Career Development

Mentorship, Sponsorship and Allyship

CCBJ: How did the two of you meet and how has your relationship evolved?

Stacie LeGrow: Our local chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel invites law students to participate in some of its events, and I met Tracy at one such event. She was a 3L at North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham, where I had gone. She introduced herself and we started talking about Cisco, the many roles I have had at Cisco and her own career aspirations.

From the start I thought to myself, “This is someone I need in my hiring pipeline.” I just had a feeling she’d be a great culture add to Cisco. And I loved the way that, already as a law student, she was thinking five steps ahead about her career.

Tracy Wright: Stacie might not remember this, but during our first meeting she said to me, “Are you interested in technology?” and while I had more of a healthcare-leaning focus at the time, I was also smart enough to know that if a lawyer at a leading technology company was asking, my first answer had to be yes, and then I would just have to do my diligence after.

So, I went home that night, and I googled all things Cisco. And over the weekend, I listened to a “How I Built This” podcast about the company. Stacie became my mentor, and we checked in all the time. In every job prior to joining her at Cisco, she highlighted work I should be taking on, agreements I should be reviewing. It didn’t matter the industry, she was like, “You get your hands on contracts because that’s going to be a valuable asset as we move you into the goal of getting hired at Cisco.” This is not an overnight story because I did not work at Cisco till many years later, but I credit Stacie with preparing me for the opportunity and opening that door.

Something else I also appreciate about our relationship, both professionally and personally is that Stacie is not afraid to give transparent feedback. I need to know my weaknesses because that’s how I grow, so I do appreciate that she’s created that comfortable space for me to get her true opinion on things.

LeGrow: Not all lawyers are that open to feedback or can handle it as well as Tracy. On the other hand, I’ve never had to give her much feedback. I knew Cisco was going to stretch her because her background was in compliance, and she hadn’t done a lot of commercial technology work. When I put her on one of our biggest accounts, I knew she would put in the sweat equity to get up to speed. Tracy was promoted within two years, reflecting the significant impact she was having for her clients, and for our legal team.

Can you describe the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, and what role each plays in professional development and retention?

Wright: I think of a mentor-mentee relationship, it’s really the mentee’s job to stay in touch with their mentor. The mentor must be willing to continue the relationship, but the mentee is the driver of that relationship. Bottom line –I own my career. But mentors also must be honest with themselves to ensure they have the capacity to invest in advising their mentee when asked and the experience and commitment to ensure that feedback is authentic. When I was a student, Stacie would treat me to lunch in the Cisco cafeteria (they have great food!).

Every time I was in a new role, I would reach out to Stacie, and she would provide the necessary feedback, even though she was incredibly busy. Over time, sponsorship was just a natural transition, but that was because of the work I did to stay in touch with her. I would define a sponsor as someone who advocates and speaks for you when you’re not in the room, and Stacie does that for me. But sponsorship evolved naturally over the course of our building a mentor - mentee relationship.

LeGrow: As we got to know each other better, I just naturally wanted to sponsor Tracy, not only with the ultimate goal of getting her into Cisco—which, make no mistake, was my goal from the very beginning. When Tracy was working at another organization, she was working with a previous colleague of mine. I remember telling him how lucky he was to have her and what an incredible resource she is. To me, even those conversations are a part of sponsorship. Of course, my colleague already knew that, but I think as a sponsor you have an obligation to be active, whereas the mentorship relationship was a little more reactive on my part.

As a sponsor, I felt a real obligation to take what I knew about her strengths and make sure that she was getting the right experience, including positioning her wherever I could and introducing her to people. We would discuss potential career moves and how she could leverage each opportunity to continue to build her skills and experience to reach her goal of becoming an in-house tech lawyer.

Our sponsorship relationship continues to evolve. Tracy was recently nominated as one of our LCLD (Leadership Council on Legal Diversity) pathfinder fellows this year, and while I didn’t have the privilege of nominating her, I was an enthusiastic supporter of that nomination. At the end of the day, I’ve gotten back much more from sponsoring Tracy than I’ve put into it. Cisco has benefited from the great work she’s done for us as well.

