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10 Years Later -- Reunion Reflections on Success

It took some time to realize that even though my title and pay were the highest they had ever been, this situation was not sustainable. I was spending more time in my car than with my daughter every day, and I found that unnerving.
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This year is my 10th year business school reunion in Philadelphia, and I am extremely excited to reconnect with my Wharton classmates and catch up with my friends from all over the world. I enjoyed business school immensely, worked my tail off, learned a lot, and expanded my professional network exponentially. At business school I also happened to meet my future husband. As I reflect on the high and low points of the past 10 years, I now recognize that 2010 was an unusually tough year.

My husband and I had just moved to Los Angeles from across the country with our infant, I returned from maternity leave and switched companies, my commute was about two hours a day, and we didn't know many people in L.A. It took some time to realize that even though my title and pay were the highest they had ever been, this situation was not sustainable. I was spending more time in my car than with my daughter every day, and I found that unnerving. It certainly wasn't making me happy, and my stress level was out of control.

How did I find myself in this situation? Many of my classmates and I finished business school and triumphantly marched back into the working world with an MBA degree... and considerable debt of $100,000 or more. To help make our loan payments plus cover living expenses, many of us chose investment banking or management consulting or similar career paths in the short-term. Lots of travel, long hours, high stress, and demanding clients and bosses. Not enough time to get enough sleep, be physically active, or eat healthy. It seems manageable for Type A personalities until you hear about the anecdotal health and relationship issues. This classmate was diagnosed with cancer. That classmate just went through a divorce. Probably not the outcomes they were striving for.

So it was time for a change in my life. Last year I started my own independent consulting firm to be able to set my own hours and terms of employment. This decision may seem counter intuitive when you think about how much time and energy go into building a new company, but I had built enough expertise and cultivated a big enough network to make it work. To keep things simple, I have no employees; rather, I work with other independent consultants if a project requires more resources. I take on a manageable number of projects that generally do not have ridiculously tight deadlines.

I still travel for client meetings and have many conference calls and emails to manage, but most days I work from my home office. This means the two-hour commute has gone away. This means I have the flexibility to take a couple hours off and lead "snack and story" at my daughter's preschool or care for her when she is sick and there is no last minute childcare help available. This means I have the opportunity to work with C-level executives at smaller companies and see how my contribution is making a direct impact on their success. This means I can go for a quick walk around my neighborhood in between conference calls and not worry about what my boss will think. While my salary has taken a hit, I am much happier and engaged with both my family and my clients, and everyone benefits.

My investment in business school paid off, and I recommend anyone considering a career in business who doesn't already have an undergraduate degree in business to pursue an MBA. However, when you take this path, go in with your eyes wide open about expectations and career progression:

-- Check that an MBA or other graduate degree will actually help catapult your career within your chosen industry or function. If it's a "nice to have," you may wish to reconsider.

-- The cost of tuition at the top U.S. business schools is approaching $60,000 per year, and students finishing at these schools can come out with debt of $200,000. You need a plan of how you are going to pay this back and what sacrifices you are willing to make along the way.

-- Many companies that hire almost exclusively from top graduate schools expect you to turn over the keys to your personal life for a couple years or more. This commitment is something not only you, but your family and spouse/partner will need to buy into. And if that is not an acceptable work situation, do your research and figure out which companies have a culture and jobs that better fit your needs. They do exist.

-- Write a 10-year career and life plan and reevaluate it every six months. There are anticipated and unanticipated things life may throw your way -- birth of a child, a job opportunity for your spouse/partner in a new city, managing the health of your aging parents -- that will make your ability to work long hours or travel far from home untenable. If you are self-aware and honest with yourself when you begin to take on too much in your life, you will be able to make adjustments more easily and quickly before frustration and burnt out set in.

I'll keep you posted on how my classmates are defining success 10 years after we earned our MBA.