Since joining Fentress Architects two years ago, CEO Agatha Kessler has emphasized that character matters as much as competence in effective workplaces. Employees who work together well are especially important for the firm, a Denver-based finalist on this year's Top Small Company Workplaces list with $104 million in annual revenue and 155 employees. Fentress is working on a mammoth project to modernize Los Angeles International Airport. Kessler explained her views on team building and a process she calls mutual mentorship to Inc.'s Leigh Buchanan.

What is mutual mentorship?

You know the traditional approach: Assign the new person to someone experienced. But where there are generational differences, there are opportunities for both sides to learn. Older employees have acquired knowledge, and they've learned through repeated failure. It's important to teach new hires the lessons of failure, not just of success. Junior employees are familiar with new technologies and ways of working. They are creative and do things quickly. Older employees can benefit from exposure to that.

How do you ensure that kind of give-and-take occurs?

We pay a lot of attention to matching personalities. Mentoring should work like, where there is mutual choosing. Three months after a person is hired, when the new hire has gotten to know the staff, we'll ask, "Whom would you like to be your mentor?" Then we go to that experienced person and say, "Now that you've worked a little bit with so and so, do you think you can learn from her?"

You also look for compatibility when forming project teams.

We started doing this about nine months ago as part of the LAX project. We have 48 architects working on that, as well as associate architects and some minority-owned firms. We asked ourselves, How do you put together a bunch of people who don't really know each other and make something extraordinary happen? We're not just considerin g who likes whom but also who we think will work well together under stress.

What if you still end up with people who don't mesh?

We'll change the composition of the teams. We've done that at least three times already. The productivity loss from changing team members is less than what you would get by sticking with an incompatible group because you don't want to cause a disruption. Productivity suffers most when people are sitting on one side, crying.

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