Monday, August 16, 2010

Mentoring: Still Critical, Still Necessary

How often do you hear these days the phrases "these challenging times" or "tough environment"? Just as we got used to the notion that the financial crisis was receding into history books, we encountered signals of another possible dip and more uncertainty about an economic recovery.

Just as we began to see an upswing in hiring among financial institutions and renewed outlook for opportunities in banking, finance, trading and investing, we started hearing daunting phrases again: tough times, tough environment.

All the more the reason for MBA students and recent graduates, including especially those within the Consortium, to seek out guidance, help, contacts or opportunities from mentors. Relationships with those who have "been there" and "done that" are as critical as ever. Nurturing, maintaining and solidifying those relationships are as important as ever.

This year CFN's steering committee will unveil the mentoring program differently. Last year the program worked well for a few, but not for many. CFN, thus, will focus on finding more optimal pairings between students and experienced professionals. It won't try to form a match-up "on paper" and then expect the relationship to take off.

We learned last year that mentoring relationships worked best when students were matched with someone who had common interests, career paths, objectives, backgrounds and sometimes schools. The common ground is what permitted relationships to progress rapidly.

If a student interested in private wealth management (PWM) were matched with private banker who works at the kind of institution the student aspires to, then it was more likely the student would initiate follow-up meetings and calls. Some mentoring relationships, in fact, do thrive even when the student and mentor have little in common and are able to have honest, in-depth conversation about finance, work, and career paths. And mentor programs shouldn't always be about matching up students with their mirror images.

But we found that with limited time and pressing demands in the classroom and in recruiting, students took more initiative if they knew the mentor could help them meet short-term goals: the internship or the full-time offer.

This year, CFN and the steering committee will facilitate pairings for students who express an interest in having a mentor to work with them in recruiting, career coaching or career strategies, and/or certain finance topics. So we'll ask Consortium students in finance to raise their hands if they desire a mentor and tell us their short- and long-term goals. For those who participate, we'll remind them how mentoring relationships can thrive, even with their mind-boggling schedules. We'll also remind all that relationships should ideally last much longer than their getting the job offer.

CFN will try to pair students with mentors who have excelled in the role before, who are eager to participate and assist, and who are willing to carve out chunks of time to have lunch or coffee with the student, to take the occasional phone call just before the student has a big interview at the big firm, or to seek out other contacts who might help the student.

Last year CFN posted many blogs to help students and mentors launch their relationships and make them work. They are still as relevant as ever; the links are shown below.

Over the past year and especially "in these challenging times," we provide some updated advice on these relationships:

1. Students should know mentors don't always have a quick answer or a safe solution. They won't necessarily have a toolkit to provide the answers to all the tough questions in technical interviews and can't ensure their contacts and networks will make time for students. Sometimes mentors have that quick solution; often they don't.

But mentors can frame a question or guide students on how to reach the objective or find a solution. And they can share their own stories about how they proceeded from business school to Plans A, B, and C or Career Paths 1, 2, or 3.

2. The best relationships are those where the dialogue is two-way, the relationship comfortable. The mentor steers, guides, and offers feedback, insight, and a point of view. Some mentors will even allow students to air out their frustrations (due mostly to lack of time or easy opportunities); the best mentors help students to harness those frustrations and keep confident.

3. Students can do much to keep the relationship going. Some students approach meetings with lists of questions and topics or an agenda. Some actually take notes. That eliminates the awkward moment, as student and mentor try to get to know each other. Some students keep in touch regularly, even if there is little to discuss or if there is no time to meet. Mentors appreciate that. They let the mentor know they value the relationship and want it to grow.

4. Mentors can and do provide contacts and introductions to others. Mentors like to help and provide answers, guidance or helpful hints. When they don't, they don't mind introducing students to other experienced people. Hence, the student starts off with one relationship and might end up with several contacts and ties to others.

5. If a student is paired with someone in a sector he/she hopes to pursue (risk management, research, client management, community development, banking, or corporate-finance treasury), then the mentor can provide information, a different perspective, an honest assessment of work-life balance, and possible deep background on a company's organization, hierarchy and the people who run the show. Consortium students in the past have benefited from mentors who helped them understand the people they will interview with or will work with or for.

In times when it helps to have an edge, one of the easiest ways to gain it is to pair up with mentors and work with them to make the relationship thrive and last for years.

Tracy Williams

What Mentors and Students Focus on in the Second Semester

How Mentors Can Step Up When Recruiting Season Launches

The Important Roles Mentors Can Have with MBA Students

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