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How to get the most from mentoring

Jenny Adams and her mentor Katie

Mentoring can be a rewarding but tricky path for both parties. Kate Dobinson talks to those in the know about how to manage the ethical, emotional and practical issues to get the best out of the experience

A mentor’s job is ultimately to challenge a planner to be critically reflective of their work and progress.

This idea of reflection is based on the principle that gaining experience alone is not the most efficient means of developing competence. A good mentor then will encourage a planner to prioritise taking time out from the day-to-day pressures of work to consider what they have done, what they have learned and how this might affect their ability to act in future.

A mentor provides an independent and objective sounding board that means a planner does not have to go through these ideas in isolation. The effect can be seen on paper – a job promotion, for example. But it could be the problem-solving, confidence boost or increase in communication that enables positive change to happen.

As being reflective involves questioning one’s experience rather than just taking it for granted, a mentor will facilitate and explore key questions and encourage the person being mentored to record their findings. What have I learned from this? What would I repeat or do differently this time? How will I go about achieving this?

How do I find a mentor?

It is up to planners to find their own mentors, but they may request assistance from the RTPI by downloading a form that details their level of experience and emailing it to membership@rtpi.org.uk.

Equally, anyone interested in becoming a mentor can also volunteer via a similar electronic form that can be found on the RTPI's Mentoring webpage.

Alternatively, the RTPI membership team has noted a developing trend for mentors accessible primarily through email. This approach would appeal to prospective mentors who find email exchanges less constraining on time. This also means that volunteer mentors from one area of the country could have the opportunity to be an “electronic mentor” to a young planner living elsewhere in the UK, or overseas – perhaps a resident of an area lacking in suitable potential mentors.

We spoke to three young planners to find out what works best for them.

Peter Rowe

"Find a mentor that isn't so senior"

During my time as a licentiate member I had two mentors, both of whom had considerable town planning experience. While they were both inspiring and knowledgeable, I now question whether support from a newly-chartered town planner could have been more helpful. Due to the seniority of my mentors, it was difficult to organise regular mentoring sessions.

Consequently it was important to motivate myself to reflect upon my own professional development – not always easy. Also, my mentors achieved their chartered membership via a different process and could not always answer my APC-related questions and concerns.

I achieved chartered membership in 2012, but relied heavily on the RTPI to guide me. A dedicated mentor would have benefited me. In June 2013 I joined Turley and have been impressed with the level of support provided to licentiates. Each licentiate regularly meets a mentor who has experience of the APC process. The mentor can ensure that the licentiate properly reflects upon their professional development, and is equipped with the competencies and experience to be elected as a chartered town planner.

I am now a mentor and looking forward to guiding my colleagues.

Peter Rowe is a senior planner at Turley Associates

Dermot Monaghan

"Engage a mentor early"

I undertake a wide variety of spatial planning work throughout the UK and Ireland, including preparation of feasibility studies, planning applications, appeals, enforcement appeals, development plan representations and evidence for civil proceedings.

I became a chartered member of the RTPI in 2012 following the APC process. I was mentored by a senior member of the firm, Diana Thompson MRTPI, who was the 2011/2 chair of the RTPI NI Branch and had served on the Young Planners Network Steering Group.

Diana was an experienced planning professional with whom I work with on many projects and is an active member of the RTPI who sets herself high standards of professionalism.

She was aware of the assessment criteria and identified examples of cases that I worked on that helped show my competency in these criteria. Diana challenged me to be critically reflective of my work and progress. Her guidance was an undoubtedly significant factor in the success of my application and recognition as a top 10 APC candidate.

I would encourage licentiates embarking on the APC route to chartered membership to engage a mentor early in the process to acquire similar direction and assistance.

Dermot Monaghan is a planning consultant at Belfast-based consultancy Michael Burroughs Associates.

