I have an experience that I have not shared with many but it seems more relevant than ever that I do that now.
Three years after graduating from college and as a newly promoted Associate at an investment bank, I was finally working in New York City. It was my dream to work in The City and specifically at “Wall Street” because if you are in finance, this was the place to be, the mecca of all things MONEY. It was almost like an assurance that I had done a good enough job to be granted the transfer to my dream city.
I was confident. I was often on highly coveted transactions as an Analyst. I knew that even as an Associate (position that you are promoted to after 2-3 years as an Analyst, typically the lowest ranking position at a bank), I was making a difference on the teams that I was on.
Then one day, my mentor and I had a catch up session over coffee. He was not my direct boss but a mentor assigned to me by the firm via the “mentor program” that can be found at almost any large company nowadays. He and I worked on a few deals together and I had helped him on multiple occasions preparing pitch books and running deals.
Our catch up session started out just like any other – how I am doing, what deals I am working on. Then I mentioned about a few of my colleagues leaving the firm and had questions about the decision making process for potentially staying at the firm or leaving to pursue a different path. As I was sipping on my latte, my mentor decided to speak up.
“You will make partner at this firm if you don’t quit.
You are Asian, female, you went to a good school, and can speak English – so you will go far.”
I felt like that was a compliment at first. I felt a sense of acceptance.
Partner, really? This Managing Director is telling me that I could be one of the Partners – and not just an Associate. THAT’S A BIG DEAL.
He said I could be make Partner if I did not quit.
He said that I could go far because I am Asian, female, went to a good school, and can speak English.
What does that mean?
Immediately, the feeling of acceptance turned into the realization that I could be rewarded with promotions as long as I continued to be the model minority. He made it sound as if no improvements or significant contributions were expected of me. As long as I stayed Asian, Female, graduated from a good school and spoke English, the passageway for me to get to Partner level was cleared.
Of course I knew that the path to Partnership is not easy like that – in reality, you have to go through rounds and rounds of interviews on top of generating meaningful revenue of the group (I mean, this is a lot). I knew that – but the way he presented his case was that I should stay because I was “the model minority” that the firm desperately needed at the top, and not because I could surpass the grueling test of Partnership at the firm.
The characteristics he referenced were already on my resume when I had applied for the job. The comments that were made failed to refer to any of my accomplishments and distinguishing features of my work or the contributions to the teams I had been involved in.
The mentor session that was supposed to help with retention at the firm left me wondering what the firm really valued, as I went home questioning whether I belonged (I quit the firm 1 year after the incident). During this coffee break, I was talking to one person, but this individual knew very well of his role as a mentor to a female Associate, and he and I have worked together in the past, so he should have known what kind of a banker I was.
The worst part of all of this is that he likely did not even realize that whatever he said was producing the exact opposite result of his intended ‘mentoring’ process. His obliviousness to the subject matter revealed the worst of this large firm unable to guide their more senior individuals to be conscious of these matters.
Imagine a world in which we are not giving credit to what we were born with, but what our contributions are. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia – all stem from assumptions about an individual based on characteristics that we are born with.
We have a lifetime to prove our self-worth. Getting stuck on labels is a waste of one’s talent and a hindrance to overall progress.
Undoing the checkmark process is one step forward.
Reward people who are doing good.
Not people who are born with qualities you might want to see more of.
Once we can walk away from this, we can begin to talk more about how we identify talent, how to differentiate quantity vs quality.