who is responsible to fix all of the issues that no one has been able to fix. I am validating the fact that your existence will likely not be easy, and there will be times where it weighs on you so much that it’s hard to escape it within your regular life. One part of mentorship is the level of therapy that it provides. I have already referenced this in a few blog posts, and will continue to do so. The value of  people validating that you are not alone in the struggles you face is very important. This is even more valuable if it comes from an elder mentor.

Most of this post has related to using your networks for mentoring. This relates to the fact that every entity should have systems in place to support your growth and learning, and that you have actively reached out beyond this ready-made network to fill the gaps. I’d like to end this post on the value of a true mentorship.

I had the great privilege to be a part of Leadership Anchorage (year 13). As a shout-out, if your community has anything remotely like this program… do it! A key component of this was a focus on mentorship. The focus on this was not on a casual mentorship, it was founded within the need to have a mentorship where you had a contractual obligation to your mentor, and the mentor had the same with you as the mentee. This was fully intentional with goals and a discrete timeline. I won’t go into details on this, but it’s important to realize that there is benefit in establishing rigor within a mentor relationship. This ensures both parties understand the purpose of the relationship and its expectations. Don’t go into this lightly, and make sure that the mentor that you seek is not the mentor you want… but the mentor that you actually need. Don’t choose a person who you feel represents who you are today or yesterday, but represents who you would like to be.

This has been a long post. Be intentional with creating all of the different types of mentorship that you need, and ensure that they grow and evolve with you. Actively talk with your peers (and mentors) about mentorship itself. Be intentional.

Your Duty

Be a mentor. Support all of those around you as you can. Cliche as it might be, the fact is that a rising tide lifts all boats.

One thought on “What Does Mentoring Mean?

  1. Well said Peter! I would love to have a more detailed conversation with you about this some day…maybe in Winnipeg at the CSLA. Best wishes. Bob.

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