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Career Advice by Theresa Johnston

Marriage, child rearing, transfers, promotions, and layoffs. Sooner or later, all Stanford business school graduates have to chart their career courses through transitions that can be tricky, particularly for women.

Pamela Winer Goldberg, MBA '81

Pamela Winer Goldberg, MBA '81

PAMELA WINER GOLDBERG, MBA ’81, never will forget the phone call she received just days after her first child was born. It was her boss on the line from State Street Bank in Boston insisting she come into the office that afternoon for a client negotiation meeting. “I didn’t go to the meeting and had no regrets,” she recalls, “but that was a wake-up call for me.” Instead of returning to investment banking after her maternity leave, Goldberg decided to launch an independent home-based consulting practice to help startups with strategic planning and financing. Today she’s the director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Program at Tufts University.

Divorce, serious illness, and aging parents. Sooner or later, all alums have to deal with the stuff of life, a process that can be tricky, particularly for women. What are the options for scaling back if a person needs to deal with family issues? What’s the best strategy for finding work in a completely new location or industry? About a third of female MBAs and 16% of the males say they’ve stopped out of the paid workforce for at least one year in their post-Stanford careers. Can a high-level executive who steps off the fast track ever get back on? And if so, what’s the smartest way to do that?

Traditionally alumni have been able to go to the MBA Career Management Center for short-term counseling on these matters, as well as referrals to strategic career coaches. Starting this summer there’s another resource they can tap:, a website where business school graduates share their tales of transition, along with advice for staying the course.

Some of the contributors to this Transitions Project website recommend hiring a professional career coach. Others say they have found success through independent consulting, project-based work, or job-sharing. Nearly all cite the value of continuous networking: on the job, on the playground, and even in church. Above all, they stress the importance of being proactive — thinking ahead about potential career bombshells rather than responding after they’ve hit.

Michelle Clayman, MBA '79

Michelle Clayman, MBA '79

Michelle Clayman, MBA ’79, describes the challenges she faced while growing her own New York-based asset management firm. “I’d like Stanford women to realize that they’re not isolated; that stuff happens in life,” says Clayman, managing partner, chief investment officer, and founder of New Amsterdam Partners. “As MBAs we’re all terribly driven. You think, ‘I have to have my career path mapped out with a nice graph with a line that goes straight up.’ But A, it’s not necessarily like that; and B, you can be resourceful in how you manage through those twists and turns.”

The roots of the Transitions Project go back to 2004, when Clayman attended her 25th Stanford business school class reunion and was startled by the number of talented female classmates who had dropped out of the workforce. She teamed up with GSB Advisory Council member Mayree Clark, MBA ’81, a partner at AEA Holdings, and Erica Richter, MBA ’79, of the GSB Alumni Relations staff. The result was the Women’s Initiative Network (WIN), a broad-based volunteer effort to support GSB women from the time they apply to graduation and beyond.

Roberta Baxter, MBA '96

Roberta Baxter, MBA '96

Laura Childs Saverin, MBA ’81, is the chair of WIN’s Alumni Outreach-Transitions committee. She and other project volunteers began collecting stories for the website last year. “Basically,” she says, “we were interested in the fact that women do go through transitions. But smart as they are, they’re not as strategic about planning for transitions as they are for other aspects of their careers.” Her fellow committee member Roberta Baxter, MBA ’96, agrees. “Our goal,” she says, “is to help more women live out the professional lives they want and not feel that they really don’t have any attractive options other than leaving the workforce entirely.”

While many alumnae said they were happy to share their stories on the website, some asked that their names not be used. Among those who did agree to go on the record was Karen Harris, who graduated first in her Stanford MBA class of 1990. She started out in investment banking at Merrill Lynch, never thinking that she would stop out of the workforce. But when she was 35 and her first child was 20 months old, she had a change of heart. “I was so in love with my daughter that I would literally run home from the subway,” she recalls. “I just couldn’t get there fast enough.”

Harris wound up spending a year and a half at home with her preschooler. Then she tapped her network of former colleagues and found another position with more regular hours at UBS, where she built up its I-banking and industrial group. Today her daughter is in the sixth grade, and Harris is the global COO of the Equity Capital Markets Group at UBS. “Sometimes I have to come in at 5 or 6 in the morning to get it all done,” she says, “but at least now I can leave at 5:30 p.m. and get home and help my daughter with her homework.”

In hindsight, some GSB grads wish they had thought more clearly about their career options before going to business school. Others are convinced they chose the right path, just the wrong employer. Marketing expert Lisa McDoe (not her real name) graduated in the early 1980s and worked at a couple of high-tech companies. But after two product launches in six months and nights of sleeping in her office, the mother of two was ready to call it quits. Salvation came when a client suggested she take on a project as an independent consultant.

“There are two major challenges to being a consultant: structuring one’s time and the highly variable income, compounded by cash flow lags. Underlying both is the constant need to network and sell one’s services,” she says now, 15 years later. On the other hand, the independent road has given her priceless rewards: the ability to provide high-value work to her clients, repair her marriage, get the kids through school, restart her spiritual life, get regular exercise, become closer to her extended family, and make significant contributions at her church. As she told her Transitions Project interviewer: “While I was employed, I was a slave to my employer. As a consultant I have opportunities to put myself first.”

Other website entries touch on everything from the importance of mentoring to self-marketing. Among the recurring themes:

Sharon, David and StephenGross

Sharon, David and StephenGross

David and Sharon Gross, both MBA ’97, worked out a job-sharing agreement at Hewlett packard when their son, Stephen, was bornl They chose jobs that we were extremely well qualified for, so that they were happy to have us.

SEEK OUT COMPANIES THAT VALUE WORK-LIFE BALANCE. When Sharon and David Gross graduated from the GSB in 1997, the husband-and-wife marketing experts knew that work-life balance would be a priority. So they went to Hewlett-Packard, known for its flexible work options. When their son, Stephen, was born, they worked out a job-sharing agreement with the company and “consciously chose jobs that we were extremely well qualified for, so that they were happy to have us.” Today they’re the directors of e-commerce at Shutterfly, and job sharing there, too. “The arrangement has allowed me to coach our son’s basketball team and volunteer in the classroom,” says David. Adds Sharon: “We plan on doing this until we retire.”

COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR PARTNER. “Have honest conversations with your spouse or partner about the roles in your marriage and the circumstances in which one person’s career may take precedence over the other’s,” advises another recent alumna who married a GSB classmate. “Who’s going to move? Who’s going to spend more time at work or more time at home, and for how long?”

NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK. “The biggest mistake people make is to network only when they actively need to change jobs or are out of work,” says a recent graduate who now does MBA admissions consulting. “That’s like looking for a parachute when you’ve jumped out of the plane. Networking gets pushed to the bottom of the list in terms of things to do, but even just keeping in touch with past colleagues or joining a professional group can pay off.”

Above all, Stanford alums should remember that good career management is a sign of good leadership. As Mercy Eyadiel, the director of alumni and Sloan career services at the school’s Career Management Center, puts it: “When you’re able to navigate through transitions, plan around them, make tough choices for your life, and be comfortable with them, this is what good leadership is about.”

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. A Career Coach Can Help Keep Your Professional Life in Shape
  2. QOTD: Online Life Morphing with Real Life
  3. Balancing Career and Family Commitments

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