Mentor’s FAQs

Q. A colleague you directly manage asks you to become her mentor. How do you react?

A.There are no restrictions on who is an appropriate mentor. You should feel free to act as a mentor if you are both happy with the arrangement. But employees are encouraged to think beyond their line manager to maximise the support available to them and minimise possible conflicts. A line manager can also be too close to offer objectivity. You might suggest a “mentor swap” with another team – with you acting as mentor to a colleague in another department, and that person’s line manager acting as mentor to your employee. Your employee can also look for a mentor through the Young Planners Network.

Q. Your mentee is resisting your advice – what do you do?

A. First, question your own attitude; to what extent is challenging your mentee a useful way of supporting him or her? Could this become intimidating? You must strike a healthy balance of challenge and support. You are not there to tell your mentee what to do, but to make suggestions about how you think they might improve, which he or she is free to follow or to reject. Is there an alternative to your original suggestion that you can both agree on? Perhaps there are background concerns you’re not aware of. Engage in open discussion, making it clear that you are willing to support your mentee to find an appropriate solution.

Q. You’re not getting along with your mentee – what should you do?

A. Re-establish what each of you hopes to get from and achieve in this process and try to realign your goals. It could be that he doesn’t have a commitment to mentoring. If your mentee wants to “go it alone’” then, ultimately that is his decision. Such circumstances are seldom anyone’s fault, so do try to avoid assigning blame – either to your mentee, or to yourself in feeling that you have somehow failed in the mentoring role. Mentoring is based on a two-way relationship and, as with all relationships, sometimes these don’t work out. Your mentee is free to identify an alternative mentor if he wishes – and you are free to take on the mentoring role for another candidate. Such circumstances arise only very rarely but, in the event that this happens, do try to reflect on your previous relationship and take some of the experiences forward into your next pairing.

Q. The direction that your mentee receives from his line manager isn’t constructive – what do you do?

A. You have no reason to doubt what your mentee tells you, but remember it is only one side of the story. The most productive way is to support your mentee to approach his line manager himself. There may be a formal structure for doing this in place, such as an appraisal; alternatively, it might be appropriate for him to set up a meeting or informal discussion with his line manager. As his mentor, you may be able to suggest helpful and constructive ways of putting his case across. If your mentee is a licentiate, encourage him to keep his logbook up to date as an evidence base. Ensure that you are circumspect in your response, and avoid criticising the individual or employer. Rather than siding with your mentee, it is more helpful to support them in considering how they might want to resolve their problem or concern – at all times being mindful of the Code of Professional Conduct.

Jenny Adams

"I’m surprised how much I’m learning as a mentor"

I was assigned a mentor as soon as I began as a graduate planner at Arup.

Not only has my mentor Katie (pictured above with Jenny) supported me specifically by guiding me through the APC process, but she has also helped me navigate both daily work issues like juggling multiple projects as well as make more pro-active strategic decisions about the direction of my career.

At Arup the team works on a wide range of projects, and Katie’s advice has helped me to make sure I balance gaining broad planning experience with beginning to develop a specialism around the more specific areas of planning I am interested in, such as masterplanning. This role continued even when I was working abroad for nine months in South Africa last year.

Although Katie is chartered, I don’t think a mentor has to be, as their role is much greater than the APC. Katie is someone with whom I feel I can discuss all my professional aspirations and concerns in complete confidence and who helps me to reflect pro-actively on my professional decisions.

Being at Arup three-and-a-half years, I have now become a mentor to a graduate planner who joined the team in September. It is different being on the other side of the mentoring relationship, but equally valuable. I’m surprised at how much I’m learning from it too, and the importance of providing open and insightful advice.

It has also made me realise how much Katie provided a good model for me to try to emulate with my mentee.

Jenny Adams is a chartered planner at Arup in London

What makes a good mentor?

1. Commitment and belief in the benefits

2. Gives honest feedback in a constructive way

3. Guides and advises without being dictatorial

4. Patient and good at listening

5. Ability to inspire confidence and trust

6. Entirely confidential


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