Though most of us go through formal tertiary education, many architects and designers start their careers under the practiced hand of a senior mentor. What’s the dynamic of these relationships, how do they work and why do we put such coveted premium on them?
Words Alice Blackwood. Orginally published in Indesign Issue 69.
My personal experience of mentorship has been one of hunt and seek. Throughout my early career I was often left to carve my own path, without the gentle guidance or nurturing hand I craved. In my youthful idealism, I imagined my perfect mentor to be The Sage – that creative visionary, nerve-wrackingly untouchable, who singles you out for an intimate tête-à-tête and hands down the pearls of indispensible wisdom. Those types of would-be mentors were thin on the ground. They were too busy to bother with me. And it took time and experience to realise that I was looking for guidance in the wrong place.
To be a mentor requires four very important qualities – and as an aspiring mentee these should become the check points for singling out your ideal mentor. The first quality is empathy. “Not everyone is cut out to be a mentor,” says Simone Oliver, partner at Geyer. “You have be a people person, and have a lot of empathy.” Oliver, who heads up the graduate program and graduate recruitment at Geyer Sydney was lucky enough to work under Peter Geyer, not only one of the industry’s most esteemed architects, but an expert communicator and natural design mentor.
As a graduate, Oliver shadowed Geyer day-to-day. “He really spent time with me every day and treated me as an equal. He had me shadow him almost everywhere. We were working on big projects with meetings at executive level and he’d bring me into these. It was invaluable, I learnt about the business of design as much as design itself.”
In carrying on this legacy of mentorship, Oliver has worked with a succession of graduate designers, instilling in them the values that Geyer passed on to her. Elsa Karonis, graduate designer at Geyer, comments: “With Sim, there is no sense of hierarchy.” No us and them. It comes down to empowerment. “For a mentor it’s about recognising your mentee’s strengths, and being able to treat that individual as a partner. And there’s reverse mentorship too.”
Oliver speaks of her wiliness to absorb what the mentee has to share. “It’s a brave new world out there and the world of work – around digital literacy and communication – is so different to when I graduated. Grads come out of uni with incredible skills now and we have to let those skills come to the fore.”
So it’s also about ego, and putting that aside to allow for a relationship based on mutual respect. The ability to have honest, sometimes hard, peer-to-peer conversations – no matter the difference in position and experience. Because, “adopting a position methodology around leadership, with one funnel where everything goes through, I think that’s an inefficient way of working,” says Oliver. “You have to empower people and allow them to plunge in and do their own thing.The role of the mentor is both curator and facilitator.” And finally, it’s about embracing the mentor-mentee experience with no expectations, and leaning into the process.
For Karonis, her learnings come from listening and watching. “Our meetings can be casual,” says Karonis. “We might go out for a coffee and chat over a project we’re working on together. Then there’s the more formal meetings where we work alongside one another and with the larger team to peer-review a project….”
For Oliver, it will always come back to empathy. “You must have a strong awareness and feel a sense of satisfaction and pleasure when that mentee does well, or nails it. I get a real buzz from it.”