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Fueling the Future of the Workplace

A successful mentorship program is a key strategy that firms need to employ to help the next generation of designers reach their full potential.

By Viveca Bissonnette

A successful mentorship program is a key strategy that firms need to employ to help the next generation of designers reach their full potential.

The profession of interior design has had a multitude of issues to contend with during these tumultuous times. On a large scale, we are dealing with professional legislation, a lack of public awareness of our value, and economic forces that are out of our control. On a daily basis, we watch as our budgets fluctuate and staff levels shift and realign. This has become a fast paced, complex profession and—similar to our clients, suppliers and colleagues—we are all being forced to do more with less.

As an industry, and as individuals, we can either choose to operate in the same way we always have or we can choose to embrace the future and be willing to reinvent ourselves. To a certain extent, we will have no choice. More than 70 million "millennials" have already begun to enter the workforce as the first of the even more numerous baby boom generation head toward retirement. Businesses are being forced to re-evaluate their cultures and mentoring programs in an effort to attract, retain and nurture these design leaders of the future.

The culture of the workplace is shifting, in part, due to the major differences in values, attitudes and behaviors between millennials and the generations preceding them. Young designers coming into the workforce today have more expectations and higher aspirations for themselves—a quality instilled in them by their baby boomer parents who told them they could do anything. This new generation of workers also has more expectations of their employers than previous generations. They want to know that they are on the professional path to success, and they are looking for guidance from mentors and employers to help them get there.

As leaders we need to understand how this new workforce operates. In this global community, technology is king, and to be successful we all need to embrace it. This is no problem, of course, for this new generation who is simultaneously e-mailing, texting, blogging, using YouTube and webcasts. They have mastered multitasking and are constantly reaching out to friends, family, colleagues, and clients (ultimately, on the Web) for information.

Information and resources are only as far away as their mobile devices. Their profiles are visible on Facebook and LinkedIn and this group is not shy about sharing their lives with the world. This new way of communicating gives us all an opportunity to access people and information globally—expanding our range of mentorship opportunities. It also enables individuals to seek out mentorship beyond their immediate professional community. Individuals have living and breathing curriculum vitae online, accessible to all by a simple "click" and downloadable to one's iPad to be viewed while sitting at the office, the beach or a baseball game.

This new generation, attached to their mobile device(s), works 24/7 and is adept at multitasking.

However, more importantly, they are looking for balance and quality of life. Employers need to understand and embrace these work styles in order to best mentor these junior designers. They are the future leaders of our industry and are reaching out for our guidance.

Internships, formal training, leadership development and open communication are all keys to a successful mentorship program. Everyone needs mentorship at some level. These programs help to guarantee that no one is left out—from the student who is experiencing the real life aspects of our profession for the first time (participating in an internship), to the most senior principal whose education and work style is vastly different from the 20-something's now entering the workforce.

There has never been a time when our workforce has spanned so many generations, and the opportunities for us to grow as individuals and as a profession is extremely viable. Mentorship in both directions needs to be part of the culture of an organization for it to be successful, and employers need to be willing to spend time and resources to guarantee its success. The most successful firms are those where mentorship is not an implemented "program" but where communication, collaboration and education are an integral part of its mantra.

In my professional career, I've benefited from this firsthand—both as a mentor and a mentee. Whether you're part of a large organization or the creative spirit behind a small business run virtually, you have all the tools necessary to share your passion and expertise. If you've worked one day, you know more than you think. The greatest thing you can do is to share that knowledge and experience.

At the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), we've understood this for more than a decade. Our annual Student Mentoring Week initiative provides IIDA Student Members an opportunity to shadow a professional in their area of design interest for one day. This year, it will take place during the week of February 21-25. Participating students are also eligible to enter the Lloyd Hack Memorial Fund Scholarship, which awards $1,000 to the winning student and the firm of the winning student's mentor.

Last year's scholarship award recipient, Jaclyn Moser, notes, "My experience during IIDA Student Mentoring Week with Legat Architects was a reminder of the challenges of real-world design and a phenomenal inspiration. It showed that as young professionals, we can become part of an organization like theirs that strives to exceed client expectations, promotes sustainable practices, and demands innovation and integrity in design."

Inspiration and guidance is exactly what these young designers are craving, and precisely what they are going to need to navigate our ever-evolving interior design profession. Now more than ever, we need design professionals who are willing to get involved as mentors and impact the future of design.

Be a leader in our industry by helping a future leader: become a mentor.

IIDA president Viveca Bissonnette is vice president and design principal at Hollander Design Group in San Diego. IIDA can be reached at (312) 467-1950, or Learn more on the Web at