What it Means to be a Mentor

“Leadership is about integrity, honesty and accountability. All components of trust.” – Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last

My first professional mentor was a gentleman who emigrated from Scotland to pursue a career with an international automotive supply company. Entrepreneurial in nature, he eventually started his own business, with two partners, manufacturing specialty products for automotive interiors. My first job after finishing graduate school was an internship with this small company, helping to build and manage a better inventory control system. The project was successful, I was asked to stay on, and I reported to this Scottish gentleman – and it became clear that integrity and accountability were cornerstones of the manner in which he conducted his affairs. He was articulate, fiery, profane, funny, and humble – he was my boss, and he became one of my most influential mentors.

Over the course of less than two years, this small, privately owned entity was purchased by a large, privately owned firm – which proceeded to become a larger, publicly owned and traded corporation. This rapid growth, coupled with encouragement from the original owners, allowed for tremendous opportunity for advancement.

At one point in the journey, after I had been promoted, I was assigned to attend a meeting of the corporate offices that included an agenda item that would affect our operation significantly. When my mentor informed me that he was unable to attend, and he would like me to stand in for him, I was astonished – there were other, more senior colleagues from the new corporation that could address this issue, I contended. “We’ve not yet had the opportunity to get to know those individuals sufficiently,” he said, “and are therefore not yet able to extend our trust to them. I trust your judgment, and would like you to attend on my behalf.”

As by far the most junior staff person in that meeting room, I was anxious, intimidated, and concerned about potential missteps; I also prepared fastidiously, researched and recorded thoroughly, and returned with a summary report that allowed our operation to navigate this issue successfully. But the performance is less relevant than the empowerment of being entrusted by a respected mentor – being given a seat at this table inspired a level of commitment and effort that might not otherwise have been cultivated. It’s difficult to overstate the power that being trusted, and delivering on that promise, can have on professional development and teambuilding.

MARO worked very intentionally to build a meaningful mentoring component into the association’s leadership development experience. The MARO Leadership Academy targets employees who demonstrate leadership potential, commitment to the future of our industry, and a strong drive to achieve greater levels of responsibility. The program also has a mentoring component that facilitates a relationship between each Academy participant and a CEO or member of upper management from another MARO member organization – for one-on-one discussion, guidance, advice, and opportunities to learn how the subject matter addressed in the classroom is applied in the working world. But there can be so much more here than an assigned match – mentorship, like friendship, is not a one-way street. This is less about depositing information acquired from experience – although that is a part of mentoring – and more about a mutual exchange that results in both parties learning from each other.

This mentoring component was conceived as a solution-based approach to the generational succession planning anticipated 10+ years ago by the MARO Board of Directors, nurturing the next generation of servant leaders – and it became a strategic priority of the association. As our industry continues on a journey of transformative change, MARO is now working to establish a mentoring network on the process of Provider Transformation – part of a solution-based approach to supporting our members to progress toward compliance with federal regulations that have raised expectations regarding competitive integrated employment outcomes; but to also establish a standard of excellence in service delivery that is driven by mission-based values – not just checking the box on regulatory compliance, but envisioning and charting a course to the future in a manner that respects the capabilities of every person, promotes dignity, respect, and inclusion and protects individual choice. It is hoped that this program also results in the mutual exchange of ideas and promising practices that empowers all participating organizations to lead transformative change.

My own path parted from that of my mentor long ago; unfortunately, I never found the right opportunity to tell him what an extraordinary impact he had on me as a young professional. If you’ve been supported on your journey by a mentor, if you’ve been trusted and felt newly empowered, if someone with more experience or expertise has extended professional courtesy when they didn’t have to – reach out to say thank you; and if you have the opportunity to serve in this capacity, encouraging others to achieve the optimal, please consider.

We hope that these MARO mentoring programs elevate our association to new heights of mission driven success, and contribute in some small way to building trust, advancing a culture of inclusion, and supporting our members to enable individuals with disabilities to access their community, work, and lead full and meaningful lives.