Trade Your Expertise

Realize career gains from a peer-to-peer mentoring relationship

by Russell T. Westcott

Most readers have an idea of what a mentor is: "A wise and trusted counselor or teacher."1 Perhaps you have either received counsel or knowledge from an experienced mentor or mentored a person seeking your advice.

The mentoring relationship may be initiated by the mentee or offered by a mentor to a person who could use some help. Typically, the mentor has more seniority than the mentee by virtue of organizational position, specialized expertise and knowledge, or years of experience. But there is a lesser-known mentoring relationship—a peer-to-peer relationship.

A peer-to-peer mentoring relationship consists of two individuals, each with their own unique repertoire of knowledge, skills and experience, who are willing to share with each other regardless of position level, academic level or length of service. The relationship is different than the typical approach because there is little concern for organization levels (both are peers in that regard) or other status-related conditions.

The individuals are not inhibited in sharing. Give and take is much less restrained. Peer-to-peer mentoring can ultimately develop into communities of interest with multiple peers exchanging knowledge, skills and experience.

It’s a tradeoff

I started my quality management consulting business with knowledge and some experience in about 75 to 80% of the protocols, practices and procedures pertinent to the quality field, although gained from several prior fields. I sought a peer within the quality field who had similar experience and knowledge of a majority of topics, technology and tools that paralleled my experience.

My peer provided counsel, teaching and guidance I needed to provide a consistent, comprehensive and competitive quality experience for clients. In turn, I provided insights from previous industries, projects and assignments. The ease of the quid pro quo approach sustained the relationship we created, and we became partners.

Often in peer-to-peer relationships, there is a situation in which two people realize they both have a vacant spot they need or want to fill, and that they have something to trade—such as skill, knowledge, information, strategy or approach. They have a mutual motivation to obtain the missing elements and recognize that sharing with someone could fill the gap.

For example, a company decided to transform its internal auditing function by infusing it with 40 new individuals with a wide variety of academic achievements and practical work experiences. What the organization didn’t realize was that putting these bright stars together in one environment created a collection of independent egos, each determined to gain power and prestige over their peers. Each person felt there was only one best way—their way—and a Tower of Babel2 developed: It was as if no one in the group spoke the same language.

Attempts to integrate the group failed until the concept of a "mini-scule" was developed. A "mini-scule" was a voluntary lunchtime, half-hour class in which each individual from the group presented a business-related topic of his or her choice and within his or her area of expertise. This approach grew from one day a week to five days a week, ultimately bringing in presenters from throughout the company to show and tell.

These classes allowed individuals in the audit function to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise. The program gave attendees a venue to appreciate and absorb the competencies of their peers. It vastly improved communication and collaboration within the function, leading to higher performance in quality and productivity. The "mini-scule" ran for three years.

Ups and downs

There are some downsides to peer-to-peer mentoring. A peer in the role of mentor doesn’t have the high-level power and ability to effect change for the mentee, such as protecting the mentee, sponsoring the mentee, and providing resources and development opportunities for the mentee.

Each peer in the peer-to-peer mentoring role must be willing to put aside any signs of "I’m better than you" for the relationship to work. The information, advice and counsel each mentor provides his or her peer must be given without intent to undermine the peer-mentee’s thoughts, position or own knowledge and skills.

In the peer-to-peer relationship, the trading of expertise should be as evenly balanced to avoid conflicts or the feeling of inferiority. Neither party should be upset if their peer doesn’t accept what is being offered. Debate is fine. Open dispute is inadvisable.

An advantage of the peer-to-peer mentoring relationship is that there are often many more competent peers to choose from than there are available (and competent) senior managers. Peers may better understand and identify each other’s needs and wants. Peer mentoring thrives when peers agree to exchange something they have and the other wants. In addition, confidentiality can be easier to maintain.

To establish a peer mentoring relationship, seek individuals who have one or more work-related qualities, competencies or attitudes you want to develop. Be sure you have something to offer in exchange. Ensure the chosen individual is not an intense competitor for your present or desired position. Look for trustworthy peers to share with. Try it—you’ll like it.


  1. "Mentor," The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
  2. Wikipedia, "Tower of Babel," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_of_Babel (case sensitive).

Russell T. Westcott, based in Old Saybrook, CT, consults on strategic planning, project management, quality management systems, work-life planning and career coaching. He is an ASQ Fellow and an ASQ-certified manager of quality/organizational excellence (CMQ/OE) and quality auditor. Westcott is editor of the CMQ/OE Handbook, third edition, co-editor of the Quality Improvement Handbook, and author of other books and many articles. He serves on the Quality Management Division Advisory Committee and Thames Valley Section executive board.

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