Forget passion, those with a plan and system succeed in banking

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If you're at the stage of your finance career where you’re wondering how you got here, how you’ll get there, or you have no idea where “there” even is, keep on reading. Most of us started our careers much like balls in a pinball machine, fired with great speed from university only to find ourselves hit a bunch of unidentified obstacles and end up miles away from where we thought we would.

Scott Adams, creator of the popular Dilbert office-themed cartoon strip, made some good points in a recent article for Inc. magazine about career planning. He says: 1) beware advice from successful people because no two situations are alike; 2) Inspirational biographies are bunk - biographers never have access to the internal thoughts of successful people; and 3) Don’t "follow your passion”.

Come again? You’re a career coach and you’re telling me not to follow my passion? Passion will undoubtedly give you high energy, high resistance to rejection and high determination. Passionate people are more persuasive, too. But it's easy to be passionate about things that are working out, and that distorts our impression of the importance of passion. Things that don't work out tend to slowly drain the passion as they fail; things that work out become more exciting as they succeed.

The truth about passion at work

The problem is that most banking work is not passion-inducing. In the 1990s I worked as a broker in London with salespeople on desks of various banks and I always noticed those who were more “passionate” than the others.

You know the ones – first in last out, seem to have read the FT, WSJ, Barron’s and all the morning-meeting briefs before the analysts’ pens had even dried, ready to smile ‘n’ dial. It all sounded great and the bosses loved it. But looking back, I suspect lots of them were more passionate about what the job could do for them, not the job itself. In other words, rise through the ranks quicker, get bigger accounts quicker, get paid quicker, and leave the industry quicker.

That’s no bad thing. It’s just you need to be clear about what and who you’re doing it for and why. If you are genuinely passionate about leaving client voice-mails about comparative valuation methods, that’s all well and good. Become the expert, the go-to person and be prepared to consider other ways of delivering your expertise should your employer decide to strategically, ahem, refocus.

So forget about passion. And while you're at it, forget about goals, too.

Use "systems-based" career planning instead

The best advice I always give clients is to think about the job after the next one. Job seeking is, like networking, not something one does only when necessary, but is a continuing process. This makes perfect sense if you do the maths: chances are that the best job for you won't become available at precisely the time you declare yourself ready. Therefore, getting a job is part of a system, not a goal. The system is continually to manage your skill set, fill up the empty development pots, map what people want and problems you can solve and look for better options to put yourself in the frame.

If you're a trader, systems-based career planning means thinking about your market, your competitive edge, being clear about your performance factors and how you can improve your numbers versus the guy next to you. It also means increasing your levels of self awareness in terms of purpose, and working out whether you want (and are suited to) management or whether you just want to carry on trading your book.

The same applies to portfolio managers. I find I spend a significant amount of my time when coaching working on these kinds of areas with clients. If you're in a sales role, whether markets-based or support/infrastructure, your career-management system should include building awareness of your clients' preferences and thinking styles as a major component of increasing your numbers. Again, use self-analysis to figure out your skills to determine whether you want to stay a producer or become a manager (and potentially, a cos).

Do not expect your employer to do it for you. They are interested in keeping you doing what you are doing, thank you very much, especially if you are earning them money or freeing them of hassle.

The proven success of systems

Throughout my coaching life I've had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways. For example, as we moved into the new millennium it was clear the writing was on the wall for many generalist equity salespeople.

The clever ones made a choice and put systems into place to transfer themselves to safer ground. Some picked up a sector, building relationships with its analysts, some offered to cover a market or geography and built a defensible franchise, and others specialised by type of client. Within 15 years, the equities business has been transformed by a range of structural and regulatory issues that have seen some salespeople build successful and sustainable careers based on the clarity of what they can offer and do, whereas many have fallen by the wayside.

The same could be said of those who worked in securitisation and structured asset finance pre-Lehman. As much of the business was killed within 6-12 months, those who figured out their transferability from structuring or selling toxic CDO baskets to unwitting investors managed to find their way into related areas like loan recovery and private equity. You didn’t want to be the one left holding the baby when the music stopped.

The reality is that with the amount of structural upheaval on both the buy and sell side, the only certainty is that most of us will run the risk of becoming functionally obsolescent at least once in our careers. Putting systems in place to manage your career by taking regular time out to appraise where the ship you’re on is headed is mandatory in my view.

Grads should think like this, too

If you're out there looking to make your first break into finance, systems thinking is also essential. The whole deal - clarifying who you are and what you want, targeting employers, writing CVs, dealing with recruiters, networking for information and contacts, interviewing, negotiating and closing - all requires a system as none of these components of a successful job-search strategy happens in isolation. If you think through this list with your own situation in mind, you will quickly see how the last item is linked in a dependent chain back to the first.

Finally, the old adage about learning through failure is as true as ever. It's a good place to be because failure is where success likes to hide in plain sight. Everything you want out of life is in that huge, bubbling vat of failure. The trick is to get the good stuff out.

James Parsons is an executive and careers coach, leadership development specialist and mentor at He has a background in strategy consulting and investment banking and coaches many individuals through career change and management. He also has extensive experience coaching people in leadership roles in professional services, law firms and banks.

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