Nine golden rules for getting a promotion on Wall Street (if you're lucky)

eFC logo

Investment banking is an up or out industry – either you climb the corporate ladder or you get off. More likely, you fall off.

The promotion process is something you learn how to navigate while you are in the throes of the journey. The ascent becomes more uncertain for late starters: career switchers and other non-traditional hires hoping to make up for lost time.

During my decade in banking, I changed roles numerous times: back office, credit, industry coverage and capital markets. My banking career was far from linear - more like a game of chutes and ladders. One day I was among the youngest assistant vice presidents at the firm. Then, I was one of the oldest analysts. I hoped, and ultimately succeeded, to secure an accelerated promotion to associate. This is what you need to do.

1. Understand why you want to move up

With a promotion comes more money, (a bit) more power, better hours (maybe) and new business cards. But before you pursue a promotion, it’s critical that you understand why it is important to you.

Is it the money or the title? Maybe it’s the thrill of more responsibility. Or maybe you just have no idea what you want to do after working as an analyst for three years (a red flag!) Only when you really understand why a promotion is important to you can you plan an effective strategy to make it happen.

2. Understand the process

If you’re working at a large investment bank with hundreds of analysts and associates, you are going to be navigating an established promotion process. There are rules, deadlines and paperwork (oh, the dreaded self-evaluations). You must understand how the process works, or you will fail. The rock star analyst who forgets to submit a year-end self-evaluation might easily become the rock star without a job. Bureaucracy is cruel.

Do your homework early. Start today! What is the formal criteria for promotion? When are the decisions made? Who makes the decisions? Do you need to solicit feedback from senior bankers? Is there a formal process for early promotion? How did early-promotes succeed in the past?

3. Build your case

Most firms have published criteria for promotion. From your first day on the desk, actively work to demonstrate how you meet each and every item on the list. And as time passes, seek assignments that fill in the gaps.

But consider these criteria as the bare minimum requirements for success. A good strategy is to be performing the job you hope to secure when promotion decisions are made, particularly if you want to hit the fast-track. It’s not the best analyst who gets promoted, but the one everyone already assumes is an associate.

4. You are part of the system, don’t try to change it

Mom always told you that you were special, but you’re not. In reality, you’re one of countless junior bankers. So if there is an established three-year term before analysts or associates are considered for advancement, don’t think that you are the one who will break the mold.

If you want to escape the process, it will be hard. It requires a tremendous amount of additional time and energy from your managers and HR. In breaking out, you may set a new precedent that has to be explained to all of your peers who did not receive ‘special treatment’. It will be an uphill battle, so be realistic before you start.

Forget preconceptions of being a rock star. Being realistic is about more than just understanding your value and how you compare to your peers. Look at things from the bank’s perspective. Even if there is no doubt that you are the perfect promotion candidate, if there is no business need for someone at your desired level, promotion may be impossible. In a down market or an off-year for a firm, the outlook becomes increasingly bleak. Recognize and accept what you can change and what is out of your control.

5. Make your interest known

Too many juniors assume that, so long as they work smart, work hard and work long, promotion will inevitably follow. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Speak up. Regardless of whether your firm has a well-established promotion calendar or makes such decisions ad hoc, you have to make your interest known. Particularly with analysts and associates, a notoriously transient population, managers are often left guessing who is genuinely interested in transforming their junior years into a long-term career.

You can make your managers’ lives easier by eliminating the guess work. If you are serious about being promoted, then raise the subject early. It puts you on their radar, and it demonstrates that you are serious.

If you’re pushing for an accelerated promotion, then being proactive is even more critical. Whenever HR is involved, time is never on your side. The process moves at a glacial pace when exceptions come into play. As your career advancement hangs in limbo, all of the side conversations and requisite approvals will stretch on much longer than seems reasonable.

6. Get in with the right people

Supportive advocates can make or break your promotion. Without buy-in from well-respected seniors, some of whom may end up being the actual decision makers, you will get nowhere.

Partner with senior bankers who you respect and with whom you can candidly discuss the promotion process. These advocates will be critical sounding boards providing objective feedback on your prospects and offering valuable insight on how to improve your case.

7. Don’t be a nuisance

There’s a fine line between being proactive and being irritating. Even though your potential promotion may be the most important thing on your mind, when it comes to others’ lists of priorities, it probably doesn’t even make the top 10. To everyone else, it’s just another “to-do”.

If your manager says she’s waiting to hear about approved headcount for next year, do not ask the same question again tomorrow. You’ve made your point. She knows you’re interested. You don’t want to risk losing an advocate by becoming a pest.

8. Be open to new possibilities

A traditional promotion isn’t the only way to move ahead. A ‘lateral move’, including changing groups or geographies, helps build a broad resume - a resume that will differentiate you as you continue your career. If you are in this industry for the long game, then these moves, though indirect, make a strong case for later career promotions, when things really matter.

9. Don’t get downbeat

 Maybe this year just isn’t your year. But in a successful, life-long career, one year isn’t that long. The worst thing you can do when things do not work in your favor is to give up. If you admit defeat, people will notice, hurting your prospects for the next round. If you’re passed over, wallow in the inevitable frustration for a weekend, and then redouble your efforts for next year.

Mark Franczyk is a former investment banker of ten-years. After becoming a vice president, he finally decided to leave finance, attended culinary school and became a pastry chef in New York City and food blogger.

Photo: Heiko K├╝verling/iStock/Thinkstock

Related articles

Popular job sectors


Search jobs

Search articles