The oft-used term “work/life balance” can mean different things to different people — and different things to the same person at various points in her career, according to a panel of Wall Street executives at the recent Wharton Women in Business Conference.

The five women on the panel — which was titled, “For the Long Haul: Wall Street Women on Balancing Life and Work after VP” — all acknowledged that striking a perfect balance between work and personal life is rarely possible for a first-year associate on Wall Street, but they also agreed that balance is possible with time.

“It’s very hard coming right out of business school to achieve work/life balance,” said Carol A. Schafer, a managing director in Wachovia Securities’ Equity Capital Markets group who also spent 17 years at JP Morgan. “You want to be able to work for an organization that sets you up for work/life balance in the future, one that respects personal life, personal time, has a good mentoring organization — a good women’s organization.” A first-year associate can’t tell an employer, “Here I am. I’m great. I’m smart, and I demand work/life balance,” Schafer noted, but “it’s pretty achievable over time.”

She added that work performance is critical, especially at a career’s start, and will pay off with greater lifestyle flexibility. “If you really want to be there for the long haul, have good opportunities presented to you, be able to achieve work/life balance over time and move around to get a broad experience, you’ve got to be a consistently good performer. That’s what gives you leverage…. Become indispensable and everybody [will] want you to be a part of their network. It’s what opens all the doors.”

Now, Schafer said, “bankers would rather work around my schedule than not have me at a meeting. The trick of being able to manage your schedule is critical to work/life balance: being flexible when you can be, putting a barrier around things you need to protect.”

Set Priorities

In the hurly burly of Wall Street, the panelists stressed, it is important for a person to know what his or her priorities are. “What really is work/life balance?” asked Surina Shukri, a vice president in JP Morgan’s Natural Resources Investment Banking group, who recalled spending many late nights at the office as a first-year analyst. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you work x hours and play y hours. It’s really a matter of knowing what’s important to you. Your priorities are going to change over the course of your career.”

If a new associate’s priority is to get recognition at work, she can and should be realistic about what that will require, Shukri advised. “However, if you start something, and you don’t really know what’s important to you, that’s what makes work/life balance challenging. You’re kind of aimless.”

Umber Ahmad, who co-founded the private investment firm Goldenridge Capital with fellow Wharton graduate Michael Boyden, said that owning a company has given her some scheduling flexibility. “But the challenge is you never leave it. You never actually go home. It’s 24/7. So balance is something you find in a different way.” For her, balance comes from pursuing personal interests. “I fly as much as I can,” said Ahmad, a licensed pilot, adding that her work on the boards of several non-profits pulls her out of her normal routine and makes her realize how lucky she is to be on Wall Street.

The panelists also stressed the importance of networking, not only as a career success strategy, but also for the sake of work/life balance. Too often, junior women on Wall Street tend to be their own island, never looking up from their work, noted Shukri, one of three married panelists. “Seek out a support network early. In the office and outside the office, it’s pretty important to have somebody you can go to and feel comfortable with to talk about issues or problems…. This is a tough job. Doing it alone makes it a lot tougher.”

Before starting her own company, Ahmad was a vice president in the Goldman Sachs Private Equity Group. When she started on Wall Street in the financial institutions group of Morgan Stanley Investment Banking, Ahmad made a list of people she wanted to keep in contact with and put them into her calendar. “I reach out to them once a month,” she said, noting that she used time during the “dead period” between 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. when senior executives were typically finishing meetings, to make networking phone calls or meet someone over a cup of coffee. “It sounds very calculated, but it’s not,” she said. If she hadn’t done that when she first started on Wall Street, she joked, three months would have gone by before she talked to anyone or had her hair cut.

More importantly, the connections those calls and coffee breaks maintained have blossomed. Boyden, Ahmad’s friend from business school, is now her business partner, and when she and Boyden were starting Goldenridge Capital, she said, “I was shocked by how many people reached out and gave me money, support, references or deal ideas.”

Isabelle Halphen, a vice president in Morgan Stanley’s research division, does work on weekends so she can meet face-to-face with other teams in her company during the week. “I could be at my computer all day, dealing with people over the phone or on e-mail, but it’s very important to have a very strong internal network.” Gaining face time with internal teams matters especially in the current economic environment, she noted. Should management have to make cuts, Halphen said, “you don’t ever want your name anywhere near that list.”

Halphen’s personal activities — opera singer, CD producer, Julliard master class student and a board member of the World Children’s Choir and the National Corporate Theater Fund — have also created a personal network that exists outside of Wall Street.

The Big Picture

Panel moderator Banu Tansever, executive director of UBS’ business development group, urged young women to “utilize your financial resources to make your life easier. You are not going to be able to keep your apartment in ship-shape if you work 20 hours [a day]. Use family and friends. Pay for help. I use FreshDirect Internet grocery service. Do I love the produce? No, but it’s easy and quick.”

Schafer suggested that women should not refrain from utilizing “the cleaning person, the drycleaner that drops off clothes; you should be happy to outsource. Have a network of things that make your life easier.”

While Wall Street is hard work, panelists agreed with Ahmad when she said that “One thing you shouldn’t sacrifice is yourself and your health…. Get a trainer. It’s a good use of your money and time.” Ahmad also noted that, ultimately, having a wider perspective is the key to persevering in a tough job. “Financial services is one of those [jobs] where you are going to have great days and bad days. Be certain you are doing this for the right reasons. You go into it thinking it’s a prestigious thing to do, but that goes away in about a week.”

 “A lot of first, second year analysts never take a step back to see the big picture,” Schafer noted. “The people who look at the ‘why’ as opposed to the ‘how’ are always the ones who succeed over time.”

Friends and outside interests can be great resources for gaining perspective, Ahmed added. Talking with people not involved in Wall Street is particularly helpful. Someone else’s footnote typo might be infuriating, she said, but a non-Wall Street friend would probably respond, “‘Are you seriously mad about that?’ Then you realize, ‘Okay, that’s ridiculous.'” Halphen added, “My boyfriend deals with people who have cancer, and during his day sometimes they die. In our business there’s that saying: At the end of the day, nobody dies. To have a little perspective is important.”

Balance for Both Sexes

Strategically planning ahead to obtain work/life balance need not impede career desires, the executives said. “Wall Street in general has gotten more woman-friendly over the years,” said Shukri. “There’s more emphasis on retaining women. Sometimes, [leaving] is a choice that women make because they don’t want to work so much, travel so much.”

Wall Street firms are giving women — and men — more flexibility to change positions internally to meet work/life balance needs. Morgan Stanley, Halphen said, “bends over backwards to find ways to retain women. One man’s sole job is to make sure that the people who want internal transfers get them.”

Although she believes “a lot of mothers leave Wall Street,” Tansever does not think Wall Street explicitly hires men versus women because of that. “Many guys struggle with family and children questions, and many guys have left the profession because they can’t juggle family and work at the same time.”

Four years ago, Tansever changed jobs within UBS, moving to a role that would require less travel because she and her husband were thinking of having a baby. Six months into the new job, she realized she didn’t like it and was able to return to her old department. She urged audience members not to shun new career challenges for the sake of work/life balance. “If you have the passion, give it a go. You don’t know how you’re going to react and what you will feel like if you never give it a try.”

Priorities change, Tansever said. “There are a lot of ways within financial services for you to create your own path. For me, it’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.”