Chances are, most people have had—or have been—a mentor at one time or another, whether we realize it or not. Mentoring benefits both the mentor and the protégé through reciprocal sharing of knowledge, insights, and skills. Young designers often enter the workforce with great education and skills but with little project organizational or managerial experience. Successful mentors can fill this gap by showing their protégés how their work fits into the big picture, through feedback and constructive criticism, while simultaneously developing better employees.

Traditional mentoring relationships develop informally, usually as a result of physical proximity, common tasks, or interests. As more organizations and firms realize the tangible benefits of mentoring, they are beginning to pair and group senior employees with protégés more often.

On a national scale, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) also values these relationships and requires both a supervisor and mentor to sign off on all Intern Development Program (IDP) employment verification forms. These formally arranged groups are just as successful, provided that they follow set guidelines and goals, as described below.

Guidelines and goals

Set clear expectations. It is difficult to judge the effects of changes—positive or negative—without clear expectations. Both the mentor and protégé should write their goals for the relationship, how they expect to achieve it, and a timeline. This challenges the protégé to develop as well as to gain understanding about the nature of work as well as the company’s attitudes, values, and quirks.

Meet regularly. The best way to monitor positive changes in professional behavior is to provide regular reinforcement and encouragement, giving the development real value. If regular check-ins do not occur, protégés are unlikely to recognize the positive and measurable changes in their behavior.

Stay positive. Good mentoring relationships build a strong sense of self-confidence. The perspective of knowing where you’ve come from and where you are going helps orient both the mentor and the protégé. Breakthroughs will not happen at every meeting. Mentoring programs can also reinforce a company’s critical path and provide an outlet for discussion.

Use existing resources. An ideal mentor is someone who knows the protégé and his or her desired career path. If mentors are familiar with the people and politics of the office, they can provide critical insight into others’ motivations. By serving as a link between the protégé and senior management, a mentor’s perspective and guidance can steer employees toward better work practices and interpersonal communication.

Develop trust. Protégés and mentors must create a safe forum where protégés can ask questions without being judged for not knowing the answers. Mentors need to know that the protégé can be entrusted with the responsibility that comes with additional information. Without laying this foundation of trust, it is difficult to want to teach or learn from each other without doubting motivations.

Ensure a good fit. For firms that want to encourage formal relationships, there must be both an adjustment period and an evaluation of whether the relationship is meeting its goals. If the partnering is not a success, try again by redefining goals or with a different pairing. Sometimes groups click and sometimes they don’t. There is always the possibility you will make a positive impact with another pairing.

Remember that you get more than you give. Serving as a mentor can reenergize your spirit and passion for work. A protégé’s fresh pair of eyes can shed new light on existing organizational or behavioral challenges. The satisfaction from helping someone succeed will yield great joy not only because you have helped them achieve their goals but also because you and your company may benefit as well. You may just learn that new skill you didn’t even know existed.

This post originally appeared in the Practice column of AIArchitect: Making the Match: Formal Mentoring Requires Goals and Guidelines, November 9, 2007.

It can also be found as a PDF in the AIA Best Practices library as 03.02.11 Making the Match: Formal Mentorship Requires Goals and Guidelines.

Copyright 2007 The American Institute of Architects. All rights reserved.