Bridge the learning gap

illustration showing 3 figures about to walk over a plank bridge following a larger figure who is already across the bridgeDecember 2020 – In the December 2020 issue of the American Planning Association’s Planning Magazine, an article titled Bridge the Learner Gap featured two Plan Hillsborough planners. Melissa Dickens, AICP and Yeneka Mills were both quoted in the article sharing how a mentor can help build new skills, broaden your perspective, and take your career to the next level.

ESTABLISH EXPECTATIONS. The mentoring relationship is grounded in professionalism and good manners, and as such, focus and commitment are much needed for its success.

Yeneka Mills, principal planner for the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission, was matched with her mentor, Matthew Armstrong, through the Florida Sun Coast Section’s mentoring program. At the outset, they set guidelines based on Mills’s goals and how often they wanted to meet. She says the program management skills he taught her ultimately helped her achieve a promotion from senior planner to principal planner.

“It’s very important at the outset to lay out expectations, so you can get the most out of it and you’re able to carry away what you’re seeking and be able to use that in everyday life at your job,” she says.

We recommend setting a schedule of check-ins. Mills and Armstrong met weekly for six months, which she says allowed them to build a close relationship, but others meet monthly or bimonthly. In your initial contact with a mentor, be specific about what you would like to talk about. Ask them if any topics are off-limits and honor those boundaries. Be up front on how much you will be available to communicate outside scheduled check-ins and how willing you are to share personal challenges as well as successes.

FIND WAYS TO OFFER YOUR MENTOR VALUE. There are mutual rewards to mentoring. “It’s important for mentees to know their own value and what they can contribute to the relationship,” says Melissa Dickens, AICP, an active mentor and the strategic planning and policy manager in the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission. She appreciates it when her mentees clue her in to what’s being taught in planning schools and new types of technology in the field.

To that end, she says, think about what kind of value you can offer your mentor, things they might be interested in, articles they might enjoy, or information you can bring to the table to make the relationship beneficial to you both. Ultimately, Dickens says, this value exchange ultimately makes the relationship longer lasting. “You’ll be able to call this person up a couple years from now to bounce an idea off them or ask for a job recommendation and they’ll happily do it.”

BUILD YOUR NETWORK. Mentees and mentors strengthen their connections and establish new ones by making introductions to grow their professional contacts. Dickens says that she has found many of her mentoring relationships develop into friendships that continue to grow. On the other hand, as a relationship progresses and may eventually end, acknowledge your mentor and thank them — being courteous is part of developing a successful professional network.

View the rest of this month's Connections to Tomorrow articles