JS: Mentorship and education within the profession are passions of mine. At Architectus we have formal and informal pathways to help team members find meaningful mentorship. How do you recall your experiences with mentors and mentoring?
LV: My mentors have played a big part in my career. I have used the formal mentor program at Architectus to choose mentors based on the things I wanted to learn, but I’ve also gained a lot from informal mentorships within the project teams I’ve worked with. That’s one of the huge positives of a large practice: you’ve got access to all these amazing minds – people who have specialised throughout long and fruitful careers, who have so much specific knowledge they can share. I think that mentorship continues to be important throughout your whole career, but that the nature of the mentorship relationship changes as you learn and develop. Now that I am beginning to mentor some team members myself, I’m learning that the benefits are reciprocal and that there’s a lot to learn as a mentor as well.
ZH: I completely agree. I’m learning so much from the experience of mentoring current students and graduates – whether that’s through self-reflection or just listening to their perspectives towards their early careers.
At the same time, I’m getting mentored in many aspects of my career. All three of you have all been great mentors to me. Simon Farr, an Associate here in Melbourne, has been immensely generous with his time and expertise – whenever I’ve needed guidance, I can speak to him about my career or gaps in my experience. Having someone like Simon as a mentor is very beneficial at the beginning of a career.
LV: Simon’s a bit of a technical genius! He was one of the first mentors I requested because that was a gap, I felt I had. The next mentor that I asked for was one of the Principals here in Melbourne, Sophie Cleland because I think she’s excellent at managing clients and communicating and that’s so important. In a less formal capacity, I’ve learned so much from Senior Associate Kate McKenzie-McHarg. I love the way she manages teams; she’s got this wonderful ability to make people feel heard and valued.
JP: I think mentorship is inevitable, we work in close-knit teams and become quite familiar with each other. It is hard not to want to learn off and support one another. This informal education and mentoring, you naturally do very well, John.
I have also had the benefit of receiving formal mentorship from Barry Aarons, our Chief Operating Office, through the Architectus mentoring program. This allowed me to learn more about the business side of architecture. Many of the other Principals, including Ruth Wilson, Mark van den Enden and Matt Smith have been very generous towards me in their own ways. Everyone has their skill sets; you get a sense over time of who to go to for certain conversations.
My advice to Students and Graduates looking to build their first relationships with a mentor is to not be shy. Ask for help. Ask questions. Most people in this industry love to talk about what they do. And most people will give you the time of day if asked. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Laura and Zoe both touched on the fact that people enjoy mentoring the next group of upcoming designers and architects – and that’s true for most of us.
LV: Yes, we’re always learning from each other!
JS: Mentorship plays a huge role in arming people with the confidence they need to seize opportunities when they land, but it can be more difficult to purposefully try and shift your career in a certain direction. When is the right time to start thinking about specialisation and how do you move towards this?
JP: That’s a difficult question to answer. In some ways, if you are confident and know the direction you would like to drive your career, I’d say specialise as soon as you can. On the other hand, don’t do it until you find what it is that really grabs you … remembering you don’t know what you haven’t tried!
If you’re working in a specific sector or phase of architecture and it’s meeting your aspirations, then that’s great. You’re well and truly ahead of everyone else. But if you are like most and you’re still finding your feet, then then I’d probably encourage you to spread your wings and try and get as much experience as you can across all aspects of the profession.
Regardless, I do think it’s important to have worked across the multiple phases of a project as they all influence each other. How something is built will influence the way it is designed and vice versa. If you only ever experience one aspect of a project, you may struggle to gain this insight.
LV: You’re right. In the formative years of your career, you need exposure to everything as much as possible. Getting that exposure can be a challenge in and of itself. But if you have that well-rounded experience, I think it can be as simple as if it makes you happy, keep going. If it makes you unhappy, try something else. I’ve always worked on education projects and can’t imagine doing anything else now, except maybe something in the public sector.
JS: Laura, you mentioned that getting experience across all project stages can be a challenge. How did each of you tackle this?
LV: So many graduates get pigeonholed into specific things. They become experts at one component, but they miss out on the breadth of the profession. I’m probably one of the very few that had the opposite experience where I was thrown on a project that was had such a quick program length from briefing to doing contract administration in the space of something like six months. It was phenomenal, but it’s not an experience that most grads get.
JP: That is one of the challenges for bigger studios that deal with largescale projects: the duration of projects can span years and the division of work becomes so fine-tuned that it can be hard to get well-rounded experience. It is a reality that a lot of people face after a few years in the profession when they are trying to become registered. They think “I’ve got this experience, but I have all of these gaps”. This is the reality of largescale projects and it’s not because there’s no desire or effort to give people a broader experience.
ZH: I’m working towards becoming registered this year, and this is certainly something I’ve faced. It is important to speak up and seek guidance from people within the office to ensure you are getting the experience you want. When opportunities have come up, I’ve tried to nudge my way into them. In saying that, luck and timing always plays a part.
JS: I’ve always been keen on creating environments of learning and knowledge sharing. It’s a critical part of how we help direct people at the beginning of their careers, and guide them in the direction they will eventually take. What advice would the three of you give to people looking to advance in their careers?
JP: Don’t run before you can walk. I remember when I was first a Project Leader on a largescale project. I’d completed similar roles on much smaller projects and so I thought, “OK, I’m ready”. Looking back, I don’t think I was ready until the time the project was complete! I didn’t realise what was involved because what you see someone else do is always surface level, you don’t know the details of what someone actually does day-to-day until you step into their shoes.
It’s also easy to compare yourself to others. Focus on yourself and what you actually want out of your career. It may not be the same thing as the person sitting next to you.
ZH: There are other ways of receiving recognition outside of promotion. Become an active participant in the company culture. Take up professional development opportunities. Take opportunities to present ideas and speak. I worked with you John on the Finding Your Voice webinar series, and that helped me connect with people across the company. You (John) mentored a small group with input from others; the focus was on how to be heard in a larger forum and that it was OK and even preferred to do it in a way that suited the individual. If you’re communicating with people from across the studio, opportunities will come your way and hopefully, promotion will eventually follow.
LV: I’ve also noticed a tendency for people to always be striving for the next thing, to keep climbing the ladder. But I think there’s something nice in just enjoying where you are right now and learning as much as you can. I’m all for becoming a master at what I’m doing right now before moving up. As a bit of a cautionary tale, I’ve come across a few leaders who might have been promoted a little too soon and didn’t understand some of the fundamentals that I think you need to understand to manage a team and a project. From that, I’ve got anxiety about being promoted too soon. It might be in my nature to suffer from imposter syndrome, but I think that you want to learn as much as you can in your current role before pushing forward.
JP: Picking up on that, Laura, there’s a huge difference in the skill set of being very good at what you do on a technical level – whether that’s design or construction drawing – to the skill set needed to manage a team or a client. If a project architect wants to be a leader one day, they need to be actively developing those skills. Mind you, not everyone wants to be or should be a project leader. Many excellent architects are highly specialised in other ways.
The important thing is when you do get an opportunity to push yourself outside your comfort zone or to show what you can do outside of what you’re known to do, make sure you take that opportunity. It can be a competitive industry and you’re your biggest advocate. It’s great to find mentorship, people that will support you and help guide you. But you are the one who needs to take charge and drive your career.