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Mentoring: Low Tech, High Return

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

Written by Giuseppe Marletta, Managing Director Europe of ACC, Association of Corporate Counsel

There is certainly no shortage of best practices for professionals these days, from adapting new technologies to managing stakeholders’ relationships. One, however, seems quaint: mentorship. Mentorship is the cultivation of a relationship, an extended conversation between two people. It requires no algorithms, complicated business plans, internal microsites, or considerations of spend.

But despite its low-tech status, mentorship is hugely important for an organisation’s health. Studies show that for instance lawyers who were guided in their career by a more experienced colleague are more self-sufficient, better versed in soft skills, and more likely to rise further in the ranks of the department. This is especially true for female and minority staff.

Mentors, in turn, not only have a better sense of their junior colleagues’ needs and strengths, but tend to operate in a much wider, cross-pollenating peer network.

Data and anecdotal evidence from the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), a global association of over 45,000 in-house lawyers in 85 countries, point to an uptick in the number of lawyers interested in a mentorship relationship, within or outside their company. To that end, ACC began a partnership with a nonprofit dedicated to mentorship “matchmaking,” in December of 2018. According toone of the founders, “In-house lawyers are looking for opportunities to connect with their peers, to learn from more seasoned colleagues, and also to give back to up and coming generations of experts. It’s an exciting yet challenging time to be an in-house counsel. Departments insource more work, regulations change rapidly, and the profession is focusing much more on business strategy and leadership skills. Mentoring and networking help in-house counsel looking to grow in their careers and bring new ideas to their companies.”. And the same trend can be identified in a number of professions and associations which are adopting mentoring as one of the drivers for talent development.

Nor are the mentor-mentee roles fixed.. Senior staff increasingly report interest in being mentored by younger staff, especially as technology and social mores change.

But what does mentoring look like, and how can professionals best take advantage of it? Elizabeth Colombo, corporate counsel at Konica Minolta, distinguishes between mentorship, coaching, and sponsoring. Mentoring is a relationship in which an experienced person guides and encourages a less experienced colleague, in or out of their department or organization. Mentorship is broad in scope, and usually informal. Coaching is a more active relationship, based on specific advice and feedback for a definite task. One mentors a new rising star, but coaches them in how to deal with the C-suite, or how to manage their teams.

Sponsorship is the least interactive of the three. It entails advocating for a junior colleague, making them more visible to leadership. It takes the least commitment from either party, but can be particularly effective for female and minority staff, underrepresented and often invisible to leadership.  Indeed, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) has identified mentoring as “instrumental in helping minority and women lawyers break through the glass ceiling.” It’s an important consideration for leadership, especially as companies begin to grapple with diversity.

Leaders set their organisation’s ethical tone, and not just through explicit policy decisions. It is the leaders’ reasonability to identify those staff who could benefit from mentorship; a formal program can be helpful, if not always practical for smaller groups. It is also the leaders’ duty to recognize these relationships as a crucial element of strategy – a tool for making an organisation more cohesive, better informed, and more diverse.


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