CDA Interviews: Our Mentorship Program

Nov 30, 2022

One of Chipman Design’s guiding values is the commitment to support each and every team member. We want to make sure they have all the tools and support needed for both personal growth and professional development. In order to accomplish this, CDA has developed a highly successful mentorship program. Recently, Lauren met with CDA Senior Managing Director Nelly Augustyn to discuss the development of the CDA Mentor Program, and how mentorship has supported and propelled Nelly’s career through the years, and how a one-on-one relationship can be more beneficial than a one size fits all program.

Lauren: Hello Nelly. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Nelly: Lauren. I'm so excited to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

LC: I was so thrilled when you wanted to have a discussion about something that is near and dear to both of our hearts: mentoring and how it can really change a company culture. Could you talk a bit about the CDA Mentor program? How did it come about?

NA: When I talk about the CDA Mentor Program, I like to first address the word "program" because we want to acknowledge that this is a private personal relationship between two people, the mentor and the mentee. And, in using the word program, we don't want to give the misconception that this is either written or there's a curriculum associated with it.

CDA in terms of the leaders that put this program together, do not track the conversations between the mentor and mentees. This is really. To help facilitate the communication between two individuals that are focused on their career growth, one the mentor, and two the mentees. I love to say that first because this isn't a track that we put someone on with the expectation that at the end of it, there will be some sort of, let's call it a certificate, right?

So in that sense, this isn't a program, but rather CDA acknowledging the importance of focus on an individual's career. We want our team members to take time out of their busy days and take time to focus on their careers. Much of the day is spent on client support and drawing production, but we also want them to take the time to look into the future and to focus on any questions they may be having about where this career is taking them. 

“Where am I headed? Am I on the right track? What is my path looking?” It's very important for all of us to take time out of our days to focus on that. So therein is how the program came about:we simply had people asking for that help, asking for that direction. And as most programs come about, a few of us were already naturally doing this with our younger staff.

As leadership at CDA started to learn about these organic conversations and regular check-ins that were happening between specific people, we thought, Wow, let's dive a little deeper. Let's figure out how these connections came about and let's help facilitate those professional relationships. To that end,I think one of the hardest things to do at the onset of a mentor and mentee relationship is to find the mentor. It can be very intimidating walking up to a senior person at your firm and simply ask, “Will you be my mentor? So our first goal was to facilitate that connection and get that mentee in contact with somebody that we feel can help them with the things that they want to focus on their career path.

LC: You make a really good point. It is a little bit awkward at first, and, I've been so thrilled to see these relationships and friendships that you and Kate, our CHRO, and Bree, our HR associate have put together because they are deliberate.

It's matching someone's career goals with someone outside of their team that they don't work with on a daily basis. And I think that's where you can really see a lot of reflection and growth, not just on the mentee side, but also what the mentor gets out of it.

NA: I love that you use the word friendship, because it's not a word that we often associate with a professional program at a firm. That is the ultimate goal really, that when we connect the mentee with a mentor, that they will build a close bond and a friendship relationship that will last.

LC: Absolutely! What is some of the feedback that you've been getting from our team members that are participating either as mentees or as mentors?

NA: First and foremost, from the mentee perspective, they are just absolutely thrilled at the opportunity to have conversations with the senior staff at CDA. These are conversations that they would not have if it were not us connecting them specifically to these senior team members and saying, wWe want you to take time out of your busy days to have these discussions.”

We have heard that our mentees love talking not only about their careers, but will interject family life, motherhood, fatherhood.

They might also discuss anxiety stressors that they're encountering on a day to day basis, and they love simply having the opportunity to discuss those with their mentors. From the mentor's perspective, it's that they take such pride in the fact that they can help someone on their career path and it is a bright light in their day to be able to take a break from the tasks that they have on their plate to have a conversation where they too get to share the things that they've encountered in their career. They get to help and guide in addition to talking also about their family life and bounce ideas off of each other. It’s a win-win from all perspectives.

LC: That's amazing! As you've been in the industry now for close to 20 years, what does being a mentor now mean to you as an architect?

