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The Three Secrets of Successful Banking Interviews

Lacrosse will help if you're being interviewed by someone in pearls (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you want to get a job in an investment bank, you may think it behoves you to demonstrate your prowess with spreadsheets and your ability to charm clients. This would be wrong. By far and away, the most important thing investment banking interviewers are looking for is cultural fit.

A new study by Lauren Rivera, an assistant professor of management and education at Kellogg School of Management, found that nearly 70% of investment banking interviewers say fit is the most important criteria when they are deciding who to hire.

What is fit? Rivera suggests three dimensions: cultural fit (you fit with the firm's culture), cognitive fit (the similarities between your experience and the interviewer's experience make it easier for the interviewer to understand and evaluate you), and commonalities (the interviewer spots similarities between you and himself, which validate him and makes him fight your corner). Cultural fit is by far the most important.

How to get a job in an investment bank based upon cultural fit  

Cultural fit isn't about how you behave when you're at work and doing your job, and nor is it about the way you express yourself during meetings. It's about what you do when you're not at work and how this is perceived by your colleagues.

Cultural fit refers to "play styles" says Rivera.

Nicholae, a white male banker, illustrates how cultural fit works. "A lot of this job is attitude, not aptitude," Nichoale told Rivera. "Fit is really important. You know, you will see more of your co-workers than your wife, your kids, your friends, and even your family. So you can be the smartest guy ever, but I don’t care. I need to be comfortable working everyday with you, then getting stuck in an airport with you, and then going for a beer after. You need chemistry. Not only that the person is smart, but that you like him."

Recruiters assess cultural fit in terms of extra-curricular activities, says Rivera: "Whether someone rock climbs, plays the cello, or enjoys film noir may seem trivial to outsiders, but these leisure pursuits are crucial."

As Rivera has noted in previous studies, the most popular indicators of cultural fit in professional services firms like investment banks are elite sports played by the upper middle classes. She cites the example of Kelly, a 'white shoe investment bank HR manager' dressed in a buttoned pastel cardigan and pearls, who said she'd pick two fictional candidates simply because they play lacrosse and squash and would get along on the trading floor.

If you want to game cultural fit, you need to find out as much as you can about the extra curricular activities of the people you'll be working with and to engage in something similar yourself. Social markers are all-important.

How to get a job in an investment bank based upon cognitive fit  

Cognitive fit is harder to game. It's partly about understanding and partly about likability.

Max, an investment banking director, told Rivera that he hired people based on the 'stranded in the airport test.'

"Would I want to be stuck in an airport in Minneapolis in a snowstorm with them?," said Max."And if I’m on a business trip for two days and I have to have dinner with them, is it the kind of person I enjoy hanging with?"

Recruiters will also assess you more favourably if they've had similar educational experiences, suggests Rivera. She points to Jason, another white male banker, who favoured a candidate simply because the candidate had been studying a course at Yale which he was familiar with from his own time as a Yale student, and which he knew to be a difficult one.

Cognitive fit suggests interviewers will be more likely to hire you if they like you and they understand your achievements. Rendering yourself likeable to a particular interviewer is hard, although the right body language will help. Even if you didn't go to a top school or the same school as your interviewer, the implication is that you should be emphasizing things which people who've attended elite educational establishments will be familiar with (eg. rowing, debating, writing all night essays).

How to get a job in an investment bank based upon commonalities

Finally, Rivera says interviewers will like you if you're similar to them. Your similarities will be a form of validation.

She says commonalities provide 'sparks of excitement' during the interview. Arielle, a white female banker, told Rivera her favourite recent interviewee had been a candidate - who like Arielle, ran the New York Marathon and stalked celebrities in New York. "We had this instant connection...I loved her," Arielle said.

Commonalities are important, says Rivera: they can encourage an interviewer to champion favourite candidates and to ensure those candidates are not dropped from the hiring process. "Because of the large number of interviewees, candidates need to have a champion—an evaluator who will fight for them in deliberations—to receive a job offer," she points out.

Commonalities can also be gamed. Find out about your interviewer and feign/develop similar interests. However, attempts to fake commonalities could go badly wrong: in the event that a fake commonality is exposed, the interviewer may take it very personally indeed.

"You need to be very careful lying in an interview," says John Nicholson, chairman of business psychologists Nicholson McBride. "Lying is a very risky thing and you need a very good memory."

AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • ml
    5 December 2012

    i think "cultural fit" is more of an excuse to discriminate, as well as hiring incompetent people who wont "replace" you. That's why investment banking is going to hell....

  • Ci
    City Observer
    5 December 2012

    I had a couple of interviews for various front office roles, with European IB's prior to securing a more lucrative position outside of banking thankfully!. On both occasions, I was shocked by the how ill prepared the interviewers were (they had clearly received no training at all!), neither had read my CV, one was 20 minutes late and dressed in a polo shirt and jeans and said "I've only got 5 minutes". (Just what you want to hear!) Naturally, as an interviewee I was wearing a suit as most people would for any interview!!! so the dynamic was wrong from the start, made even worse by him checking his Blackberry and shuffling bits of paper every second! (I can't imagine it was that important he was only a VP)....During both interviews I felt like it was a job at a supermarket or Builders Merchants rather than a job at a highly paid, slick investment bank!!

  • IB
    IBD applicant
    5 December 2012

    Good article overall and I am all for "do whatever it takes to get the offer", but I think the last two paragraphs are going a bit over the top. "Gamed", really I thought you mean "Made up" but English is not my first language so let me know if I miss-understood.
    And how about the consequences "in the event that a fake commonality is exposed, the interviewer may take it very personally indeed." - more likely they will blacklist your lying a** at least at the firm that caught you red handed, but maybe integrity is taken more seriously by some firms

  • an
    5 December 2012

    Good to see ability to actually do the job valued so highly!

  • Th
    The Marshal
    5 December 2012

    This goes to show that all human social enterprises, although very advanced when compared to, say, monkeys, or chimpanzees, (what else can we compared them to?) are not very efficient. They're certainly not even close to perfection.

    A candidate who is incredibly smart and efficient may rejected over someone who plays the same instrument the recruiter does. Or he may get rejected because it reminds the recruiter of someone who bullied him in school. Or makes him feel insecure. Or whatever.

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