by Shane Lueck
Anyone familiar with Tim Gunn knows that he does everything with a certain level of finesse. As the Emmy-winning mentor extraordinaire from Project Runway, viewers are well aware of his passionate, witty, and firm approach as a mentor to the designers.
But what most of us don’t realize is that Gunn’s off-the-cuff and informal feedback method comes from his 30-plus years as an educator and administrator at Parson’s School of Design. In his new book, The Natty Professor: A Master Class on Mentoring, Motivating, and Making It Work!, Gunn shares “natty approach” anecdotes that enabled him to create immense change, both at Parson’s and with the producers of Project Runway.
Attendees of Learning Solutions 2017 were privy to Gunn’s life lessons for learning and development as he reflected on his time as a mentor and coach during the keynote address, aptly titled “A Natty Approach to Learning and Education.” The Natty Professor was written, Gunn says, in an effort to “join the national conversation about education.”
During his speech, Gunn revealed his passion for coaching and mentoring, highlighting the importance of a creative and lively learning environment, as the answers to most of life’s questions “cannot be found at the back of a book.” But, despite Gunn’s experience as an educator in a classroom, his role as a mentor on Project Runway provides the backdrop for the best advice Gunn could have given the Learning Solutions crowd on how to be an effective leader:
Listen and ask questions.
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Gunn is known for taking a firm, but kind, stance with the designers on the television show, which he says stems from a genuine concern for their success and growth, a noble and important quality in a mentor. Designers ask his opinion on their work, and Gunn shared that his reply is the same question: “What do you think?” In this way, he guides designers to respond to their own opinions of their work, following the teaching model of asking questions and listening, providing them the opportunity for critical self-reflection.
As learning and development professionals, the best gift we can give our learners is the ability to be aware and self-reflect. That component of the learning process is a critical step to engage the learner’s belief in what they’re doing. It is our responsibility, as coaches or mentors of training, to ensure the learner is getting the most out of their experience, which is why Gunn’s philosophy surrounding feedback takes the form of a Q&A.
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If we know that great amounts of learning take place as learners make their way through “chaos” and the unknown, why wouldn’t we adapt our feedback to fit that theory? Tim Gunn's goal is not to give away his opinions, but instead “lead them to a place where they’re saying the words in my head” and coming to realizations on their own. The learning journey, after all, is all about the learner, not the mentor. Right?
Furthermore, Gunn suggests only critiquing something the learner can change. For example, on Project Runway, the piece the designer is working on may already be made in red. Color can’t be changed, so Gunn focuses the discussion on what can be added to enhance it. “Any other advice is irrelevant and a waste of breath.”
In fact, Gunn’s approach to feedback, making it about the learner rather than the mentor, influenced his coined acronym describing his success: T.E.A.C.H., or Truth telling, Empathy, Asking, Cheerleading, and Hoping for the best. In other words, a large part of being an effective mentor is making sure you are asking questions of your learner in attempts to understand where they are coming from. Life experience, after all, shapes the way they approach a given situation and, thus, how they might respond to learning.
As Gunn said, “Life is a big collaboration; we don’t do anything alone, by any means.” And aside from asking questions and listening, the rest of his T.E.A.C.H. philosophy gets at this interconnectedness. We are our learners’ biggest advocates and cheerleaders. They need to know we believe in them, but we also have to advocate for them in the workplace.
For Gunn, this was in the form of taking a stand with Project Runway producers within the first couple seasons: either designers retained intellectual copyrights to their work, or Gunn would walk away from the show. (Spoiler alert: the producers caved and Gunn is set to appear in the upcoming 16th season of the hit show.)
Ultimately, Gunn said, you should never surrender your values and beliefs, especially as a mentor. In his case, he firmly believed that designers should retain rights to their work produced on the show and, say, design a collection around something made during filming.
That was a non-negotiable value Gunn possessed. As he said, “there’s nothing more powerful than the word no.” If you don’t advocate for your learners’ best interests, no one will. Closing his keynote speech, Gunn said, “Have a set of beliefs and stand by them. They’ll help you weather any storm.”
These words came with a warning about always taking the high road: “When the high road gets so high that you get a nose bleed, get off it.” Meaning, always stand up for what you believe in, but know when it’s time to negotiate and let some walls down.
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