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How to combine teamwork with ruthless selfishness to progress your investment banking career

Don't be a lone wolf, but look after number one

There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’. There are a few in ‘managing director’ and ‘chief executive officer’ though. Investment banks won’t let you through the door unless you can provide evidence of being a team-player, and yet in order to progress you also need to be a political animal, looking after the interests of number one.

The ‘team’ mantra is one that has persisted for a long period of time and continues into the upper ranks. Senior bankers were denouncing industry ‘stars’ back in 2005, precisely when they were hiring and poaching a lot of stars, while Skip McGee – the man who negotiated himself a $25m a year contract at the height of the 2008 financial crisis – described banking as a “team-sport” on his resignation from Barclays last week.

But behind the facade of team-play, it’s important to be selfish. Here’s how to balance the two.

1. Remember, in team sports it’s the stars who get paid

Be a team player, but ensure that your individual talents are recognised, even if this means framing them within the context of your division’s achievements. “Cristiano Ronaldo is paid lots of money because he scores a lot of goals. He creates many too, but this is not what people remember,” says Oliver James, a clinical psychologist and author of Office Politics: How to Survive in a World of Lying, Back-Stabbing and Dirty Tricks. “Bonuses are ultimately about the selective judgement of your individual manager. Develop your personal relationships, emphasise your team playing capabilities, but leave them in no doubt of your own contribution.”

Michael Swenson, an MD in Goldman Sachs’ mortgage business, demonstrated this effectively this during his appraisal that came to light during the Abacus Affair. “I am extremely proud of the traders that I have developed under my leadership….I have been an extremely effective mentor for numerous traders and salespeople within the firm,” he wrote. In other words, the team did well, but that’s down to me.

2. Find your place in the pyramid

Finding the key stakeholders across the organisation – not just those in your team, department or rank – and developing a relationship with them is absolutely integral to success, says Nell Montgomery, a former Goldman Sachs banker who now runs executive coaching service The Preston Associates.

“Investment banks are moving back to a pyramid structure and there’s little room for people at one level who are not contributing effectively,” she says. “It’s not just about developing a relationship with a few key stakeholders, but it’s down to the quality of those relationships and the number across the organisation.”

3. Follow the six secrets to individual career progression

Most investment banks have traditionally promoted people based on their performance, which in turn led to 50% of those getting a bump-up failing in their new position, says Chris Roebuck, visiting professor at Cass Business School and former global head of talent management at UBS. The good investment banks are now assessing their staff by other metrics, he says, which you should be keen to flag up to the powers that be if you want a promotion.

They are:

-The ability to get tasks done through other people, where you do not have direct authority over them.

-The ability to learn quickly and seek feedback on performance – and assist others in doing the same.

-The ability to constantly manage change – not only on a short-term basis, but also recognising its long-term objectives.

-‘Holistic’ and strategic understanding, and an ability to leverage that in other parts of the organisation for the ‘common good’.

-Resilience – the ability to continue to do your job under pressure, and help others do the same.

-Entrepreneurialism – see opportunities and how they can benefit your team and the organisation.

This is how your bank is assessing you – understand it, and exploit it.

4. Know the competition

One of the reasons for developing good relationships across the organisations is so that you can exploit them later on. Social drinks with your colleagues will help develop a friendship – as long as you can hold your booze – and you can really get to know their strengths and weaknesses.

“You and your peers may establish a tight bond, but you also need to develop relationships with each and every member,” says Roy Cohen, career counsellor and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. “The point: to understand and exploit individual weaknesses. First, by recognizing them.  Second, by making sure that you are always one step ahead. Take on projects that will keep your colleagues from developing key skills to get promoted or, alternatively, don't run interference when they jump into the deep end and fail.”

5. Be open about your aspirations

Montgomery encourages bankers to visualise what “success means to you” and communicate this to your individual managers during the appraisal process. “Think strategically about yourself, plan and communicate to your manager who can help you realise your ambitions. Most people keep quiet about this, but there’s no shame in articulating your goals,” she says.

6. If in doubt, suck up

Bankers are fond of charitable sporting activities and often raise tens of thousands, largely from their affluent colleagues. While this appears philanthropic, it’s also an opportunity to get in with the people who matter, says Cohen, particularly at smaller organisations.

“One of my clients works for a well-regarded boutique investment bank whose co-founder supports relief work in a country devastated by a major natural disaster. When the company sponsored an event and a memo was circulated to all employees ‘inviting' them to make a contribution or attend, only a handful followed through,” he says.  “My client, who made a sizable donation, assumed that he was not on the founder's radar screen. But when they happened to pass in the hallway, the senior fellow made a point of stopping my client to shake his hand and to thank him by name. Apparently, he had checked the list of employees who gave.”

Related articles: 

Telltale signs your job may be on the chopping block

The new rules for succeeding in an investment bank

The investment banker of the future: Compliant, entrepreneurial and cost-effective

AUTHORPaul Clarke

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