Mentoring Pt. 1

Recently someone who I work with who has a senior role with my company asked me a question “If you were to pick a topic for which you could be mentored, what would it be and why?”

So of course my first thought is "well CRAP thanks for asking me what is essentially an interview question I'm not prepared for and this was a surprise can I change my answer after I think about it???" 

My initial reaction to the question was an idea for a specific skill – that quality control and mitigating risk that stems from unknown/ unforeseen conditions is something that every project runs into but can be avoided through experience and deep knowledge. Specifically, for the public and community-based projects my studio goes after, the interest is higher, stakeholders from more varied groups, and the design drivers and complexity and attention can be daunting. There is a lot more "side action" than just putting a building together to be understood for these projects and this is exactly why interviews and qualifying for high-stakes projects takes experience and a team large and cohesive enough to pull it off. 

During the testing process of getting my license, I was learning so much at once that I was seeing a huge jump in my productivity and my capacity to work more independently on larger scopes of projects. Being able to correct drawings for a younger intern, creating construction details, & successfully coordinating trades on my own was an amazing feeling and definitely is a great accomplishment.

My experience through that phase had been that I could handle anything thrown at me... until I run out of time. Part of graduating from the "testing phase" of the architecture licensing process is that you understand how to find your answers. This is that “surprise independence” that sneaks up on you. You never have all of the answers, some issues take longer, but there's always a way to figure it out. But then, there's a point in your career when you start to manage your own workload that you will realize your "to-do list" for the day is actually 3 1/2 weeks’ worth of work and there's no way you’re going to meet all of your deadlines on time. 

All of a sudden you're in a position in which everything that must be completed to coordinate the project beginning to end is your responsibility. Finding yourself in new responsibility and out of time is stressful and requires a lot of learning on the spot. I've always wanted to be smart, able to grasp a situation, see the "big picture" and help enable a great team. I knew I would never be an expert right away, and for sure part of becoming licensed was one HUGE step. Now though, I feel more like it’s just another beginning and I have to set some new goals – one of which should probably be what skills I really want to focus on and gain expertise in.

I think one of the most interesting things about both of the larger firms I’ve worked for is that being in a specific design or market niche is something great project managers do really well, but business development and design-specific roles to well with both a variety of project types for a specific expertise. Plus, most of our best, biggest, and loyal repeat clients are usually larger institutions who rely on us to solve major problems & complete huge projects.

I really want the opportunity to keep watching those in more senior roles be extra successful. I want to learn & perform adjacent to and in touch with a senior manager who understands who to call and what needs to be done. On top of that, I want to do this for project types I’m interested in – museums, schools, cultural icons, campuses, master/ urban plans, government services, and large mixed use projects. That's a really weird and specific mentor request, but finding someone who knows and does those things well for a large and complex scope of work is what finding a mentor is all about. I’ve done a lot of “trial by fire” and come out only slightly unscathed for smaller projects, but it would be nice to really have a good example for the long run.

In addition to the complex things, learning some basic management tasks and pieces is one of the basic steps in "graduating" from a licensed project architect to a more independent and more senior role. I’ve gotten my feet wet solving problems for the clients I have today. The current work I'm doing is really rewarding, but I'm starting to see how time management, prioritizing, and time availability is affecting my projects. I am experienced enough that I understand that passion on its own doesn't make for a successful project, and that a to-do list can really pile up and ruin a weekend. I still feel like I can make an impact if I only I continue to make a greater effort, but effort and passion are only big pieces of a complex puzzle. Basic skills that are building blocks for complexity have to start somewhere.

  1. Fee and budget management. A well-managed internal schedule of deliverables and staff available to work on those deliverables is the best way to plan and the best way to find out if you are going to stay on budget. How well you utilize the money the client gives you is the second half of GETTING the money. Most firms don’t let people see or understand this who don't already see or understand it, which is WRONG. We are a large enough company that our billable rates that we give to a client do not directly correspond to actual salaries. That means that I can schedule my project with a junior interior designer, a senior architectural designer, a project architect, and myself as the project manager and know exactly how the time we spend on the project uses the fee we get from the client as we go through each phase. One of the things you have to learn for the ARE is “managing” projects. This is really high level compared to the detail that I am learning now. How you bill the client also impacts this a lot – are they paying you for travel, meals, printing, and other expenses? Do you get to put a percentage of fee for management of those things on those expenses? Are you bringing in team members from other offices or partnering with another firm? All of this side management of the fee is another layer of paperwork, management, and quality control. Usually offices have a billing and invoicing department (or person) but understanding what their job is, what they check for, and how they track down issues can save you time but certainly headache when it comes to putting your fee together for the next pursuit. 

  2. Schedule. Ohhh project schedules. Building and maintaining a schedule for a project is the best thing you can do but will seem like the most obnoxious waste of your time. You have to start somewhere and in order to meet a deadline you have to set a deadline. My boss always tells me – let me know what you think it’s going to take to get this done. So literally it is that simple but for each step/ meeting/ checkpoint/ quality control/ public meeting/ phase it becomes more complex and more dependent on more people to fall in line with your plan and also for you to ensure those things are getting done as they should be. I think maybe a discussion about how to set a project schedule is a whole other topic that we should talk about in a different post. 

