Though young MBAs often place a high premium on the importance of networking, Ann Marie Petach has learned to value something else even more: friendship.
For almost 30 years, Petach has relied on the advice and support of Tepper School classmate Patricia Little. The two met on the second day of orientation and went on to share drinks, an apartment, careers at Ford Motor Co. and the rare opportunity to serve as a touchstone for each other’s professional lives in a way that only some friends can.
“Your friendships are your connections,” says Petach, now senior managing director at Black Rock. “Cherish your friends; they’re really important.”
Both women addressed MBA students as part of the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series. They offered their insights into career development, the application of the Tepper School degree to the workplace and the virtues of critical thinking skills.
But most of all, they explained how their friendship has worked to their mutual professional advantage in a way that a wider, shallower networking pool never could.
Petach, for example, recalls how Little urged her to be more decisive in communicating her ideas. Instead of hedging every sentence with “I think,” Little told her to present her thoughts as facts.
“No one else gave me that feedback, and yet I feel like I became a better presenter,” says Petach.
For her part, Little – now the executive vice president and chief financial officer of Kelly Services – believes that women need that kind of support to tackle difficult work situations because they are not usually socialized to power through their problems.
“Work is hard,” says Little.
Adds Petach: “We both joke that we wouldn’t be very good social club moms. We just don’t enjoy doing that. I really enjoy solving complex problems; I really enjoy delivering meaningful results.”
And in that, their friendship has allowed them to collaborate.
The two friends met in their first days on the Tepper School campus. By their second year, they shared an apartment; but already, they shared a love for the school’s rigorously quantitative approach.
“For me, it was less about one single class and more about the pace and the tools you get here,” says Petach. “This was really a skills-based program, not a case studies-based program.”
Little believes the school was ahead of its time in encouraging group work, which gave her an advantage once she graduated.
“You just don’t accomplish anything in your day without working with people,” she says. “Tepper gave me the environment where that was possible.”
Both women went to work for Ford after graduation and enrolled in the company’s rotational program, which gave them work experience in several different departments: product development, automotive, credit, the treasury. Petach also worked internationally.
“In a place that’s big and complex like Ford, what going international allowed you to do was be in a smaller pond as a bigger fish,” she says.
Little suggests that careers can be divided into thirds: At the beginning, it seems like a buffet, and people want to sample as many experiences as they can. In the second third, the person learns about himself or herself: strengths and weaknesses, preferences and what they don’t like. In the last third, the professional leverages all that information and hopefully accelerates toward a goal.
“We were lucky that we spent 20 years at a place like Ford that gave us the chance to do all that and stay in one company, which is rare,” Little says.
Petach recalls how she first had the opportunity to go abroad. She was working in treasury and enjoyed it but was offered a job in Brazil. When she sought advice from a mentor and advocate in her department, he was surprised to learn that she wanted to work internationally and suggested that she wait so he could get her a better job in the same country. Three months later, he did.
“What I learned was if you don’t tell people what you want, they’re never going to guess,” says Petach. “People make a lot of assumptions about you.”
A similar path took her to Black Rock several years later. Ready for a career change, she contacted someone she knew at Black Rock, which was one of Ford’s key pension managers. Once she made her interest known, the opportunities appeared.
When speaking with young people, Little says they often have a planned order for their careers. But she says the path is usually not predictable, and recommends that people take risks and try out new opportunities.
Both women advised their audience to carefully consider what was most important to them, whether it was travel, attending to a family issue, working on a specific project, or some other issue.
In knowing what is most important, it becomes easier to find balance, Petach says:
“As long as you’re living your own priorities, you can be at peace.”
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