Wright: Honestly, as I got to know Stacie, working at Cisco was secondary. I was so impressed by her background and her career trajectory that it really became a learning opportunity for me to get to know her work. And since our relationship started when I was in law school, I was able to chart my course early on. I still remember saying to her at our first meeting, “I can’t wait to work in tech”.

LeGrow: I wasn’t Tracy’s only mentor, and now that she’s in my reporting line, I’m not really her mentor as much as I am her sponsor. I think that’s also a great message for your readers, and particularly law students. It’s important to have more than one mentor because they can help you with different things that you’re struggling with. I might not be able to help Tracy as a woman of color because I don’t have the same experience. We talk about inclusion and diversity issues all the time, and Tracy’s educated me on her experiences, but sometimes you need more than one mentor and that’s an example why.

Wright: Also, as our working relationship has evolved, it has allowed me the space to reach out to other people outside the organization. Cristina Fernandez and Kim Maney, two lawyers here in the RTP have also been fantastic mentors and sponsors to me. Where I wouldn’t necessarily go to my VP, Stacie, to talk about certain things out of respect for the reporting line, I can reach out to Kim for example, and say, “Okay, here’s where I am at Cisco. Here’s what I’m thinking. How do I posture this?” And she’s been a great sounding board.

So having different people in your network that will champion you and with whom you can have candid conversations is also very helpful.

Please share some high-impact talent development initiatives that you’ve been a part of or have observed over your careers?

LeGrow: One thing I would talk about at Cisco is our legal intern program, LEAP, which stands for Legal Experience Acceleration Program, and I give huge credit for its development to our chief legal officer, Dev Stahlkopf. It was one of her goals when she joined Cisco. It’s a novel program for 1L students in their first summer, building toward an in-house position upon graduation.

Historically, few corporate legal departments have been prepared to comprehensively train lawyers straight out of law school. The conventional wisdom has been to wait till they’ve been practicing at a law firm for five years or so and then bring them in-house. The advantage of LEAP is they get a jump on their in-house career. Not everybody wants to start their law career at a law firm. It’s great for us because by the time they start full-time, they’ve had great grounding in many of the issues that come up in-house. We’re only in our second programming year, but it’s been a fantastic experience.

The program also reflects our inclusion and diversity goals, in that it allows us to build relationships with a broader range of law schools, including HBCU schools. Tracy and I are graduates of North Carolina Central University School of Law, an HBCU located in Durham.

Wright: I agree. I’m on the LEAP committee and what I’ve found impressive is that the committee is truly diverse. My perspective was welcomed, and I found that to be really refreshing. We have a fantastic incoming class and outstanding returning students. I’m very excited to witness their careers because I think we did a great job of interviewing and hiring strong, diverse talent.

Another opportunity I would also credit to Dev is introducing the LCLD program to Cisco Legal. I was a 1L mentee in that program when I was in law school, which helped me meet other lawyers in the area. Years later, full circle, I was nominated for the 2022 LCLD Pathfinder fellowship. I was given the opportunity to attend sessions on leadership, building career goals and managing up. Also being an LCLD Pathfinder alumni is a gift that keeps on giving. I’ve met some amazing diverse lawyers on this journey with whom I’m still friends today. Providing lawyers of color in your organization an opportunity to meet and network of other diverse lawyers is invaluable.

What’s the key to successfully developing and rolling out enterprise-wide initiatives? How do you develop support from the executive team management and the rest of the staff?

LeGrow: We’re lucky at Cisco because I feel that from the C-suite on down we haven’t had to fight for that support. In fact, top leadership has been real champions of inclusion and diversity. Cisco’s purpose is to “power an inclusive future for all” and I really feel like we’re trying to live up to that idea, especially in our legal department.

When we started our LEAP program, we had a lot of guidance from Dev, but we were also encouraged to experiment. One of our executive sponsors is Graham Allan, a senior vice president and deputy general counsel for strategic programs & legal operations. He gave us the permission to empower our team of volunteers, who’ve helped us put together and continue to run the program together and make the day-to-day decisions. Graham also encouraged us to gather feedback from the interns about what makes a really interesting, differentiated and competitive program for them.

I would also advise staying in touch with the students that you are serving and always being mindful that while these interns are going to add a lot of value to your organization over the years, you’re also giving back to the communities in which you live, work and play.

