Better Projects through Mentoring and Creating Better Architects

Architecture and construction is a bit of a paradox. Some of us declare that we wish our children never go into it or joke that it is not worth the hassles and we would leave architecture if not for the embarrassing fact that we can’t imagine enjoying any other career as much. It offers us an everchanging view of new challenges and opportunities that can transform as a kaleidoscope to match our life’s turns.

What keeps me going on days of a challenging project testing my patience and wits is personal fascination. It is the wonder of it all and experiencing how we have the power—as a collective architecture, engineering and construction team—to affect people’s lives and enjoy solving for others their challenges and needs. For myself, that is truly rewarding on many levels and I enjoy sharing experiences through mentoring moments to help the next generation grow their passion and increase their ability to respond to opportunities for a successful career.

How may one lead others in their careers, or for that matter, what helps define a leader? Some may appear to be born with it, but it is my belief that they are made as they rise to events in their environment. The good ones will also give rise to other leaders instead of followers, but it is not easy. A past mentor of mine made a comparison to the auto industry. Automotive manufacturers spend millions of dollars and years developing cars and mass produce them for the public and they still have recalls. Architecture is pulling together entirely different owner, designer and construction teams to erect a unique product every time to different program needs for owners that request perfection. It’s not easy. Quoting the late Steve Jobs of Apple Computer, “If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader. Sell ice cream.”

How does one lead? I generally like to both lead the client in understanding the process to manage their expectations while also growing young professionals by offering experiences to grow outside their comfort zone. I see it as improving appreciation and expectations of owners for better architecture and providing those better projects through better architects. Again, passion plays a large role, as one will have difficulties inspiring in others what they don’t believe themselves. What can we do?

I have the privilege of knowing a graduate architect who asked me once when they would no longer be considered green. That reminded me of another quote by a different mentor of mine who found humor in Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense in the Iraq war, who had to regularly explain fluid situations with limited facts: “There are known knowns. There are known unknowns, but there are also unknown unknowns. Those are the things we don’t know we don’t know.” Up-and-coming architects and contractors may be so green they don’t know what they don’t know and look to us to be their safety net and give them the exposures to experiences and tools to become great.

Today’s technology and online resources allow one to easily visualize, develop and guide a project to occupancy without ever having put pen to paper or visiting the site. It’s powerful, but lacks context to implications of what one does. Help give them the context and connections. Don’t direct one to just look up cut sheets on the internet. Encourage them to call or bring in a product representative to work through detailing options and considerations of implications to other products and systems. Don’t just invite them to shadow client meetings. Include them in helping to develop programs, setting measurements of success or visioning with the client. Don’t have them rely solely on animations, renderings or PowerPoints to convey concepts to owners. Encourage them to get up to a markerboard or sketch ideas as they interact. Don’t just give them a production budget. Give them an understanding of business by having them help write proposals, set up work plans, track budgets and review invoices. Don’t shield them from realities. Expose them to uncomfortable calls. Don’t let a project pass on without giving them the chance to see the results of their work and what a line on paper means in the field. Take them out at lunch to a job site or have them organize and lead a tour for their office. Better yet, encourage them to ask the job superintendent or tradesmen what they think of the drawings, details and specifications.

Lastly, give them a lifelong support network for their developing careers and the chance of contributing back to their profession. Don’t just sign them up for an AIA membership. Invite them to meetings and seminars of their local American Institute of Architects, Construction Specifications Institute, or other trade organizations. Encourage them to get actively involved in service organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, being a pair-pro at local high schools, or joining the local planning and zoning board to become servant leaders themselves to their peers and their community. The energy we give to develop strong architects offers stronger relationships with clients, colleagues and our partners in construction for stronger projects.

About the Author

Brian J. Welsh, AIA, CSI, CDT, NCARB, LEED AP, is a senior architect with Progressive | AE, Grand Rapids, Mich.

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