When you start out in banking, there’s no shortage of people looking to doll out career advice. Junior bankers are given mentors, networking opportunities to connect with influential people within the business, while associates and VPs are only happy to tell analysts what they should be doing, despite their own relative inexperience.
The key to a successful finance career is not to soak up this advice like a sponge, but to maintain your critical faculties and filter the information that is generally valuable. “The unfortunate truth is that genuinely good advice could never be one-size-fits-all, despite the fact that many senior bankers seemed to think it that it was, as they repeated the well-worn aphorisms that had been shared with them decades prior,” says Mark Franczyk, who spent 10 years working at J.P. Morgan before leaving banking to start his own artisan baking business last year.
Some advice is too generic, some is simply hackneyed while other guidance will blind you from making the decisions that will actually help your banking career. Here, according to conversations with former senior bankers and current analysts, are the tips you need to take with a heavy pinch of salt.
1. Know how to pitch yourself
Perfecting your ‘elevator pitch’ – a short, sharp insight into your capabilities designed to impress a potential employer/manager in the space of 30 seconds – is a cliché that eager eyed juniors take way too seriously. Does anyone really like being given a hard sell by every subordinate they meet? Franczyk thinks not.
“After endless rehearsal, you start to become your elevator speech, when it was supposed to be the other way around,” he says. “This danger dawned on me at a cocktail party with non-bankers when a stranger asked, ‘...and who are you?’ I gave her my elevator speech, to which she replied. “Fine, but who are you?” before walking away. I couldn’t blame her. I had bored myself.”
2. It’s all about attention to detail
Any student guide to getting a job in M&A will tell you that attention to detail is absolutely key. Banks employ formatting teams to ensure that their pitches contain all the right fonts, photos and colours. Juniors pore over spreadsheets to deliver immaculate numbers for pitch books, all the while trying to keep everyone in the hierarchy happy – associates, VPs, directors and MDs.
One analyst working in debt capital markets at a UK bank tells us that associates and VPs are constantly eschewing the need for accuracy and speed of delivery, often at the expense of other aspects of the work that will genuinely impress those at the top of the tree.
"One time I got told that by associates and VPs that sizing a picture correctly on the team page would have made me stand out more than trying to put together a decent executive summary for a pitch,” he says. “The reality is that it matters to a certain extent, as it makes them look good in front of directors and MDs, but never sacrifice an hour spent thinking and learning with an hour spent making other people look good.”
3. Loyalty is rewarded
Investment banks are more focused on training and retention, but anyone that tells you that your current employer has your best interests at heart is lying, says Graham Ward, the former head of European equities at Goldman Sachs and now adjunct professor of leadership at INSEAD.
"People move on, businesses change and morph into different states, economies shift. Be the master or mistress of your own destiny,” he says. “It's fine to hitch yourself to someone's wagon, but they will likely not be there for ever. When it's time to break out, follow your gut and do so.”
4. Network at every opportunity
Networking is omnipresent in banking. Whether it’s hooking up on social networks, trying to gain internal ‘sponsors’ or building a network of finance professionals outside of your employer, the general guidance is that networking all the time is a good thing. Getting yourself out there isn’t always wise, says Franczyk.
“The constant pressure to network started on day one of analyst training. Meet as many people as possible,” he says. “But no one ever cautioned of the need for quality over quantity. In the end, despite ‘knowing’ hundreds of people across the firm, only a fraction of my network would ever really matter to my career or personal life.”
5. Focus on the details
Following on from the point about attention to detail, the DCM analyst says that an obsession with having getting everything “shiny and perfect” for those above you actually detracts away from really learning what matters in the job. “I have seen too many zombie associates or VPs that end up being just machines with little or no chance to make it to the next level. Guess why? Because they have followed the very same advice they're giving you – focus on the details.”
6. Develop a one, five and ten-year plan
Senior bankers advise those going into the industry to plan for their next three career moves. Juniors themselves are increasingly motivated by the exit options the sector offers. The requirement to rigorously plan your career is a drum that is constantly beat. “The need for a five year plan may be one of the worst pieces of advice I ever received,” says Franczyk.
“The laser focus that comes with a well-defined plan can also be blinding,” he says. “It blinded me to myriad opportunities that were passing me by, many of which may have been better options in the long run. There were opportunities to branch off in countless directions, but I resisted because they were not part of that initial plan.”
7. Follow the money
Banks’ recruiters would frown on any potential new recruit chasing big pay packets, but let’s be honest, money is still a key motivator for a lot of people working in the financial sector. Remuneration increases more rapidly and more massively in finance than any other industry and one of the key ways to secure a pay rise is to switch jobs. This doesn’t always work out, says Ward.
“Many bankers I know left for more money and within a year regretted it. It is hard to fit into a new culture and fully integrate,” he says. “It requires rebuilding your network, building trust with new colleagues and because you have moved for a premium, not only dealing with others potential jealousy but also the high expectations of your new management.”