Wright: I agree. If an organization is focused on developing support from the executive team management on diversity and inclusion initiatives, there are also studies that show that diversity sparks innovation, an increase in customer base, and strong collaboration. It should be a no-brainer that this focus benefits employees and the organization.

What are some obstacles one should anticipate in DEI?

Wright: I am not a DEI expert, but there are people in the legal space that are, and it is very important to tap their expertise. We have in-house DEI professionals at Cisco who have helped define what it means to recruit diverse candidates for our LEAP program. To me, diverse backgrounds also include for example, first-generation college/law students, evening students working full-time jobs and students who are single parents attending law school full-time. Those backgrounds are career assets because juggling day-to-day life and law school is the very definition of hustle and grit.

But what I have found is that sometimes those same students are not aware of the power that they harness. Stacie and I feel it’s important to engage students who may not be applying for the LEAP program because they’ve already counted themselves out. They’re closing the door on an opportunity before they’ve had a chance to see where it might take them.

I don’t know if that answers the question of roadblocks in an organization, but I do think if you’re going to recruit diverse candidates, it is important to understand the individual fully. And sometimes, they are not someone who has had a “straight line” path. It’s important to take the background of a diverse candidate that into consideration.

LeGrow: If you’re in a smaller organization, or a small law firm, without a DEI professional, educate yourself about it. There are tons of material out there. Don’t assume you know what DEI looks like. As a white woman, my thinking on that has really evolved over time, in part because of my relationship with Tracy. So, keep an open mind about it.

The other challenge for companies of all sizes is getting beyond “check the box.” At a certain point, it’s not just about how many people of color, or how many people are neurodiverse or differently abled, there are in your organization. It’s about whether inclusion and diversity are part of your organization’s DNA? We’re on that journey and I’m proud of the progress we’re making.

Wright: We’re fortunate to have Social Impact and DEI leaders like Brian Tippens and Gloria Goins at Cisco, but even if you don’t have a DEI team, you can still advocate in ways that will help get you to the goal.

What are some long-term planning tactics that you would recommend, and the critical KPIs that organizations can benchmark against? I think Cisco is ahead of the curve and could help influence the way others are building their programs.

LeGrow: I would have to defer on that one to some of our professionals who work in the DEI field. But, as I stated previously, don’t focus on “checking a box”. Focus on engaging with your employees, have candid discussions on metrics with DEI experts and execute your initiatives with intention.

Wright: Cisco provides you the opportunity to bring your full self to work – it is a key part of the culture here. Who I am is celebrated. This type of environment is invaluable to people of color in corporate spaces.

Please share any resources with our readers who are interested in getting more involved in mentorship, sponsorship, and other DEI initiatives.

Wright: I can’t speak highly enough about LCLD, which welcomes senior leaders and young lawyers alike. The website offers a wealth of information on leadership and diversity and provides opportunities to get involved with mentorship opportunities and meet other diverse lawyers.

LeGrow: Many companies and law schools have affinity groups, and they are a great resource. From a recruiting perspective, they’re a great way to get candidates for your hiring pipeline. We have a ton of affinity groups at Cisco and most of them are active and growing. If you’re a smaller company and don’t have any, start one at the grassroots level. It can be a powerful way to achieve proximity to others who share your experience. Even if you’re not a person of color and want to join a Black affinity group, you can do that and it’s a great way to get close to and understand the experience of someone who may not look the same as you.

Wright: There’s also your local bar. The North Carolina Bar Association has excellent programs, one being Minorities in the Profession, which host panels for young lawyers to learn about the profession.

LeGrow: Several years ago, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, we started a social justice reading group at Cisco based on the ABA’s reading list. It was a global initiative and about 10 groups, all within legal, were assigned readings and then came together to discuss. I learned things touching on issues of diversity that I never knew. It’s a great way for you to get up to speed on some of the issues around social justice around the world.

Wright: I agree. I enjoyed having allies from, and being an ally to, colleagues from a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities. It created a safe space for us to have candid conversations. It was a 12-week program, but some groups kept meeting!

One book I’d recommend is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Another is The Color Of Law by Richard Rothstein.

LeGrow: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson was life-changing for me. It’s not an easy read, but I would definitely recommend it. 

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