Mentoring and reverse mentoring – building the future in the built environment sector
Muhammad Khan, Studio Director at SGP, looks at how mentoring is a vital tool in creating a successful practice. From bridging the gap between the theory and practice of being an architect, to supporting inclusivity in the industry by providing accessible role models for a diverse range of students and practitioners, mentoring can help create a vibrant, positive and attractive long-term workplace.
When I was at school, there wasn’t any connection between the students and the teachers; no role models for a boy from a traditional Asian middle class family who wanted to be an architect rather than an accountant or a doctor or a lawyer. As I ploughed my way through to becoming an architect, I saw and experienced that lack of inclusivity in the industry, the absence of any passion to actively welcome people – men and women – who came from different backgrounds. So when I achieved a senior role in a company that encourages development, diversity and inclusiveness, I knew I could finally do something real and positive about it.
There is still the disconnect between academia and the working life of an architect, and at SGP I have taken the opportunity to engage with students of all ages, from “A Day in the Life” talks to Year 5 and 6 school children to working closely with higher education institutions such as Kingston University and London South Bank University, encouraging work placements and apprenticeships to create a fused learning process. I don’t want to discourage anyone from becoming an architect, but I do want people to have a more accurate view of what being an architect is all about. Despite years of university education and practical experience, no-one is going to walk into a role and start designing the next Shard. It’s a slow process, working upwards within a practice and it may take years to become a Project Architect, in charge of designs and delivery.
Conversely, I also want to make students aware of the great range of options that have developed within architecture in the last few years, such as the growing importance of digital technology bringing new roles and career paths in CGI, digitisation and BIM.
Mentoring can build bridges and deliver a healthy way to promote corporate culture and encourage collaboration. In addition to peer-to-peer mentoring and one-to-one support and guidance, SGP offers opportunities for up-and-coming talent to be present at – and more importantly heard in – management meetings, where everyone has their opinion listened to and respected. We’ve found study groups and workshops to be very good formats for promoting positive conversations, raising awareness of the challenges and opportunities faced by individuals in specialist sectors across the practice and sharing views between a wide range of colleagues.
And the knowledge isn’t all one-way. SGP encourages reverse mentoring, recognising that younger professionals can offer more to an existing business than just fresh blood. They can offer new skills, new ways of thinking, even a return to the rules and processes from which older colleagues may have drifted. Younger colleagues should be seen as the future of the company and the next generation of senior managers, directors and partners.
And that two-way conversation gives benefits beyond sharing skills and experience, by making it easier to talk about difficult subjects and offer the right support and more safe spaces like SGP’s Diversity Group. It is always easier to approach senior management if you feel you have a connection with them, particularly if you see them as a role model.
Developing different initiatives – particularly formats and channels of communication – is especially important when we remember that different generations access and take on board information in different ways. Senior leaders – of the Baby Boomer and Generation X vintage – need to wisely choose the platform through which to talk with the Millennial and GenZ groups who relate more to TikTok and Tesla than LinkedIn and Audi. SGP has developed new platforms to share information, such as SGP Podcasts and SGP YouTube which are more accessible, literally allowing other voices to be heard.
Mentoring can be seen as part of the personnel management process, but it should never be target driven in performance reviews or standard 1-2-1 meetings. The latter focus on key performance indicators and professional goals whereas mentoring is a long-term relationship focusing on the individual as a person – a 360 degree view of life, the universe and everything. A company that wants to develop the individual and structure a positive and meaningful career path will have a greater opportunity to retain staff for the longer term, rather than being seen as just a stepping stone to better things.
On a side note, mentoring can also be an important narrative when working with clients or contractors, adding an “X-Factor” to the situation. A focus on staff development can not only create an empathy between organisations but show that the practice can deliver a diversity of viewpoints and backgrounds to add value to the project beyond excellent technical and design skills.
Moving forward, SGP and I are involved in several really positive initiatives.
The Partners have approved SGP signing up to the Mayor’s Fund for London Diversity Pledge, committing SGP to three core principles:
- Work in partnership to drive sustainable change
- Practice internal transparency and encourage peer to peer mentoring
- Provide access to work experience opportunities and/or quality apprenticeship
I am now one of five non-Partners on the SGP board, where we are able to encourage Partner support for positive steps like improving diversity in recruitment and putting in place a mentoring strategy. On a personal level, I’m mentoring professional refugees, helping individuals with their CVs and interview techniques as well as advising potential employers on how best to engage with the broadest talent pool. Many of the actions I suggest are very simple, such as breaking down an interview into shorter sections which helps people whose first language isn’t English.
Mentoring, inclusivity, and diversity are strongly interlinked. Mentoring is at heart a conversation between valued colleagues, each with something to offer the other. It broadens the mind and creates a sense of worth and acceptance, developing a common ground to attract talent from the widest spectrum of backgrounds, cultures and lifestyles. Like attracts like and it’s easier for a young architect to be attracted to a company when they can see people like themselves already working there. SGP has developed – and will develop more – role models and Mentoring Champions, inspirational figures who can offer a sense of recognition and acceptance to someone looking to join us.