Wednesday, October 21, 2009

October: How Mentors Can Help

Consortium MBA students across the country are submerged in case studies, core courses, finance, accounting, team meetings, and sessions with professors and the career-development office. Most will admit that b-school (especially at top schools within Consortium) is a challenge. A beast. But it can be tamed.

This might also be the peak time when students seek guidance, encouragement, input, feedback and help. In the midst of overwhelming, exhaustive coursework, students must plan careers and find jobs for the summer or full-time positions--and still get good grades. CFN's mentor program, launched in August and now under way, can help Consortium finance students.

But not just those mentors assigned by CFN. Any Consortum alumnus or any finance professional--with varying levels of experience, interests, and expertise--can stand ready to share wisdom, help students make connections, or act as a sounding board for students who are trying to make tough decisions with almost time to spare.

Mentors in the CFN program should be seeking out students for a second-round of discussions with assigned students. However, that doesn't prevent others from reaching out to students, too, or making themselves available.

With October almost gone, mentors can help in many ways. There are numerous possible topics to review with students. First-year students know the ropes now. They've figured out a way to handle the grind, but so much still lies ahead. Up to the plate step mentors.

1. Recruiting strategies. Finance students by now should have developed a recruiting strategy--a Plan A, B and maybe C. They like to bounce these strategies off experienced alumni or other professionals. At this point, many are deliberating over broad industry segments and want to narrow their options. Investment banking vs. private banking? Hedge funds vs. investment management? Corporate treasury vs. commercial banking? Big firm vs. boutique? New York vs. Chicago? London vs. New York? Equity research vs. credit research? Fixed-income vs. equities? Financial consulting or financial management?

Many students have already designed plans, but crave help in polishing the strategy. Sure, they can speak with career-development offices and meet with professors, and those meetings will be invaluable. But the icing on the cake is a special one-on-one brainstorm with another Consortium finance alumnus or another person with similar background and passions, who can tell the real stories about how a deal is done or trade is made, who can make a proper introduction, who can describe how to manage the delicate work/life balance, or who can describe what it's like to be a woman or person of color in an intense banking environment.

At this point, students would like to narrow industry segments and broad opportunities before they head into the holiday season.

2. Targeting specific companies. Many have targeted companies they may want to work for. Yet they want more information about what goes on inside. What is the culture? What is the career path? Is the company telling us the truth? How does the company manage MBA newcomers in a downturn? Should they be worried about the company's reported financial woes? Students know they must be well-informed about the firms they like, but they want information beyond what they read on the websites or in annual reports.

The information, too, helps them narrow their choices. Mentors can help guide students and provide the right kind of information (or connect students to somebody else who may know).

3. Making connections. Students are told all the time they must network, reach out to others, and make contacts at the firms they want to work for. This is crucial in banking, in private equity and in venture capital--especially if students want to get on the "closed list" for interviews. Many students, however, are not sure how to go about making contacts. Or with mounting work to be done for accounting, macroeconomics or operations-research class, they don't know how to reach out to get results.

Mentors can step up to help in many ways. A mentor who works at a firm a student aspires to can introduce the student to the right people at the firm, can offer background on who's who at the firm, and can suggest who can provide more information about a department or business-unit leader. The mentor can also suggest how to approach others.

As the relationship blossoms, mentors will tell students what they need to know, what they won't hear from recruiters, and what questions they ought to be asking. For Consortium students, mentors will help them understand a firm's approach to diversity. Is diversity a check-the-box process there, or is it a passion from top management to first-year associate? Consortium students want to know.

4. Time management. How often have b-school students described how they didn't realize the workload would be enormous and recruiting demands would hit them hard the first week? MBA students eventually learn how to juggle the daunting demands, but mentors can offer more tidbits, hints and short cuts--how to handle mid-term exams while trying to schedule information interviews, how to do homework about a bank while trying not to miss the meeting with the case group.

5. Finance and accounting. In banking and finance, it's important to do well in finance and accounting. It's critical to show competence in these areas. Mentors might be able to help students understand difficult finance concepts or help show how the same will be applied in real-world deals. Mentors might also help students demonstrate in interviews or informal meetings how they have mastered important concepts.

6. Keeping up. In the recruiting process, prospective banks, firms, and funds want to see students who not only know the theory and have aced tough courses, but they want to know if students are keeping up with industry topics. Are students aware of the Obama administration financial proposals? Are they aware of the big, headline deals that took place last quarter? Do they have an opinion about widespread concern about derivatives? Do they agree with financial bailouts of banks and auto companies? Do they think they are working? Do they have a view on the current high-yield bond market?

How can students manage courses, recruiting demands, extracurricular pursuits and still keep up with the front and middle pages (in depth) of the Wall Street Journal? Mentors can guide students, remind them what the important industry issues are, and help them shape well-informed opinions about the issues of the day.

This is that time of the year when students crave direction and guidance as they refine their strategies and juggle everything in sight. Mentors, when they make themselves available, will have a lot to talk about with students.

Tracy Williams

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