  1. Stakeholder meetings. And not just running a meeting but running a great meeting with a lot of people involved. We have this one project for a local government near our office that one of my colleagues is working on as the project architect under one of our senior project managers/ client managers. The internal team itself consists of the Principal (my boss), PM, Project Architect, Design Director, Drafting support, Interior Designer, and Interior support. That’s 7 people just on the architectural side who are consistently involved in the project for each phase. We have a landscape architect/ designer, acoustic designer, specifications writer, someone from billing & invoicing and finally the office president since he was involved in getting the project and goes to major milestone meetings. We also have engineering consultants – plumbing, electrical, fire alarm, HVAC, and civil. The client is a large, complex organization with 14 departments, so when we meet with them they send 14 to 16 representatives at a minimum, often times more. The client also has hired a cost estimator to work with us to price the project at milestones. Since the client is a public entity, we are required to meet with the neighbors/ hold open town hall meetings. The client has also partnered with four restaurants & stores to provide amenities in the new complex. Can you even picture what the meetings for this project is like from far away? Just the list of people involved is overwhelming. Certainly a project this size is a big responsibility for those 7 core architecture team members. If I was managing this project with my current level of experience and expertise, I would have crashed and burned months ago. From an internal perspective, working well with the people on your team towards a common goal with priorities that coincide is the main measure of success throughout the project – and you should be the one scheduling those internal meetings to ensure everything is getting & the quality control reviews can happen. On the other hand, you’re also there to ensure the client has the best experience possible – processing implications of decisions on the rest of the project, meeting client expectations, and minimizing their risk. Part of this is performing in the stakeholder meetings. You are the director – the captain of the orchestra – and you make sure people come with information you need and then distribute action items once a decision has been made. But stakeholders have a tendency to be unreliable and have varied interests, so it is both listening and responding as well as anticipating and acting that will help you to be successful. This balancing act is the special glue that keeps your meetings running smoothly when there are lots of people in the room. The best advice I’ve received so far is to set an agenda and stick to it. Your clients will thank you when your 1 hour meetings always stay 1 hour long instead of 3. Being able to do that well that with 50 people in the room instead of 7 is the goal.

  2. Estimating. Cost estimating is something that people always want but it something the AIA is very specific on what an architect provides as a basic service for a project. The cost estimating we do at a minimum and that we are tested on for the ARE is basic and a good starting point, but can change rapidly or vary widely across time and markets. However, most senior project managers I have the privilege of working near usually have a good (or great) grasp of how the decisions they make impact the cost of the project & the impact on the Owner’s budget. This is one of those things that can also get you in a bind if you say the wrong thing with too much confidence. It’s hard to take back numbers once a client latches on to something they’ve heard or you’ve told them. “Like 2 million” accidentally turning into 3.3 million is NOT a good way to end the DD Phase of a project because that usually means redesign on your dime is in order. This I think is something that will just take me time, but knowing if a decision is going to cost me more or less money is important and can really help speed up internal decision making when it is critical.

  3. Interviews, proposals, and presentations. Usually, being a great project manager in my office means you’ll be brought in for the interviews next time we go after a similar project for which you knocked the last one out of the park or are an expert in a certain style/ typology/ client. Being invited onto the interview team means your skills on past projects will help us get our next one. Your narrative about how the last project went, what successes you had, what ideas you championed for the client, and the success story becomes a key component of the firm’s future business development strategy. Writing a proposal for a new project to accompany an interview, also entails a really thorough understanding of “what it will take” not only to just get the work done but to hit another home run. An ancillary talent that often gets lost or forgotten is presentation & interview skills. I think they should be taught and reinforced both in undergraduate school and early in your career, so when you're asked to perform in those roles you start off closer to a level playing field. Practicing or helping teams prepare is a great way to do this. Part of interview prep is also getting to know your team, and having the opportunity to watch senior leadership who know each other well practice for the "high-stakes" interviews is VERY rare for younger staff. 

I think the takeaway I’ve noticed from this is that I don’t just want to get projects done. My really lofty career goals all center on not just finishing that crazy-long to do list, but doing it well and with passion. I want to work with clients who rely on my expertise to provide that exceptional level of satisfaction for large and complex projects.

I think also it was surprising to learn a few years ago that I wouldn't be able to do all of the work on my own, and to really tackle a project of this size, learning how to delegate responsibilities and then still ensure they get done is another skill that no one ever mentions you will need to learn. There is a difference in passing off responsibility and coordinating multiple team members on a project. I want to learn to get a project done with a successful team, not on my own. 

Career development is a complex topic to tackle, and unique for everyone who pursues a career in architecture. I think that understanding how people perform in different roles is a huge way to find your own stepping stones, but we also have to have access to them in order to find that path. My current firm has the foresight to ask questions of their younger staff going through licensure and early career development. No firm or leader is perfect and sometimes one person cannot give you all of the answers you need - but don't be afraid to ask. Specifically, mentoring may not always come from one person, especially if your firm is smaller or works on a very small range of project types. You may have to fight for the resources or examples you need, and that starts with knowing what you are looking for. 

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