They’ll probably never know it, but companies all over the world owe something to Mary Beck White-Sutton.
A counselor – though she prefers "coach" – in the Career Management Center at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business since 2001, White-Sutton has advised thousands of MBA graduates. She works with students seeking to become consultants – the troubleshooters firms bring in to help fix problems, expand into new markets or change the way they work.
The stack of thank you cards on her desk and the countless wedding invitations through the years all reflect how much those students appreciated her guidance.
“I care about these folks,” she said. “I always look at them as someone’s daughter, niece or nephew, sister, or friend.”
White-Sutton’s small but welcoming office is like an old curiosity shop, stuffed with trinkets from grateful students all over the world: Russian nesting dolls; a mug from the United Arab Emirates; a Zambian-made basket; Indian embroidery; patches from South Korea.
“You reach people in different ways,” she said. “You never know how you’re going to reach someone.”
White-Sutton reaches students by meeting them wherever their heads are.
“Some people know exactly what they want, some are confused about where to go next,” she said. “There’s so much to think about, they can get lost, and so we start at square one.”
It’s an approach that builds trust.
"Mary Beck always listens,” said Rebecca Wang, a 2016 graduate of Fuqua’s Daytime MBA program and now a senior consultant at Ernst & Young. White-Sutton went to a basketball game with her, met her husband and son, and became what Wang called “truly a trusted advisor to me."
“Not everyone can get their dream job at the first try,” Wang said. “When you have great news to share with her, she will give you a hug. When you have tears in your eyes, she will give you an ever bigger hug.”
“I knew right out of the gate I wanted to be a career counselor.”
White-Sutton is a natural at this kind of work, but wasn’t always set on it. She’s a live wire, whose manner suggests a mind zipping in multiple directions at once. Imagine any profession, and if White-Sutton hasn’t done it, she’s probably considered it, at least for a moment.
A native of Georgia, her career began in health care in Atlanta before moving into politics. She worked for a representative and senator in the Georgia state legislature before moving to Washington to fulfill an ambition to work on Capitol Hill, where she served on U.S. Rep. Roy Rowland's staff. White-Sutton subsequently worked at nonprofits while hoping to be an ESPN anchor.
“I like a ton of things,” she said. “You name it, I wanted to do it.”
While working in D.C., White-Sutton earned a master’s degree in higher education counseling and development, which provided her own career’s lightbulb moment.
“I knew right out of the gate,” she said, “I wanted to be a career counselor.”
She worked at various colleges in central North Carolina before coming to Fuqua in 2001. At first, White-Sutton was the sole counselor for all second-year students from the U.S., regardless of industry.
“I learned investment banking, marketing, general management, you name it,” she said. “It was fantastic."
As student interest in consulting increased, White-Sutton learned more about the sector and found herself drawn to it, eventually specializing as the careers office grew.
“It’s so varied,” she said. “Management consultants are paid to come in and provide innovative solutions in almost any sector you can name. It can be federal work, nonprofit work, corporate work. You may have a boutique firm that specializes in five different areas. You can do so much in this space. It’s always changing and moving with market trends.”
“I’ve got to stay relevant."
Besides working with students on campus, White-Sutton is often on the move, meeting with alumni in their offices across the U.S. and beyond. She wants to know how her alumni are doing, and also works to pave the way for the students who will follow them.
“At each of these firms. I go into their offices,” she said. “The recruiting relationship I know backward and forward; I want to be in the environment, to find out how their work is – do they like what they do? Are they happy? If they’re not, we can help them transition out to a more satisfying career.”
The trips also help White-Sutton keep up with trends.
“I’ve got to stay relevant,” she said.
But when students walks into her office and say they want to be consultants, she doesn’t accept it without a little pushback.
“I don’t talk them out of it, but I push them hard on why they want to do it,” she said. “When you jump into that, you sacrifice a lot. Your time is not your own. A firm can send you anywhere, and deadlines are tight.”
White-Sutton is one of seven specialist counselors for Daytime MBA students and part of Fuqua’s 30-strong Career Management Center team serving hundreds of students every year.
“It takes a village,” she said.
Nugroho Bramantyo, a 2016 Daytime grad who’s now a consultant with the Boston Consulting Group, remembered White-Sutton helping him make sure consulting was the right fit.
“She cares, not only about her work but also about who she is doing her work for,” he said. “She’s really accessible and approachable."
Daniel Kantor, an associate with the Oliver Wyman consulting firm and another member of Fuqua’s Daytime class of 2016, said White-Sutton has continued providing “amazing” support since he graduated.
“She has been a sounding board when I needed one, and given great advice when I've run into issues while being a consultant,” he said. “She truly goes above and beyond.”
Ask White-Sutton about all this and she just says she loves her work – an essential trait for a career coach, she insists.
“If I don’t enjoy my career,” she said, “how can I help anyone else find a career that works for them?”