How to Develop a Peer Mentoring Program

Despite the proliferation of traditional mentoring programs, many are not designed to respond to the evolving needs of today’s workforce. Many are too slow, too structured and undersupported for the task. They seldom drive performance and development in a way that addresses shifting workforce demographics, accelerated demand for context, increasing constraints on resources and the growing importance of talent development in retaining employees.

Not only are more employees working at a distance, but more are working in intergenerational work teams collaborating as peers. Compound this with the fact that the types of challenges organizations face do not fit neatly within the scope of a single business unit, as more and more companies operate in cross-functional teams.

Many organizations, for example, have tightened the interconnections between research and development and commercialization to create more adaptable business strategies. Therefore, a talent development network is needed, providing flexibility to the process.

At the same time, many organizations are asking employees to do more with less. This is especially true for high performers — the group often chosen as mentors in traditional mentoring programs. Because of such time constraints, many traditional mentoring programs struggle to ensure access and meaningful connections between mentors and mentees. Often these relationships struggle to establish authenticity, a shared perspective and relevance for both parties, important characteristics of a successful mentoring relationship.

Enter Agile Peer Mentoring Programs

Instead of eliminating traditional mentoring programs, the role and scope of peer mentoring programs can be expanded. Blending peer mentoring with social learning tools can create an agile peer mentoring program that is responsive, sustainable and performance-driven.
The following are strategies for using social learning and peer mentoring to create what many might see as a more efficient mentoring infrastructure.

An agile peer mentoring program is a network of peers across business units, geographies and generations who share a vision of interpersonal and professional growth, connected through a framework of social learning tools. An agile peer mentoring program can provide not only information-sharing, job-related feedback and shared problem-solving, but also emotional support, personal feedback, confirmation and friendship.

By design, an agile peer mentoring program enabled through a social learning framework can empower employees to establish and develop problem solving approaches that can address organizational challenges.

Specifically, an agile peer mentoring program can deliver:

  • Accelerated innovation and problem solving.
  • Improved use of organizational resources.
  • Improved quality of mentoring dialogues.
  • Improving on-the-job effectiveness.
  • Increased job satisfaction.
  • Improved high-performer retention.

Employees have a great deal to learn from each other. They can empathize and provide mutual support because they have shared experiences. To this end, employees in an agile peer mentoring program can find validation in shared stories because they are relevant and resonate with their own experiences.
Hearing a peer’s words makes the knowledge’s relevance immediate. A peer is more likely to understand and empathize with the learner’s problems. He or she is in a similar situation, which makes it easier to communicate, provide mutual support and collaborate than it would be in a traditional mentoring relationship.

According to Lynda McDermott, president of EquiPro International Ltd., a leadership consulting firm, Microsoft Corp. implemented a peer coaching program known as “Learning Circles” to accelerate the growth of its high-potential employees. These Learning Circles were composed of five to seven peers who met either face-to-face or virtually to discuss workplace challenges and developmental goals. As McDermott writes in her book “The Power of Peer Coaching,” these learning circles “enabled participants to build cross-business networks with other high-potential leaders at Microsoft.”

Key Design Features

Agile peer mentoring is self-directed, flexible, dynamic, inclusive and has clear accountability built in. Moreover, agile peer mentoring programs embrace learning and performance improvement, which makes them effective levers for developing talent, establishing readiness and driving performance. Key features include clear accountability, anywhere, anytime connectedness, and flexibility and sustainability.

Furthermore, a peer mentoring program should be supported across the organization and reinforced through line management to create the time and space for peers to connect. Peers and mentors should see the value in the experience while clearly understanding that they have accountability and ownership of the process. Everyone involved should understand that learning takes place through participation; therefore, the emphasis should be on learning and mentoring around moments of practice.

Peer mentoring is also about the connection and dialogue between peers. Social learning tools such as wikis, Blogger, Facebook, SharePoint, Yammer, YouTube and others provide opportunities for peer mentors to create and share knowledge. These types of tools allow peer mentoring circles to connect and share wherever and whenever mentoring is most valuable, including at the point of performance.

