Goldman culture not what it seems, say ex-GS bankers. JPM, MS no better

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What with J.P. Morgan reporting last week and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley reporting second-quarter results this week (along with Citigroup today and Bank of America on Wednesday), you may feel now's the time to join a big U.S. investment bank. After all, U.S. investment banks are market leaders. They are also where the investment-banking growth is at, according to a recent report by Morgan Stanley and Oliver Wyman.

But which U.S. bank should you go for? Insiders and ex-insiders suggest Goldman, Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan aren't as culturally homogeneous as they might seem. Nor are big U.S. banks necessarily as meritocratic and collegiate as they like to make out.

Culture at Goldman Sachs: Home to the humble?

Goldman's website contains numerous cultural testimonials from current employees. As they tell it, Goldman is incredibly team-oriented, teamwork is the most  "important thing" about Goldman's culture, and - most notably - people at Goldman Sachs are "incredibly humble".

Goldman Sachs declined to comment for this article, but we spoke to several ex-Goldman bankers who said the bank's own portrayal of its culture is only part of the story. Yes, Goldman is super-collegial at the junior end - but it can be a lot more cut throat when you hit the senior levels.

"Goldman attracts very collegial, smart, focused people," said Heather Katsonga-Woodward, an entrepreneur and former IBD analyst at Goldman. "The people I worked with at Goldman were very competitive against other firms - but not against each other. The average Goldman banker is a super over-achiever, but they're also not very egotistical about it. I worked at HSBC afterwards and people seemed much keener to broadcast how much money they were earning there. At Goldman it wasn't spoken about and people were quieter about spending their money."

Frank Yeung, another former Goldman analyst who now runs a chain of Mexican restaurants, Poncho Number 8, said Goldman Sachs bankers are comparatively humble by banker standards, but the humility at Goldman is probably higher in IBD, where people work killer weeks, than on the trading floor. "These guys are pretty humble, but they're working 130 hours a week," said Yeung.

"Competition is higher at senior levels at Goldman," said Katsonga-Woodward. "It's pretty subtle, but you get MDs fighting over who works on a particular deal."

One ex-J.P. Morgan banker-turned recruiter alleged that Goldman has a reputation for being nice at junior levels and nastier higher up. "You have to work very hard to get into Goldman and things are very collegial at an early stage. But to survive you need to be more ruthless," he claimed. "They're all about delivery and weeding out the weaklings."

A graduate recruiter who previously worked at Goldman, and requested that she remained anonymous, complained that the firm is crazily process-driven. "They have this very prescriptive culture that's not much fun," she alleged. "The people who work there very driven and heads-down. It attracts earnest, hard-working types."

Another senior ex-Goldman banker was a bit more upbeat. "The people of GS are exceptional!!!," he told us by email. "I had that impression while I was there and I have it now, compared to the competition."

Culture at J.P. Morgan: Meritocratic and bureaucratic? 

J.P. Morgan was unable to comment on its culture before our deadline, but while Goldman's graduate website is big on teamwork, JPM's places a strong emphasis on meritocracy (and seems less personable). "Our people have the ability to advance and be rewarded based solely on their capability and character," says J.P. Morgan. 

Reviews from J.P. Morgan bankers on Glassdoor suggest this isn't the whole story. J.P. Morgan is a big, political, passive-aggressive beast, they complain. Not so, insisted the ex-J.P. Morgan banker-turned recruiter. "You will find that at senior levels J.P. Morgan is very collegiate and much more collegiate than Goldman Sachs," he said. "Yes, there's a huge bureaucracy, but you'll get that in any large company - they can't be judged for that."

Culture at Morgan Stanley: Fiercely proud of the prestige

Morgan Stanley didn't respond to a request to comment for this article. However, Morgan Stanley's website suggests a fierce defence of its prestigious heritage.

"Our culture is about teamwork, excellence and winning, but it's also about respect for our heritage and doing first-class business in a first-class way," said Jonathan, a manager at Morgan Stanley in Tokyo.  "Morgan Stanley is a top-tier bank with a very prestigious name," said another Morgan Stanley employee on its graduate site. "I chose Morgan Stanley because of the firm’s renowned reputation as one of the world’s pre-eminent investment banks," said Alex, an associate in private wealth management in Hong Kong. 

If you want to work at Morgan Stanley, it seems you may need to be very cognisant of the firm's big brand. One ex-Morgan Stanley managing director, who requested that he remain anonymous, said this is indeed the case. "They think of themselves as being very much a white-shoe bank and tend to define themselves along with Goldman Sachs as being at the top of the industry," he said. "A lot of this is defensive," he claimed. "Morgan Stanley is now run by James Gorman - an ex-management consultant - and is more process driven. They're trying hard to perpetuate the culture and brand they had in the past."

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