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Want to Advance Your Career? Try Peer Mentoring

image for fizkes / Getty Images
fizkes / Getty Images
  • Peer mentoring relaxes the traditionally rigid lines between mentor and mentee for a more even playing field.
  • To get the most out of your peer mentoring relationship, make sure to set clear goals and guidelines.
  • Communication is an important aspect of peer mentoring, helping to ensure that both participants are on the same page.

Mentorship is a key element in personal development and growth and can provide valuable lessons to both mentor and mentee. Traditional mentorships work under a teacher-student dynamic, with the mentor providing the benefit of experience and wisdom to the mentee. In peer mentoring, the mentor and mentee roles are less rigidly defined, allowing both parties to profit from the arrangement.

Peer mentoring has long been a tradition in academic environments, particularly high schools and universities, but many workplaces are beginning to adopt it as an opportunity for workers to learn from each other on a more level playing field.

"[Peer mentoring] is where two peers have come together because each has something to both learn from and contribute to the other," said Rachel Cooke, founder of Lead Above Noise. "[The pair can] contract the shape their relationship might take."

Peer mentoring is a form of mentoring that encourages a give-and-take dynamic, where both employees offer advice and learn from each other.

"In a peer mentoring relationship, each person involved can be both teacher and student, and both parties are empowered to shape their learning context," said Virginia Fraser, U.S. marketing manager at Insights Learning & Development. "Professionals receive the support they need from a peer while getting the perspective from a mentor."

While your peer mentor doesn't necessarily have to be at your exact job level, there is a distinct advantage to mentoring and being mentored by a person who has roughly the same amount of experience you have, said Sarah Callaghan, former global marketing manager at Insights.

"You face similar challenges in terms of the work at hand, office politics and ... reporting lines," Callaghan said. "Your peer mentor truly understands your strains and obstacles, and can help you face them in a positive and productive way."

Fraser said that peer mentorships develop organically from trust-based professional workplace relationships. This trust creates an open environment where colleagues feel comfortable offering feedback to one another about behavior, attitude or performance.

In turn, recipients of this feedback are more open to advice, because they know the other person genuinely wants to see them succeed. When this occurs, Fraser noted, teams can establish a system of interpersonal checks and balances that isn't dependent on the group leader.

There are three important steps in peer mentoring: finding the right mentor, working with them to create a balanced relationship, and asking for support when you need it.

If you want to start benefiting from a peer mentorship, the first step is to find the right teammate. When you're looking for a peer mentor, consider someone who shares work experience with you but can offer a unique perspective on the everyday and long-term challenges you face, advised Fraser. "Often, it's helpful to find someone who has a very distinctive background and view ... to offer an increased level of exposure to diversity of thought."

You should consider how your experiences match up or differ and try to use that to your advantage. Remember that this relationship is meant to push and develop you in your role, so don't look for someone whose life or career experiences are identical to yours.

Another quality to look for in a peer mentor is honesty. You and your mentor should trust each other and feel comfortable being candid, Callaghan said. It's also important that you have similar career goals.

"Peer mentorship needs to have a foundation of trust, respect and similar objectives," Callaghan said. "Use those commonalities as a way to introduce the concept of peer mentorship as a mutually beneficial activity." [Read related article: How to Find a Mentor]

You'll want to define your purpose for the relationship so that both your priorities and your mentor's are met. It's a two-way street that must reflect both sides' goals.

"The peer needs to take a step back and determine the overall vision of why they need a mentor," said Shirley Arteaga, senior marketing manager for Ingram Micro. "Creating a future vision of what you would like to accomplish in the next three to five years is the first step. This is not the time to think small. Rather, think large in terms of what you would like to your career to look like."

Arteaga recommended reviewing your career journey to identify any gaps you want to confront. Figure out which are most important to you now and which gaps you can put on the back burner for the time being.

Laura Francis, chief knowledge officer for River mentoring software, recommended that participants sit down together to set goals within the boundaries of what each mentor can give.

"Set goals that address your learning or development concern but that also take into account what the mentor can actually help you with," she said, "and set boundaries so that you both know what you can talk about and what needs to be off-limits."

Setting these boundaries at the beginning of the relationship will create a foundation of trust, enabling both teammates to push each other without crossing the line. You should also create a structured framework for the logistics of your partnership.

"Align on goals, agree on a cadence and then set an agenda format ahead of time," said career coach Dexter Zhuang. "Doing so lets both parties know exactly what to expect and enables conversations to get deeper, generating more value."

Don't be afraid to ask for help whenever you feel like you're in the dark. One of the most common caveats or limitations of peer mentorships is the fact that both parties are at roughly the same level in their careers, so you may need to seek guidance or assistance from more experienced colleagues at times.

You should also make a point of asking your mentor for help if you run into issues or conflicts in your career. Remember, your mentor is there for a reason.

"Reinforce success by asking for the necessary guidance from your mentor," said Arteaga. "Help reinforce your learning experience by actively engaging in role-playing onboarding exercises on a regular basis."

Make sure you're just as receptive to your mentor's requests of you, since this is a give-and-take relationship. The most important part of your mentoring relationship is being open to both offering and accepting advice, guidance and suggestions, as well as practicing leadership skills. Otherwise, neither teammate will get anything out of the relationship.

"To get the most out of a peer mentorship, the most important thing is that you hustle and do the work," said Paul Kim, founder of FinanceFox. "Show your mentor that you are worth mentoring."

Additional reporting by Sammi Caramela and Nicole Fallon. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Kiely Kuligowski

Kiely is a staff writer based in New York City. She worked as a marketing copywriter after graduating with her bachelor’s in English from Miami University (OH) and is now embracing her hipster side as a new resident of Brooklyn. You can reach her on Twitter or by email.