The mentoring conversation can benefit from materials that are curated, moderated or archived. For example, peers participating in “talking circles” might curate or collect relevant journals, business cases, expert videos and tools they have created on a SharePoint site for group access. These materials could be used as a common starting point for peer-mentoring conversations ranging from performance improvement to professional development.

Social learning tools support a variety of interactions, from short, immediate bursts to longer, documented dialogues. These tools also allow peers who are comfortable with different types of communication to receive mentoring beyond face-to-face interactions.

Additionally, a diverse pool of mentors will increase the likelihood that members will find connection and relevance through a spectrum of career and performance perspectives. A peer mentoring circle provides multiple points of support. In comparison, a single mentor may not always be available when needed, can open some doors but not others, and can model some behaviors but not others. Peer mentoring circles also better reinforce complex behaviors, including collaborative problem solving, provocative inquiry and strategic visioning.

Getting Started With Agile Peer Mentoring

To get started with agile peer mentoring:

1.  Define the peers and a shared goals: Select peers who will benefit from a common experience. This will be your anchor for relevance. These peers may be within a unit or across the organization.

For example, a peer-mentoring program for female leaders may have the shared goal of supporting emerging and existing female leaders as they grow into their roles in the organization.

2. Create a virtual peer-mentoring portal: This portal would provide a single access point where the peers would have access to social learning tools, can share ideas, concerns, resources, specific requests and connect them with those who can mentor or coach them. Specific mentoring topic areas can allow peers to focus their dialogues on curated materials relevant to the topic.

3. Select a program leader and peer-mentoring champions: The program leader should be the external point of contact for the program. Peer champions are the internal core of the program. These individuals would nurture dialogues and integrate new members. Peer champions should be members of the peer group, but experienced enough to nurture the process.

4. Formally engage the participants: Invite peers to formally join the program, and communicate the expected return on their investment of time and the rules of engagement. Keep the rules simple, allowing for a range of interactions and value. The minimum expectation should be meaningful participation.

As the group evolves, champions and peers should capture examples of meaningful peer mentoring dialogues, highlighting what made them valuable. Peer testimonials are great for illustrating the range of interactions and value received.

5. Embrace the evolution: As peers naturally join and fall away, the peer mentoring conversations will inevitably shift. The key is for the peer champions to be able to recognize that some mentoring dialogues may require more formal structure and others less so.

Microsoft and Cigna are just a few of the companies that have employed peer mentoring and coaching programs. Maryann Baumgarten, former program director at Microsoft and founder and CEO of Lit Up Leadership, designed a two-year development program with agile peer mentoring for recent college hires at the technology firm. The global cohort of new hires received both collective and distinct programming related to their specific discipline or degree level. Participants also worked in a range of business units within the organization, including sales, marketing, information technology, operations and finance, and entered the company upon graduating from either a four-year MBA or university.

Peer learning circles and career coaching groups followed a curriculum that aimed to include activities for participants to learn from each other and to reflect on their workplace experiences. The peer learning circles also aimed to create a safe space to process individual workplace issues.

Before each group met face-to-face, the HR team provided reflection questions for the group to consider. Participants augmented program materials with social learning tools like Facebook, SharePoint and Yammer to help facilitate real-time communication and resource sharing, in addition to their regular virtual and live meetings.

Sessions were then timed as participants completed a series of online modules that covered such topics as mentoring partnerships and career development. The reflective questions were tied to the thrust of each module. Peers brought their on-the-job experiences, challenges and questions into what the company called career coaching groups. As a result, relevant knowledge became part of the sharing in the peer learning circles.

According to Baumgarten, the program was successful in accelerating participants’ career development. In the span of four years, the program tripled in both size and investment, thanks in large part to high potential designation and increased retention when compared to industry hires at the same career level.

As the challenges facing organizations become more complex, the need for accelerated employee readiness and agility becomes more critical. Agile peer mentoring programs can be a powerful tool in talent development. This agility must be reflected in the individual workers, the tools they use and the ways that they learn and become an integral part of the success of the organization.

Matt Donovan is the vice president of learning solutions at GP Strategies Corp. He can be reached at