Mentorship: Sharing Expertise With New Professionals
by Tim Coppola, ASLA

What is Mentorship and How is It Used?

Most organizations tend to be reactive rather than proactive about what is expected of employees to be complete professionals. For example, what are the skill sets that trained Landscape Architects are expected to have? What would success look like? How can we harness the tremendous talents of the elder professional? These are just a few of the questions that landscape architects and individuals hiring them should ask, especially in this current economic climate. A mentorship program may be useful in addressing these questions.

The San Francisco Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (SF AIA) has just such a mentorship program. Each group in the program includes two licensed seasoned architects, two licensed mid-level architects, and two unlicensed entry level architects. With this cross-generational arrangement, the goals of the mentorship program are to:

  • build a network for established and emerging professionals beyond the office environment,
  • promote personal and professional development in leadership, mentoring, and relationship building, and
  • provide supplemental tools for emerging professionals to fulfill the requirements for licensure.

The SF AIA Mentorship groups meet between 4-6 times a year to, among other things, develop lectures and events. The meetings can be casual or structured, depending on the dynamic of the individual groups.

Could Mentorship Work at ASLA?

A mentorship program as ASLA could be worth exploring. Among the initial questions would be:

  • Who are the targeted mentees? If they are “new landscape architects,” how would “new” be defined? In practice for six months to two years? How about mid-level landscape architects? Or should there be no distinction?
  • Would it matter where the mentee worked? Big or small firm, sole practitioner, public practice?
  • What about older members? Would they prefer a peer approach or advice from more seasoned practitioners? And would the newer members also prefer peer advice rather than a top-down approach? Would they view advice from elders as having a significant impact on how they see their future?

Suggested Mentorship Program for the San Diego Chapter

I suggested a few months ago that we pick the most senior members of the San Diego Chapter of ASLA as a core group for a mentorship program. We collected a list of about 20 individuals who are either Fellows or have been members for at least 25 years. Perhaps we could develop a series of lectures with panels of the senior professionals, either alone or as part of a hierarchy group fashioned after the AIA program. We could choose participants early on in distinct categories based upon our members’ interests.

It is important to assess the assets of the potential mentors. They would need good communication skills, the ability to keep conversations lively and interesting, and a solid reputation within the profession. Most importantly, they would have to want to take on this challenge; i.e., they would want to share what they know, have the time to commit to mentorship, and care about where this profession is heading.

A program should also have a structure. It will work best if everyone understands the program’s goals and the ground rules. Although each team can determine exactly how often to meet, it is helpful to give some guidelines in the beginning (e.g., monthly in person meetings, e-mails and phone calls) to help the relationship get off to a good start. Also, most formal lecture programs last only a few years, and should have an end. It is easier to get people to commit to a limited program. Make sure everyone knows how much time the program will take and who is responsible for setting the agenda. Review the subjects that the mentors should prepare to discuss. For example, if the program is focused on supervisory skills, then conversations may begin with a discussion of management techniques. But they can be expanded to include how to handle disagreements with clients or colleagues, or how to deal with stress reduction or the impact one’s personal life can have on a career. Mentors should be free to provide insights on opportunities as well as pitfalls from their experience as professionals. And the mentors and mentees should be able to continue their relationship informally after the official end of the program.

Once the program is completed, the organizers should try to assess how well it worked. Although discussions between mentors and mentees may be brief, general feedback can show whether the program was valuable and how it could be improved. In addition, it is very useful to get feedback from managers or owners of the mentees companies. Hopefully, if the program is a success, the manager will report that the employee has become more effective.

Tim Coppola, ASLA is a principal at TaberCoppola in San Francisco, California and can be reached at:

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Stan Clauson, ASLA, Chair
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