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The Power of a Mentor

Written by Patricia Galvan. This piece is dedicated to Kevin Davies, AIA and David Whitney, AIA, two architects whom I admire for their professionalism, hard work, patience, and dedication to mentoring design professionals.

. . .

At the top of my annual review questionnaire this year was a quote by the notable late architect, Zaha Hadid,

“You have to be very focused and work very hard, but it is not about working hard without knowing what your aim is! You really have to have a goal. The goal posts might shift, but you should have a goal. Know what it is that you are trying to find out.”

While the quote was meant to inspire me to think about how my professional goals dovetail with the firm’s goals, I’ve had some extra time while on maternity leave to slow down and reflect on all of my accomplishments, both professional and personal. My life is about to change dramatically as I prepare to welcome my first child into the world. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know how I grew to be who I am today. Zaha Hadid’s quote reminds me of a time, early in my career, that was loaded with objectives, focus, hard work, and the development of critical professional relationships.

. . .

In 2004 I graduated from the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture on the cusp of major changes to the California Architects Board’s (CAB) requirements for licensure candidacy. I was faced with a decision: declare exemption from NCARB’s IDP by establishing candidate eligibility with CAB before 2005, or forge ahead and complete the IDP. My concern was that, without a structured and nationally recognized internship, gaining experiences that would sculpt me into the best Architect I could be would be an uncertain, uphill battle. So, when given the opportunity to opt out of NCARB’s IDP, I opted in, wholeheartedly.

If I’m being honest, the experience of completing the IDP was nothing short of stressful. In the years following the economic recession of 2008, during a time when most firms were laying off employees, I was fortunate enough to be employed by a firm whose specialty market was thriving and growing, despite all odds. Unfortunately, this meant that there was little time for the experienced architects to impart their wisdom on the junior staff, despite their best intentions. I use the term “junior staff” loosely. There’s no denying that the process of becoming an architect can be long and arduous; a licensure candidate could easily have upwards of 10 years of experience working in the profession and be no closer to licensure than a recent grad, and that was certainly the case at this firm. But unlike my junior staff peers, my commitment (and the firm’s commitment to me) to complete the IDP in the allotted 3 years turned out to be my secret weapon.

“…treat your professional development like you would any other project.”

The IDP forced my employer’s hand to expose me to aspects of the profession that I might not have otherwise experienced. More importantly, it forced me to find a mentor within the firm. Unexpectedly, this mentor became my advocate in staffing meetings and one of my most trusted and esteemed colleagues. Together, we were able to complete NCARB’s IDP on schedule. Our mentor-mentee relationship was intentional; we scheduled monthly “Meeting of the ‘Ments” that took place outside of the office, allowing us the opportunity to speak in earnest. Looking back, some of our most memorable and most productive meetings were in times of distress. I would find myself at my wit’s end and my mentor would help me see past my frustrations and offer me motivation to keep forging ahead. That relationship was crucial to my growth and success.

The role of mentors, whether formalized through a structured program or unofficial and casual, is invaluable for professional development in architecture. Mentors offer a special kind of support that friends and colleagues might not be able to offer: keeping up a mentee’s spirits and stamina. In recent years the movement to improve the quality of life in the profession gained steam, thanks to survey results published by organizations such as the AIA San Francisco’s Equity by Design Committee, but there is lots of room for improvement. Without the support offered by mentors, junior staff find themselves facing stressful and overwhelming pinch points throughout their career, often leaving the profession altogether. In order to improve the health and success of young professionals, we must forge these mentorship relationships.

To aspiring architects and candidates on the path to licensure, here is my advice:

  • Make connections and start evaluating potential mentors early on.

Once you’ve got a good understanding of who your possible mentors are, take a step back and define what it is about those individuals that you are drawn to. Certainly you will need to get along easily with your mentors, but you should also be able to recognize in your mentors characteristics and skills that you can identify as needing development in yourself. One important aspect of a mentor-mentee relationship that should not be overlooked? Honesty. You need to be able to pick up what they’re laying down – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

  • Keep a list of skills and qualities that you want to master, then establish tangible goals and assign timelines.

In short, treat your professional development like you would any other project - check in with yourself regularly to document your progress. You may find that your goals, desires and timelines shift, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Professional development is about making changes, and when it comes to change the only real form of failure is failing to make progress. Achieving goals is a wonderful thing, but you may one day realize that your true value as a professional cannot be measured by certificates, plaques or a pay check. You may realize that your value is more closely linked to who you’ve grown into as you’ve faced and cleared the obstacles along the way. Remember: progress, not perfection.

 “…the only real form of failure is failing to make progress.”
  • Give back: Do good and you’ll do well.

What your version of giving back looks like is entirely up to you. The bottom line is to get out of yourself, go forth and be the change you want to see in the world. My personal volunteer experiences have ranged from building care packages for the troops (I’m a proud Blue Star Sister – Go Navy!), leading design exercises at middle school career days, working the coffee bar at my church, and chairing the WIA Committee of the AIA Santa Clara Valley Chapter during its inaugural year. Whatever your passion is, let it lead you to something bigger than yourself. You will be amazed at how much you have yet to grow, at how much your help is needed and appreciated, and if you’re paying attention you might find yourself humbled when you are able to make that special connection with a person whose path was meant to cross yours. I’m reminded of the lyrics to a song made popular by the artist Rihanna, “Funny you’re the broken one but I’m the only one who needed saving...” I firmly believe that there are no coincidences in this life and we were not meant to muddle through it in isolation.


Maybe my decision to participate in NCARB’s IDP was a foolish waste of time and energy, or maybe I’m a stronger Architect for having completed it. What I do know is that the connections I’ve made, the relationships I’ve built (particularly, the relationship I shared with my mentor), and challenges I’ve overcome along the way, have made me a stronger person. With my mentor’s support and advocacy, I achieved my goal of becoming a licensed Architect, and that’s what I consider a success!

Leah Alissa BayerComment