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The Value of Peer Mentoring:
Who, Why, and How?

by Gwynne Wiatrowski Guzzeau

Gwynne Wiatrowski Guzzeau

What did you do on New Year’s Day?

Believe it or not, I had a 9:30 a.m. meeting in Hyannis that lasted over two hours. I didn’t pay to go to the meeting and I didn’t get paid to attend. I did get about thirty minutes focused on my marketing plans for 2010, but that’s not why I went.

I went because I’m committed to getting and giving support to other women business owners.

For the past three years, I’ve been fortunate to meet on a monthly basis with a small group of women consultants and business owners. The group has been as large as eight members and it’s now down to four of the original members – a size that suits us for the time being.

I call it my “peer mentoring group” or my “brain trust.” Every month I carve out three hours to attend. At each meeting, everyone gets thirty minutes to discuss some aspect of their professional life and receive feedback from the other members.

No two members of the group are in the same profession or line of work, although core skill sets and knowledge bases overlap.

For instance, at least three members (past or present) are engaged in international consulting work. One past member is in a leadership position at a local non-profit, another member consults with non-profits and another past member is actively networking in the non-profit community on the Cape as she transitions from the world of finance in Boston. One member runs a successful design and production company, selling retail as far away as Australia and getting coverage in venues such as Bride’s Magazine and Martha Stewart.

And then there’s me – the lawyer, educator and writer.

I’d be lying if I suggested that we only talk about work issues. Personal life issues have been discussed and often one or two members agree to follow-up outside our monthly meeting with the person who is seeking guidance or feedback.

We also have occasional social outings. A bonfire on Sandy Neck Beach (a late summer meeting). Dinner at a nice restaurant (just did it once). Coffee on the beach (a perfect place for a September meeting). Sometimes we just play and visit, although we always do a check-in with each person for at least a brief update.

WHY do I think it’s worthwhile to commit three hours every month?

The feedback alone is worth the time, energy and effort. I’ve sought and received input on everything from the pros and cons of where to rent office space, to guidance on refining my internal description of my target market and my “laser talk” about my business. I’ve gotten expert advice on marketing images and copy, as well as suggestions for technology resources and resources for my specific business.

This connection to a community of women “like me” is invaluable. As with any group of friends, listening to the challenges others face in professional and personal life either provides reassurance regarding my own struggles or highlights issues or approaches that I haven’t considered.

HOW do I suggest that you form your own peer-mentoring group?

Start with two or three people. I met the two “start-up” members at the Women, Work & Leadership conference at the Gestalt Center in Wellfleet. I paired off with one of these women in a small group exercise. Through our interactions over the course of that two-day workshop, I was invited to join the group they were forming.

Identify two people each of the “start-up” members would like to invite into the group. Don’t choose your best friend. Think of someone you’ve met once or twice, or whom you’ve met through a professional organization and would like to get to know better.

Invite people who are different from you – different work, different background, different talents. The goal is to create a group where each member’s expertise is specific and valued for its unique perspective.

WHAT do I suggest you do to sustain commitment to your peer-mentoring group?

Meet at a regularly established place and time. Once a month for three hours works for us. Now we meet the first Friday of every month, even if it means New Year’s Day!

Adopt a process for your discussion and meeting format. Ours evolved from an original format where we scheduled two thirty-minute focus sessions that a member could reserve, then the remaining time was split between the others for a more general/brief check-in. Now, everyone just gets thirty minutes (the group is smaller) and we have time for discussion of administrative matters (setting meeting location and time, etc.).

Although my group doesn’t use a formal circle gathering process where everyone is a leader of the meeting, I think we are close to this style. This link offers basic guidelines for running circle-style meetings where everyone takes responsibility for the conversation.

Appoint a timekeeper. Someone needs to keep track of the time and interrupt with a signal when a member’s turn is over. One of my favorite phrases/cues is: “I’m mindful of the time. You have five minutes.”

Create an email group. Google and Yahoo have group formats where you can email and continue the conversation beyond the actual meeting time. This has been a good way to keep past members in the loop, especially for the occasional social gatherings.

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Now, For The Rest Of The Story…

In my last article (CWO, Fall 2009), I shared my success and some of the organizations that have supported my growth as an entrepreneur. Now that the books have closed on 2009, I want you to know that my August 2009 Quickbooks report showing 200% increase in gross income has been balanced out. I am still operating ahead of last year’s gross income by 54%! So the numbers are up and evidence that a word-of-mouth referral system does take some time to build. Once it really starts working…look out!

On the other side of these economic times, I was planning to report on the Family Business Conference at the Gestalt Center in Wellfleet; however, it was cancelled due to low enrollment.

I continue to believe in the skills and experience the Gestalt Center provides business owners and the upcoming Women, Work & Leadership workshop was an excellent opportunity for me to grow as a business owner, as well as a chance to meet with other women professionals from the local business community and beyond. I encourage you to check it out and to inquire about scholarship assistance.

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Gwynne Wiatrowski Guzzeau is a lawyer and entrepreneur. She lives with her family in Orleans.
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