There is a renewed commitment to mentoring in professional organizations and planning agencies. For example, the AICP Candidate Pilot Program includes a mentoring component and many employers and alumni groups have programs.
More mentoring means more questions about mentoring. Here are answers to seven questions my students posed in a recent professional practice course.
1. Have there been successful planners who didn’t have mentors?
Yes, many planners at the top of the planning profession have not had mentors. Mentoring is not a prerequisite for success; some planners do it with their own drive, resources, and talents. Nonetheless, I’m convinced that mentoring is helpful in career navigation, practice, and personal growth. It’s never too late to seek a mentor.
2. How should I understand the different kinds of mentoring?
It is unlikely that one mentor will be right for all purposes, so you may need to cultivate a group of mentors. Consider creating a “mentor map” that diagrams the roles that different mentors play. Such a map helps keep track of mentors who are role models, who provide feedback on professional work, who advise on professional development, or who offer emotional support. Recognize the different roles that mentors play, anticipate change in those roles over time, and be sure to discuss them explicitly.
3. Can I be both a mentee and mentor?
That sounds tricky if it is the same mentor/mentee pair. For example, an experienced planner may guide career thinking or offer political wisdom that can be obtained only through years of practice. A mentee can give something back, though, if they help the mentor with geospatial analysis, social media, visualization, or even in understanding generational differences. That’s not exactly mentoring, but it does bring an element of reciprocity to the relationship.
4. What arrangements make mentoring most effective?
Many arrangements work well, from face-to-face discussion to a penpal-type relationship with someone far away. It also depends what you need. Discussing work decisions requires someone who is available right away, while pondering a change in career direction can involve discussions over a long period of time. Discuss those arrangements to reach mutual agreement on how to proceed.
5. Are there benefits to having mentors who are different than you in temperament, experience, or even professional field?
Yes! For example, an idealist can benefit from a realist mentor, who can help them think wisely about political, economic, or administration constraints. Conversely, a realist may be inspired by an idealistic mentor who urges them out of their comfort zone and inspires hope. And certainly, great mentors come from outside planning, in allied fields like law, city management, or engineering, or in different realms such as religion or the arts.
6. Is it worthwhile to spend time with an unreliable and prickly mentor?
Yes. I’ve benefited from mentors like that. If frustration over their “bedside manner” is compensated by the depth of insight gained, then, by all means, stay engaged.
7. How should I handle mentoring when it would appear that I have a conflict?
For example, if I am a consultant mentee seeking a public-sector mentor, could it appear that I am a “project shark” seeking contracts? There are many possible mentors, so avoid this appearance by seeking mentors that work for organizations that are not affiliated with your firm.
My view is that planning is a craft that involves both science and art. There are so many relevant theories and approaches that no instruction manual is possible.
Planners starting out have to figure out their practice style and make ethical determinations, on the fly. This is why mentoring is so important to professional development. Mentors can help you interpret events, reflect on your practice, make decisions, and see the bigger picture. Mentors are part of the journey.
Top image: Undergraduate planning student Jae Riddle with the author at Cal Poly Pomona in November 2017. Photo courtesy Richard Willson, FAICP.
About the Author
Richard Willson, FAICP
Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy. His book, A Guide to the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.