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Interview with a NatHERS mentor: Matthew Graham

by | Feb 28, 2020 | NatHERS

Do you really need a NatHERS mentor? How does it work? How do you find the right mentor? And what’s the secret to getting the most out of your experience? To find out, we sat down with Matthew Graham, principal of Graham Energy and an industry-recognised NatHERS mentor. Here’s what he had to say: Tell us, how did you become a NatHERS mentor? It has been a long journey but started because my initial training was inadequate and there wasn’t easy access to the finer details of completing an assessment. This intrinsically motivated me to help others have a better experience on my quest to fill in the missing gaps that were simply not taught. It is important to remember I was trained during a time when there were no useful software user manuals. Now I’m honoured to hold this position within the industry and believe it is essential to stop and pay tribute to my mentors who have taken me under their wing. Without the time and effort from leading experts, such as Wayne Floyd, Tony Isaacs and Peter Lyons, I wouldn’t be able to bridge thermal performance theory and practice in my own unique way. There are a few other key ingredients that helped: strong construction knowledge from my architectural background, an independent technical support position with the Australian Building Sustainability Association (ABSA), and working as a Project Advisor to Sustainability Victoria in the recent development of FirstRate5. It has also been advantageous to co-author both the AccuRate and FirstRate5 User Manuals with Tony Isaacs. Quite a different experience when you are forced to put something down in writing. What are the benefits of mentoring – for mentors, mentees and the industry in general? For mentors, there is an immense reward in observing the growth of a mentee. There are distinct moments when you can tell the ‘penny dropped’ with a concept, which is a satisfying feeling. Not everyone is suited to become a mentor. While extensive experience is vital, you also need to know how to dispense that knowledge effectively. From my training experience, students and mentees learn and absorb information in various ways. Patience is critical, but so is the ability to adapt to the situation by explaining the same principle in different ways. Mentoring, which is typically one-to-one, is very personal and tailored to an individual’s needs. I can summarise the benefits to the mentee in one word: confidence. A mentor or subject matter expert (SME) possesses a high degree of certainty, whereas many assessors and mentees express that they lack confidence and don’t know whether what they are doing is ‘right’. One of the most resounding themes from last year was ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. It’s often not until you spend time with someone who is experienced that you realise you don’t know something or are doing the wrong thing, thinking you’re doing the right thing. I’ve come across people in workshops who have been doing the wrong thing for a very long time. This is avoidable by regularly touching base with a mentor and having someone there to answer your questions. In this way, mentoring provides targeted ‘gap training’ to boost confidence, so you know what you are doing is acceptable (especially if subjected to a quality assurance review). The most significant benefit for the industry is probably consistency. For example, where a trainer may work for one Registered Training Organisation (RTO), an independent mentor can work across the entire industry. Patterns can be identified, and broader issues may be individually or collectively addressed. A mentor could develop continuing professional development (CPD) on a specific topic or present as a guest speaker to a broader audience. How does it all work? Talk us through the process of mentoring. It really depends on the circumstances and whether the mentoring is mandatory or voluntary. If an assessor is unsuccessful as part of a quality assurance review, they may be required to undertake a minimum amount of time with a mentor before their accreditation status is reinstated. In this case, an Assessor Accrediting Organisation (AAO) will suggest several recognised mentors and the mentee can choose. For voluntary mentoring, a mentor may be suggested by an AAO, RTO, word of mouth or, more recently, the NatHERS Assessor Group on Facebook. It would be prudent to do some research to ensure your mentor is capable and, if in doubt, maybe check with a significant NatHERS stakeholder, such as an AAO or RTO. Once you have engaged a mentor, they will likely develop a tailored plan that is designed to achieve the agreed goal e.g. software training, refresher training, complex modelling, etc. What are some areas you cover as a mentor? The most common area would have to be NatHERS software tool modelling. However, a mentor can assist in many ways. This could include accurate or correct modelling using NatHERS software tools, technical advice, proper workflow, project optimisation or even jurisdictional regulatory advice. In a recent exercise, I remodelled a simple mentee project rated at 6.0 Stars only to discover that correctly modelled, the project achieved 6.9 Stars. The client could benefit from a higher level of thermal comfort or potentially reduce the specifications to save on build cost. In another exercise, I demonstrated that changing the workflow could result in accomplishing the same task in half the time. Many assessors haven’t had their workflow reviewed, or watched a mentor stepping through a suggested workflow. There is also less industry information available regarding project optimisation, so this is an area where working closely with a mentor can return substantial savings. Sometimes you just forget things, or just need someone to talk through a problem, which is where establishing a relationship with a mentor can be highly beneficial. Tell us the most common challenges that mentoring can help with. The main area where mentoring can really help is to ensure you are modelling correctly, not only for an accurate result but to have the confidence you are working at a professional and acceptable industry standard. Personally, I would prefer to see assessors spend less time interpreting and completing data entry and more time investigating project optimisation. Having a mentor involved means there is someone who can quickly identify an error and suggest how this should be corrected. It is easy to fall into an unsatisfactory routine, and many small mistakes can quickly add up. This is especially paramount when you are a student learning a NatHERS software tool. When is the best time to engage a mentor?  Arguably the best time is the worst time; when you are a student, or you have just started your own business and funding is in short supply. For the latter, this is definitely the most crucial time to engage a mentor. The first few projects you complete are critical and defining. Having someone look over the assessment and provide feedback is incredibly useful. They can provide a safety net to ensure your processes are correct. There is a high chance as an accredited assessor you will be subject to an audit as a new entrant to the industry and an unsuccessful outcome would necessitate suspension and mandatory mentoring anyway. Prevention is so much better than the cure. Top tips for mentees to get the best out of mentoring? Obviously, the first tip would be to find a mentor. No seriously – very few people engage in mentoring. There are always excuses; not enough time, not enough money, or not going to learn anything. The reality is if you want to develop your skills and arguably become more competitive, you should make time, set aside some funds, and realise that we never stop learning. Another tip to get the best out of the mentoring process is to ask questions. There is no such thing as a silly question, take concise notes and, above all, practice, practice, practice.  Get mentoring while you study with our Premium Package for the Certificate IV. Find out more.  Already completed your Certificate IV and looking for a mentor? See how Matthew Graham can help.
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