WILA Interview Series: Mentorship, Part 1

image: iStock © frankwolffnl
image: iStock © frankwolffnl

“The Mind is Not a Vessel to be Filled, but a Fire to be Kindled”

The Women in Landscape Architecture Professional Practice Network (WILA PPN)’s focus for 2015-2016 is an interview series developed around being women landscape architects, life/work balance, and mentors. The WILA PPN’s co-chairs and officers developed a set of 17 questions, then searched out willing landscape architects and began the interview process. The following is the first of two posts on the topic of mentorship.

Women & Mentors

Two of our WILA PPN interview questions focused on women’s experience with, and serving as, mentors throughout their careers. One common theme was that mentoring or being mentored is not a particularly formalized process in most firms. The resulting experiences with mentoring or being mentored were very broad, from understanding appropriate office attire, to the sharing of technical knowledge, to focusing on career advancement.

Do you have a mentor in your current work as a landscape architect?

When asked this question, most of us have some sort of experience to pull from. Whether helping others navigate the profession, or acting as a sounding board, it became clear that many women seek out and offer guidance over the course of their careers. Of the 20 women interviewed, the following are some of the reoccurring comments in response to this question:

  • Only a third of the respondents are currently in firms with a formal process for mentoring.
  • However, most of the women typically found the right individuals, sometimes even outside of their firms, to guide them. One cited ASLA as an organization where she has found success connecting with a wide range of knowledgeable people and networking.
  • Many discussed mentoring in terms of short- and long-term relationships.
  • Although some mentioned not having mentors, in those cases, they often serve as mentors to others, solidifying the value of a mentoring role with those individuals.
  • In the cases where firms did have a mentorship program, it is typically a member of the senior staff (Associates up to Principals) providing the mentoring, meeting on a consistent basis, and covering a variety of topics.
  • “I have had a few mentors—no real consistent mentor but people I have learned different things from.  Currently I am fortunate to have a supervisor who is very supportive of my growth. He is invested in helping me be a better landscape architect. His attention to detail is a good balance for my abilities in looking at the bigger picture. But I have worked many places and former supervisors and bosses have served as role models for both what to do and what not to do in terms of project management and work life balance.”

What do you see as the role of a mentor in your current work as a landscape architect?

The responses to this question were fairly consistent, revolving around the themes of “listening” and “sharing.” Generally, these women expressed the profound impact a mentor can have on the development and lives of their coworkers. Some even addressed the importance of having a woman as a mentor as a way to understand the sacrifices they have made for their careers.

  • Lack of time was noted as one of the hindrances to active mentoring.
  • One person preferred the concept of “coach” to “mentor,” to provide very specific advice identified by the individual, not the coach: “A mentor or coach should be there for very specific purposes. These people tend to be busy and in demand. The onus should be on the person seeking help to know what it is they need to get input on, and to take the initiative to make that happen. Unfortunately I see a trend in business in general of younger people wanting a ‘mentor’ and then expecting to be ‘taught’ as though they are still in school. People need to be more self directing and responsible for their own development. That doesn’t mean that more experienced people don’t have a responsibility to coach these people as they grow professionally, but everyone should recognize the value of time, and take responsibility for their own growth.”
  • “I listen to those I mentor, understand their goals and perceived impediments to achieving those goals, and advise on how to move forward and take steps toward their goals. I suggest other people for them to talk to so that they are hearing lots of opinions.”
  • “I think the role for me as a mentor has been to expose the students to the reality and consequences of design decisions, beyond the drawings, and help them understand the associated challenges.”
  • “Many of my mentors have been more informal—meetings, conversations, and advice in navigating my career and in specific work. Knowing the field of connections, relationships, and the direction of the field has been more of a focus than specific design or construction advice.”
  • “It takes a special person to be a good mentor. The ability to teach and let someone learn on their own is key…A mentor is someone who is honest but supportive and encouraging.”
  • “Generally sit back, be there for them, and help them through tough work times.”

Stay tuned for the next installment of the series, where we will continue to share responses on the topic of mentorship.

by Kate Douglas Kestyn, Affiliate ASLA, WILA PPN Officer

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