The Making of an “Accidental” Mentor

January is National Mentoring Month and in celebration of that, we will feature several guest blogs from professionals regarding the importance of mentoring.

Mentor and mentee relationships come in many shapes and sizes. Long and short. Social and technical. Formal and accidental. Hierarchical and peer-to-peer. New and tenured. What they all have in common is that they contribute to a mentee being seen, heard, or helped in meaningful ways.

One deterrent to mentoring is the fear it will require a level of commitment a mentor may be reticent to give. I’ve also heard of mentees opting out because they worried their managers would see it as a judgment on their boss’s leadership or a symptom of their own flight risk.

If we can get past the baggage of poorly managed programs and unfounded assumptions, then we can talk about what creates a true culture of mentoring.

One of the best mentoring conversations I’ve had was in a taxi on the way to Dulles Airport after a frustrating Board meeting. There was no program guiding our discussion – just an intent by a colleague to remind me that a single setback didn’t define my career. As I reflect on that conversation there were four things my “mentor-in-the-moment” did that made the conversation memorable. I now refer to these as the Leadership Superpowers: Ask, Acknowledge, Assist, and Appreciate.


Mentors: Demonstrate a genuine interest in something a person has experienced or the work they do. Pay attention to social and non-verbal cues that provide clues that something isn’t working. This sets the stage, without judgment, and allows both parties to learn more – about themselves or how to help.

Mentees: Asking doesn’t always mean “needing help.” It can involve requesting opinions or insights. It can connect you to new resources. It can provide context for a decision. It can let you know you’re on a reasonable path to success. Don’t be shy. Consider it an investment in yourself.


Mentors: Respond in ways that show you understand and are interested. Sometimes that means asking probing questions to demonstrate your engagement, and sometimes it means helping someone get past their fears of being judged to create space for self-reflection and honesty.

Mentees: One of the strongest reinforcers for mentors is knowing their counsel was useful. When you receive advice, verbalize how and when you plan to apply it. It also helps you check for understanding.


Mentors: Focus on guiding, not fixing. The moment mentoring is an obligation, we strip it of the intrinsic, human desire to have a hand in someone’s growth. We also undermine the self-esteem of the person we seek to help, leaving them to feel incapable of doing it themselves. This is particularly important in mentoring those who may have experienced underserved or under-empowered backgrounds.

Mentees: One key to a strong mentoring experience is considering and implementing the assistance offered. It may come in the form of advice, connections, resources, or other supports. Don’t squander the gift.


Mentors: When a mentee puts your advice into practice, reinforce the effort and encourage more attempts. This solidifies the relationship and creates a safe space for digging in on other issues. Make suggestions for the future rather than judgments on the past.

Mentees: One of the most rewarding aspects of mentoring is when “thank yous” come in the form of growth and action. Show you tried. Share how it improved you or your situation. Learn together because mentoring is a two-way street.

Consistency and Commitment

Cultures are created from how we think, act, and react repeatedly over time. Programs, policies, and procedures may establish the cues and guardrails, but it’s your commitment to consistently show up and engage that matters.

So, don’t wait to be assigned as a mentor or mentee. Don’t wait for a program. Don’t be a bystander. Instead, DO pay attention to the people and situations you encounter and care about. Do that every day, and soon enough you’ll find your opportunity to be an intentional “accidental” mentor.