This article was penned by Curtis Caesar, an active-duty Commander (O-5) in the U.S. Navy who currently serves as the Commander, Defense Logistics Agency – Aviation, Jacksonville, Florida. He has also served as a Training with Industry Fellow at FedEx Express, where he also graduated from FedEx Global Leadership Institute. When free he is involved with several philanthropic organizations focused on youth mentoring and development. From these experiences he's developed a keen understanding about what peer mentoring looks like and he shares some of those thoughts here.
Our common understanding of mentoring is generally between persons with significant experience and those without - a passing of information from one to the other. This is something that is quite natural and commonly associated with many relationships we have throughout our lives, such as parent/child, teacher/student, and coach/player. This tried-and-true method will continue to be the cornerstone for mentor interactions. However, it is the lesser pursued peer mentoring that has the greatest potential for self-reflection, development and growth. Peer mentoring is defined as “a helping relationship in which two individuals of similar age and/or experience that come together, either informally or through formal mentoring schemes in the pursuit of fulfilling some combination of functions. (Terrien & Leonard, 2007, pg. 150)
Over the years I have benefitted greatly from mentoring relationships, both as the mentor and mentee, however the single greatest relationship that has enabled my growth personally and professionally is my bond with my peer mentor. Our shared military career field, common family values, and mutual desire to better ourselves has enabled deeper conversations, better understanding of work-life balance and a space for constructive feedback.
This type of mentoring requires a reciprocal relationship, that involves a mutual social exchange as opposed to a one-way relationship” (Haggard, Dougherty, Turban and Wilbanks, 2011, pg. 292). Both mentor and mentee contribute to and benefit from the relationship. While there are many advantages to such a relationship, which may differ from person-to-person, there are three core premises that hold true for peer mentoring. It should be:
Between individuals with common understandings
A safe place for difficult conversations
Used as a network force multiplier
The first and most critical element for peer mentoring is to establish or developing a relationship with an individual that can truly understand and appreciate the complexities that are significant to you. This is not to say others cannot provide quality feedback or empathize with a specific situation, it is simply easier to guide decisions and/or thought processes from a shared point of understanding. For example, within my military career community there are formal and informal career paths which is often depending on previous experiences, projected opportunities and needs of the military. This may impact one’s competitiveness for certain critical assignments and potential advancement. Whereas this may seem comparable to any number of careers; added to the mix are required moves from duty station to duty station, timing of those moves, impacts on family and school age children, difficulties for some spouses to establish and maintain a career, anticipated impact of family separation (deployable, high travel, etc.), and a host of others. This tangled web of life, family, career, and goals is complicated by itself and can be even more confusing and frustrating if the peer mentor has a difficult time processing the situation's specific complexities.
The foundation of the second critical element is trust, which is the cornerstone for difficult conversations. The primary intent is to grow personally and professionally; sometimes growing means receiving feedback that is less than flattering. We all like to believe that we can do no wrong and/or our approach to work and life is perfect, however that is often not true and we should all seek individual opportunities to improve. The space created should be safe for constructive criticism, with an understanding that feedback comes from a place of mutual respect – these may be areas that we simply become blind too or unaware. Early in my career I received advice from a senior leader that I should focus a bit more on my writing and grammar, as the expectation was that as I promoted into more senior positions I should be a more proficient communicator both orally and written. While difficult to receive, it was something that stuck with me and I still work to perfect to this day.
The final element in peer mentoring is a network force multiplier. Relationships between peer mentors presumably means individuals have similar shared experiences and understandings but does not necessarily mean they have the same contacts and relationships. These differences provide an opportunity for advanced dialog, comparison, and introspection. No one person has the time or means to receive situational guidance from a large number of mentors, however with peer mentoring you can easily benefit from guidance that is indirectly provided. If paired with an individual that has a shared understanding of life, career, family and goals there is a higher chance the concerns they possess will be similar. If the concerns are similar, then the questions should be similar as well. Therefore, the feedback received will likely be relevant to your situation. Capitalizing on shared guidance expands your mentor network and constructive feedback towards pending decisions, concerns, and/or thought processes. As with all feedback, it should be used as a basis for independent thought and decisions… it will provide reason for pause and reevaluation, validate options being considered, and prioritize actions to be taken.
Peer-mentoring best serves individuals that share similar career fields, common family values/dynamics and/or mutual future goals/desires. It is wholly dependent on mutual social exchange where both individuals contribute and benefit from the relationship. This alternate form of mentoring takes a balanced approach from listening and providing council to receiving feedback and insights from a trusted source. The advantages are plentiful and success is dependent on the three core premises: individuals with common understandings, a safe place for uncomfortable conversations, and a network force multiplier. All of these will lead to constructive feedback for more independent thought on family and career making decisions.