Mentoring and the Planning Fountain of Youth

Previous Idealist posts address planners at the beginning of their professional lives, but this one is for experienced planners: consider becoming a mentor at work and in the profession.

The Need for Mentors is Great

Mentoring is vital because planning cannot be fully taught in school. The transition from the idealism supported by a planning education to the realism required in the workplace can be daunting. Scholar Donald Schön makes a distinction between espoused theory (learned in school and held by a profession) and theory-in-use (how professionals solve problems). Mentors can help young planners navigate early career challenges and develop reflective theories in use.

It helps me avoid the dangers of negative thinking and romanticizing the "good old days" that accompany aging. I hope that it will delay the "loud, insistent blowhard" portion of my career.

No one argues against mentoring, of course, but I find experienced planners and supervisors on the sidelines. This is an issue for all professions — traditions of mentoring are undermined by pressures on potential mentors (supervisors lack the time) and perceptions of decreased employee loyalty and tenure (supervisors wonder if the investment in a mentee is worth it).

Furthermore, differences in work and communication styles between generation groups can interfere with mentor/mentee pairings.

Why Mentor?

In my experience, mentoring is a gratifying and thought-provoking element of professional development. My understanding of planning is deepened by mentoring students and young professionals. It causes me to reflect on my practice, and the more reflection, the more effective I can be. Also, the process of explaining something inevitably helps me understand it better.

Mentoring keeps me young(er)

Engaging the energy and commitment of novice planners is inspiring. It helps me avoid the dangers of negative thinking and romanticizing the "good old days" that accompany aging. I hope that it will delay the "loud, insistent blowhard" portion of my career. I know that I have to listen well to be effective.

Mentoring Validates My experience

Mentoring validates and makes use of my professional and life experience.

Young planners usually know what is wrong with the world, and what should be reformed. They bring positive energy for that change, but they lack experience with the process of change. My familiarity with the complex and delicate process of planning reform is helpful to mentees.

Depending on the situation, I might suggest the merits of a light touch rather than taking on an issue one cannot win, or help a mentee perceive the broader process of change beyond a particular battle.

While I see mentoring as a service to the profession, mentees offer much in return. For example, whenever navigating social media makes me nervous or I am flummoxed by the latest technology, my mentees are glad to help.

Mentoring keeps me informed and relevant

More significantly, my engagement with mentees keeps me informed, growing, and relevant concerning contemporary social issues. My reference points are expanded and my empathy is increased.

Please consider mentoring if you not already doing it, in your workplace or through APA or AICP. The profession needs you. Young planners need you. Mentors and mentees can be skittish about making the connection, and certainly, we have to work to navigate generation differences.

But the payoff is a mutual gain for mentor and mentee, and better planning outcomes for our communities, cities, and regions.

This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson’s book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: Mentor and protege at APA's 2015 National Planning Conference in Seattle. Photo by Joe Szurszewski.

About the Author
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.

October 31, 2017

By Richard Willson, FAICP