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A Peer into 
Peer to Peer Mentoring



by Les McKeown


In the last year or so, the volume of requests we've had for help with the design of one particular form of mentoring - peer to peer mentoring - has risen considerably.

Recent events, particular the downturn in employment prospects in the tech sector, mean that demand for this form of mentoring is likely to continue to rise, so here's our take on:

  • Why peer to peer mentoring has grown in popularity

  • What peer to peer mentoring is 
    (and what it isn't)

  • Common peer to peer mentoring models

  • Where peer to peer mentoring works best, and

  • Where it doesn't work so well.

Why Peer to Peer Mentoring has Grown in Popularity

In our experience, peer to peer mentoring - the idea of one person 'mentoring' someone else at the same 'peer' level in the organization - has grown, not because of any real attraction inherent in the concept itself, but because of a shortage of 'classical' (older, more experienced) mentors.

Four things have contributed to this shortage of 'classical' mentors:

1.  Bandwidth Constraints.   Existing managers are simply too busy to take on mentoring as another perceived task. Consequently 'volunteer' mentors are harder to come by, and conscription doesn't really work well as a mentor recruitment tool.

2.  Employee Turnover.   As we are all aware, people simply aren't staying around as long as they used to...so older, wiser mentors are harder to find.

3.  Demographics. There are a lot more younger, start-up companies around, many of whom simply don't have 'grayhairs' on the payroll.

4.  Product Cycles.   In many industries, product cycles have come crashing down (and of course some high-tech industries are making it up as they go along), meaning that there *isn't* any 'older, wiser' perspective to be had - everything's (seemingly) new.

As a result, for many organizations, peer to peer mentoring has gone hand in hand with 'battlefield promotions' as the only way to really deal with process-oriented information transfer.

What Peer to Peer Mentoring Is (and What It Isn't)

Peer to peer mentoring, therefore, in most organizations, isn't 'mentoring' at all - it's really a form of coaching.

In other words, it concentrates on knowledge or skills development (as opposed to mentoring, which focuses on personal development).

Peer to peer 'mentoring' is almost always an attempt to:

A.   ensure an organized, consistent transfer of
knowledge within a team or group,
B.   using limited manpower resources.

exampleA banking organization's software development team of nine people is faced with a tight deadline for the design, development and integration of a new internal, mission-critical program.

The team supervisor is brand new, but three of the team members have been through this process together before, but on both occasions everything was very ad-hoc.

There was no structured 'learning' from the previous design experiences - documentation was scrappy, and other than the software itself, there were no outputs in the form of design manuals, FAQ's etc.

To maximize the knowledge of the three 'veterans', and to manage the documentation process, the team implement a 'peer to peer mentoring' program, with the three veterans 'mentoring' the other team members (including the supervisor.)

It's not really surprising to discover that peer to peer
'mentoring' is usually coaching in disguise...after all, mentoring (in its truest sense) is all about the person's individual development - with skills and knowledge as a secondary issue.

It's hard to expect people to act as 'peer' mentors (and even harder to ask people to be 'mentored' by peers) - it takes a sense of respect and confidence that's hard to find in true peers.

So, as you can see, peer to peer 'mentoring' is really usually peer to peer coaching, and as such is a close relative to two other processes -

Buddy Programs 

A buddy program is really a low-level peer coaching program.

The differences between a buddy program and peer coaching is usually just a matter of content - the processes are very similar.

Team Leadership

Peer coaching is often similar to team leadership
(particularly when it is sudden and unexpected!), with the main difference being the issue of responsibility.

Team leadership brings with it clear responsibility and control considerations (or it should do...). Peer coaching is usually viewed as NOT having responsibility or control implications - although the coach may be accountable for the coachee's progress, the coach is not the boss of the coachee.

Discussion Point: Some organizations introduce 'peer coaching' programs as a
way to 'fudge' the appointment of clear team leaders (either because the jury is still out on the management skills of the individuals, or because there are internal politics at work.

This is what it seems - a fudge - and as such, tends not to work.

The 'coaches' aren't being given the right tools (authority and accountability) to prove themselves as team leaders, and in any case, the skills required to be a good coach aren't necessarily the same as those required to be a good team leader.

One last thing before we leave the issue of what peer to
peer mentoring really is:

There are circumstances where 'peer to peer mentoring' is genuinely mentoring (i.e. concerned with the development of the individual, not just her skills or knowledge), and those circumstances tend to be in areas where there is rapid personal development over a relatively short period of time.

Good examples are the military, and university, where individuals can often undergo major personal changes in a relatively short period, thereby becoming competent to act as mentor to those not far behind them.

Implementation Point

Is the environment into which you intend introducing your peer program one of intense personal development?

If so, you may genuinely be looking for a peer to peer mentoring program. Otherwise you probably should use the phrase 'peer coaching' to accurately describe your program, and to avoid misperceptions on the part of your coaches and coachees.

