December 17th, 2007 | 7:17 am

Harvard Business School Profiles: Hannah and the Importance of Mentors

filed under Analysts and Associates

Contributed by Lauren Davis

467705377_1ed71b76c8_m.jpgLast summer, at one New York investment bank, a male executive dropped into a luncheon for women employees and asked their advice about a problem. He explained that didn’t really understand what motivated female investment bankers, because they “seemed to want different things” than their male counterparts.

While this comment was met with a range of responses from puzzlement to hostility to efforts to understand, Hannah, a Harvard Business School (HBS) second year MBA candidate said, “I understand what he means.”Hannah sacrificed hours of sleep and made major adjustments to her personal life in order to win an offer as a summer associate at this investment bank.

But when she realized that all of the women in her group were unmarried (except one), she couldn’t help but wonder: was there something about investment banking that kept women from marrying and having children?It was an important question to Hannah, who someday wants a family but also wants to work in investment banking after obtaining her MBA, but nothing she heard at the women’s luncheon that day could give her the answer.

Hanna wanted to raise this delicate subject with her co-workers, but didn’t know how. “You can’t just walk up to somebody and ask them why they don’t have children,” she said. “Maybe they never found the right person. Maybe they never wanted children. Maybe they desperately wanted children, but were unable to have them.”

However innocently she intended the question, Hannah knew that it could open up old wounds and come across as inappropriate. Still, she wished that there was a way to facilitate frank and open dialogue on this issue with her female colleagues.

Women in their mid-twenties are often in the process of building foundations. A woman who wants a family may want to find time to meet a compatible partner. A woman who wants to climb the corporate ranks may focus on developing relationships with her company’s executives, instead of prioritizing her personal life. A woman who eventually wants to transition into another field may need to seek out different opportunities within her firm.

The paths to these goals is often not as clearly delineated for women as they are for men, and given that the paths and goals of women are as varied as the women themselves, young women often do not know where to turn for advice.

Hannah was fortunate enough to find a mentor in the only married female associate in her group. Her mentor’s advice on the realities of dating as a woman in banking have helped Hannah work through her concerns about balancing her personal life with work and crystallize her short term career goals. When, at the end of the summer, Hannah received offers in both her mentor’s department and an all-male department she had previously worked in, she chose her mentor’s department, in large part because of the relationship they had built.

Finding the right mentor can be just as important to a young woman’s personal and professional development as finding the right job. But it can be difficult to make the right match. How do you approach mentoring relationships in your company? What do you do when the women you mentor have goals and values that do not align with your own?

1 comment

  1. eric jones

    Finding the right mentor is important to a person’s career; however, you may benefit more from choosing a mentor outside the company to work with. My mentor, for example, is highly accomplished, very wise and works with people who have high potential as emerging leaders. You can check out her program at http://www.smartstartcoach.com

    Eric