NA: I cannot tell you the amount of satisfaction I get just in my day to day life in being able to sit down and to talk to my mentees and having them call me a mentor. Hearing those words come out of their mouth literally gives me goosebumps every time that I finally made it to this point in my life. Early in my career, I was the one with the questions and it is very humbling and heartwarming to now have the answers!

LC: Absolutely. In respect to ‘having the questions,’ we always tell our team members at Chipman, especially our new team members, there are no dumb questions! We don't expect you to have all the answers! Who was that early mentor in your life? Who was answering those questions for you and how did it shape your career?

NA: Oh, that's such a big question because how do you pick the one person? How do I not acknowledge everyone from college all the way through today who have helped me along the way? My earliest mentors were certainly my family members including my uncle who encouraged me to consider the architectural career track at the University of Illinois Chicago. So if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have even started the journey.

Then it was Ivanna and Diane who I worked with all through college while I was studying to become an architect. They worked with me at the hotel restaurant where I met John Chipman, who hired me and got my career started at Chipman Design. They were all an integral part of my blossoming into the human being that I am today.

Once I started at Chipman, really, it was Bob Wirsing, current principal of our retail studio, who took me under his wing and was always so supportive. He always answered every single one of my questions in my twenties, and he answered them thoughtfully and carefully and with context. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be where I am today.

And then, funny enough, I do even consider some of our clients my mentors! There was a Director of Construction the worked for one of our clients He would be so gracious and describe for me the things he was looking for, give me contextual explanations on construction and what he'd experienced in the field. I just always felt like he had me under his wing and even though I was functioning as his architect, ,he wanted to take that extra step and make sure that I knew the background behind what he was asking for and why he was asking for it. He had that mentoring spirit and he always wanted to share his knowledge, and I think in some way he was happy that he worked with a young person that he could bestow some of that knowledge upon.

LC: That's amazing! You never know where you're going to meet those people along the way that are going to have such a heavy hand in your career. And, as you said, I think it's not only taking the opportunity when it comes to you, but being able then to bestow it upon others as you continue on in your career. 

So Nelly, I’ve been thinking about what the mentor program at CDA looks like moving forward into the future. I think it's been incredibly integral to our current hybrid work model with some of our team members being fully remote. How do you facilitate those relationships in a professional, and sometimes digital setting that we used to take for granted working side by side?

NA: We're looking forward to checking in more regularly with our mentors and mentees to get their feedback on the current CDA Mentor Program. Is there any additional support that we could be providing as a firm to help facilitate these conversations? Is there anything else we could be doing in terms of providing the time for it, the space for it, or reminding everyone about it?

Bree, our HR Associate at CDA, issues a wonderful newsletter every Friday and at the bottom there's a sort of a “mentor minute.” If anybody ever needs a topic of conversation, it’s a great place to look as its filled with ideas and conversation starters.

Additionally, we want to make sure that we are allowing for the space for these relationships to continue. It’s really easy at the onset, right? You're so excited and motivated for these regular meetings, but then life gets in the way and your tasks get in the way. So what else can we be doing to help remind people to have these important conversations?

LC: It’s true! I see it in my everyday life at work; it's so easy to put those blinders on, get our, work done and service our clients. And then all of a sudden it's six months down the road and we haven’t been putting time aside for these important conversations. And so I think you make such a great point about really being intentional about taking the time to connect with one another because at the end of the day, we are going to be stronger together if we are supporting one another and truly  growing together.

NA: So much! And we are planning to make a stronger push in 2023 just to make the topic of mentorship more prevalent throughout the firm. Even if one hasn’t  been officially assigned a mentee or a mentor through the program, we have to remember that we are doing it anyway on a day-to-day basis with every single team member that we're working with.

Many of my most wonderful moments come from having text messages sent to me out of the blue from team members, years after I had conversations with them, just thanking me for my mentorship to them, saying "Nelly, I never told you, but you did this for me 10 years ago and it changed my career. It changed my life. Thank you so much." This is part of our culture at CDA. In that light, it is our responsibility to pass this knowledge on and mentor the next generation so that they can take over and lead with the CDA ethos for many years to come.

LC: Oh Nelly, I am grateful for having you as a mentor in our firm. It’s not only your architectural expertise, but your commitment to being a nurturing and supportive team member to everyone that you work with. Thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to expanding this in 2023 with you.

NA: Thank you, Lauren.