Career Tips

Redefining Mentorship (Part 2 of 5) Peer Mentorship

By Taylor Whittington & Dave Isbell

Think back to the day you started your very first job after college. What do you remember? Is it feeling nervous you’ll break the fax machine, resulting in an immediate dismissal for incompetence, even as you wonder who on Earth still uses fax machines? Or maybe you felt accomplished when you saw that cubicle or office door bearing your name engraved on a silver plate? You’ve probably already forgotten how nervous you were before you knew anyone’s name, or how to find the break room, or how to use the phone to make an outgoing call. We have all experienced at least one of these scenarios. Chances are you found at least one person in that first week that you could rely on to help you log on to your computer, or navigate the copy machine when it jammed up (again,) or who mercifully warned you that Janice in Accounting will make your life difficult if you don’t have your reports turned in on time.

You probably don’t think of these people as “mentors.” I mean, their cubicles occupy the same breathing air, and you could swear that the guy whose desk is right across from yours stole your piece of cake from the communal kitchen fridge last week. However, think about it for a minute; your co-workers do more than share office space, steal your cake, and annoy you with their cat’s birthday photos. These people can be a valuable source of knowledge. If they were there before you, they can help you navigate cultural landmines you didn’t know were there (yes, Janice, my TPS report will be in your inbox before 5pm today) and they can help you to grow your career far beyond winning battles against a nefarious copy machine.

You have something to offer the company you are working for, to the occupation you are in, or else you would not be there. However, don’t forget the simple truth that often two heads are better than one. You are a part of a larger network of human beings who are bringing their efforts to an organization or cause’s shared goal. Taking some time to approach your co-workers with a spirit of curiosity in their work, an attitude of humility in regards to their successes and talents, and a desire to collaborate toward mutual best interests, can foster the kind of peer-mentorship that can pay off in increased productivity, creativity, and career longevity for you (and those cake-stealing coworkers of yours!) This is all at the heart of a good mentorship and finding and cultivating a good “informal” mentor takes effort on your part.

We are not just making this stuff up. Volumes have been written on the idea that collaboration and positive relationships create more than just “good vibes.” For one example, a study conducted by Scott Bryant from Montana State University, suggests that having peers to lean on when you need advice can increase your productivity. Another study published in the Journal of Women’s Health researched the role gender plays in peer mentoring, with all individuals in the study being women. They found that women mentoring women resulted in improvement to academic ranking and skill sets as well as an increase in the number of papers they published. That’s pretty important in academia! At the end of the day, relationships matter, and it pays to put a little bit of effort into them while in the workplace.

So, here’s a thought for you, before you run to your boss with a question, try asking the guy with the cake crumbs on his desk what he thinks about your dilemma. He may be able to put a few more bits of wisdom into your brain, become your advocate, or introduce you to someone else who will do both of those things for you. Then bring in a second piece of cake and put it in the fridge with his name on it.


Taylor Whittington is a student employee (Professional Enrichment Assistant) in the MSUAA and is graduating in May 2018 from Michigan State University with a Bachelor’s in Social Relations & Policy/Bioethics/Science, Technology, Environment & Public Policy from James Madison College. Next fall, she plans to begin a Master’s in Public Health at that school in Ann Arbor. 

Dave Isbell is the Assistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment in the MSU Alumni Association and is the primary person responsible for this blog and our corresponding Twitter account. His primary role in the MSUAA is to develop online content that helps Michigan State alumni to live, work, and play better in their own communities. Dave is not able to accept individual appointments, but in developing programs and projects he does draw from his experience as a Licensed Master Social Worker and his background as a professional Career Coach since 1999. Mentorship has played a significant role in his life and he has enjoyed being both the protege and the mentor. 



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