The new reality of getting promoted in an investment banking job

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Assuming you’ve been working in financial services for more than a couple of years, you will have noticed profound changes in the way your organisation operates.  Banks are dealing with the economic downturn, increased regulatory requirements and changes in global markets – all the while battling the need for better PR in the wake increased media scrutiny.

There’s a whole new world of work out there and if you want to succeed, you need to understand it.

Whether you’re managing other people, or just your own workload there are key changes you need to be aware of to maximise your performance and promotion chances. The first is the need for banks to do more with less – headcount has been significantly reduced over the past five years and this is unlikely to change even when growth returns. At its most basic level, this means fewer people have to deliver the same amount of work as a greater number did in the past.

Not only do you have to work harder, but you also have to interact with more people than ever before, on different teams, in different locations and doing things that may not strictly be part of your job. You will have noticed this effect – and you aren’t alone. Between 2009–12, according to Corporate Executive Board,  88% of people said their workload had increased, 55% didn’t have enough time to complete all their work, 63% said they were more changes in organisational strategy and 50% had more stakeholders to deal with.

At the same time, because there are fewer people, the importance of collaborating with others in order to deliver the organisations key objectives – even if it falls outside your specific role duties – has more than doubled.  But this collaboration is likely to only take up a couple of hours a week if you prioritise effectively.

In the pre-financial crisis days, banks would focus on rewarding individual performance, often with monetary rewards. Now, your success is not just down to you, it’s about doing what is needed to help your team and wider organisation deliver what’s required and others doing the same for you.

If you want to get ahead in your financial services career and increase your chances of promotion, there are a few simple steps you can take. The most important of thing to remember is that, as well as doing your own job, you must understand the wider organisation – this knowledge allows you to collaborate more effectively as you understand what others and the wider organisation are trying to achieve.

The things you need to do achieve this, in chronological order to build on each other, are:

  1. Great professional knowledge – being good at your technical job;
  2. Good general business knowledge – knowing about basic task management, finance and other areas business needs to function;
  3. Understanding of operational activity around you – so you can best support your peers and help colleagues achieve;
  4. Understanding of organisations vision, strategy & challenges – so you can align what you do and how you do it to maximise value
  5. Understanding of the market and environment the organisation has to succeed in – so you can understand what clients want and competitors do.
  6. Having an entrepreneurial mindset – to align to client needs and out flank competitors – be they external or even internal.

If you get all this right it could improve your chances of being successful at the next level in your organisation by 70%, according to Corporate Executive Board research, so it worth taking a little time to focus on these areas and develop skills and knowledge.

Another way to enhance your promotion credentials is to be in the know. Most people assume that the organisation is assessing them purely on performance, but the reality is that there are six criteria you’re being judged on within financial services organisations for possible promotion to higher levels.

  1. Performance – are you in the top 20% compared to your peers?
  2. Learning – do you proactively seek feedback and earn from it to improve?
  3. Managing change – do you use change as an opportunity not a threat?
  4. Resilience – are you able to deal with the pressures of a fast moving role?
  5. The bigger picture – do you understand what the organisation is doing operationally and strategically around you and why?
  6. Working in partnership - are you good at getting other people to work with you to deliver what needs to be done?

However, remember it’s definitely not just about being totally delivery-focused to the exclusion of people and collaboration. Those who dedicate all their time to just delivering current personal objectives actually achieve less than those who proactively collaborate on what makes a real difference to the whole organisation.

Chris Roebuck is Visiting Professor of Transformational Leadership at Cass Business School. He was formerly Global Head of Talent & Leadership at UBS 2002-06 and also Head of Management Development for HSBC investment bank. He has worked with organisations as diverse as RBS, the UK National Health Service (1.4m staff), international law firms, and London Underground to the Myanmar Red Cross and the Chinese Space Programme. His new book Lead to Succeed, on which these articles are based is available from Waterstones or at a discount directly from the website ( in both hard copy and digital versions.   

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