(In the remainder of this article, we'll use 'peer to peer mentoring' to mean both 'peer to peer mentoring' and 'peer to peer coaching' - you should 'hear' whichever phrase applies to your circumstances.)

Common Peer to Peer Mentoring Models

There are four common peer to peer mentoring models:

1.  ONE-WAY - A mentor/coach is appointed to one or more protégés.

2.  TWO-WAY - Individuals in a group act as mentors / coaches to each
other, depending on the topic.  

example:  Jane, George and Sam work on the same production line. Because of their respective backgrounds and experience, Jane coaches George and Sam on health and safety issues, while Sam coaches George on production-related issues.

3.  SME SEEDED, ONE-WAY - A mentor/coach is appointed to one or more protégés, with a subject matter expert (SME) available for assistance.

4.  SME SEEDED, TWO-WAY - Individuals in a group act as mentors / coaches to each other, depending on the topic, with subject matter experts available for assistance.

SME 'seeding' is necessary when the
coaching topic is technical AND the coachees are inexperienced or 
of the content.

It's also important to recognize the  
skills differences between SME's and
coaches - SME's however brilliant, don't necessarily make great coaches.

Implementation Point

Which peer to peer mentoring model will you implement?

One-way (there's just one role for each person - coach or coachee), or two-way (each person can be both a coach and coachee at the same time)?

Will you make SME's available to help the coaches with coaching content, or are they on their own?

Where Peer to Peer Mentoring Works Best

Here are the circumstances in which you are likely to get the best results from introducing a peer to peer mentoring program:

1.  Critical but Incremental Process Change   If you have a change in a well-accepted existing process, peer coaching is a great way to implement it.

Because the basic process is known, just one or two people can be taught the incremental change. They in turn can 'peer coach' the others.

2.  Supervisor Delegation/Reduction of Manager Span of Control   Where supervisors make a decision to (permanently) delegate tasks to operatives, or there is a one-off re-alignment of managerial responsibilities, then again, peer coaching is a great way to implement this.

3.  Employee Orientation   As we've already seen, peer coaching is a near relative of buddy programs - often used in employee orientation.   The two go hand in hand very well, with the buddy program concentrating on integration and mechanical issues, and the peer coaching focused on operational skills.

If you're having difficulty scheduling orientation regularly a good buddy and peer coaching program combined can 'plug the gap' very well for a few weeks.

4.  Esoteric Skills  Got a need for occasional left-handed widget manufacture? Or a declining knowledge base in wicker-work handbag design? Peer coaching is a great way to transfer narrow skills.

Where Peer to Peer Mentoring Doesn't Work So Well

At the risk of some abuse :-( here are the areas where we've found it more difficult to introduce successful peer to peer mentoring:

1.  Highly Structured Environments   Larger, more established organizations find it hard to introduce peer mentoring programs.   Whether they're coaching or truly mentoring, structured organizations tend to react constitutionally against peer development.

Because most larger, structured organizations are used to vertical, top-down communication, the lateral nature of peer to peer mentoring shakes the system too much.

Tip: If you're in a larger organization,
introduce peer to peer mentoring quietly, in a responsive division or department, before contemplating rolling it out company-wide.

2.  24/7 Remote Environments   If your employees
meet face to face, it will be
difficult for peer to peer mentoring to 'take'.   Except for the most straightforward,
factual coaching, there
needs to be *some* personal input, however small, particularly at the start of a peer mentoring relationship, for it to gain traction.

Fight hard for the resources to
get your coaches / mentors and peers together at the start of your program - even if only for a brief while.

You'll greatly increase the chance of your program's success.

3.  Poor Supervision/Time Management Environments where there is poor time management overall (everyone's always in a rush, nothing ever gets completed on time), coupled with poor supervision, often fall on peer to peer mentoring as something of a magic bullet.

There is sometimes a perception that if the managers and supervisors cannot exercise the right skills to adequately lead the employee teams, then maybe they (the employees) will be able to do it for themselves.


Tip: Peer to peer mentoring isn't a substitute for poor management.

If your supervisors aren't doing a good job, peer to peer mentoring won't fix it...

...the best peer to peer mentoring programs work in strong management environments.

4.  Engineers   Here's where I really get into trouble...:-)   While there are obvious exceptions, in my experience getting engineers to coach (let alone mentor) is tough. They're inclined to want to tell others what to do, rather than show them, and that difference is important.

(In the worst cases, engineers will sometimes do neither, taking the "Give it here, I'll do it myself" attitude.)

Tip: In an engineering environment:

  • choose your starting point carefully (find a group that really wants to work with you);

  • get personal buy-in from all the participants before you start;

  • define the process in writing;

  • agree outputs in measurable terms.

J. Leslie McKeown is the President & CEO of Yellowbrick, a training company specializing in employee orientation, retention and mentoring programs.  He is the creator of "The Complete Guide to Mentoring and Coaching" for designing and implementing effective mentoring and coaching programs, and the popular "How to be a Great Mentor...in under 30 minutes" online mentoring training program.  www.deliverthepromise.com

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