The 'why our bank?' question is one you will be asked as a fresh graduate or a senior banker looking for a new opportunity. But do you really know what you're getting into? Yes, you can research recent deals and investment banking league tables, but can you really get an insight into the culture of an organization before you join?
J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are the U.S. 'big three' investment banks. On the face of it, they're all prestigious, pay well, compete for talent and jostle for the top spots across M&A and capital markets, but there are subtle differences – beyond the anecdotes and cultural cliches, including compensation. Different personalities survive, thrive or sink at each of these banks.
Former employees’ perspectives on J.P. Morgan, Goldman and Morgan Stanley
"I found J.P. Morgan Chase to be very supportive of career development," said Kiri Masters, a former vice president and strategy manager at the bank. "Assuming that you've built a great professional reputation internally, it's possible to get promoted fairly quickly.
A Goldman alumna who worked in recruitment for the bank described it as “intensely client-focused, meritocratic, less concerned with the competition than other banks, warmer and friendlier than the stereotype. Lloyd Blankfein, for example, who has been portrayed quite negatively in the press, is actually a really likeable guy – very funny, self-deprecating, quite an entertainer with a great sense of humor about himself.”
She continued: “People at Goldman have a lot of pride about their work and the firm and don't have as much insecurity as people at other firms that I've observed. For example, if someone declines a Goldman offer they tend to be dismissed as probably not a good fit or not worth it, where at other places they would anguish about the loss.”
Morgan Stanley is thought of as elite and prestigious – a “white-shoe” firm – and J.P. Morgan is considered a bit siloed and people there tend to have more of a chip on their shoulder about rivals such as Goldman and Morgan Stanley, she said.
Of course, employees past and present of the other banks might see things a bit differently.
“People at Morgan Stanley take themselves very seriously,” said an ex-equity saleswoman who worked for Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Citi. “At Goldman they’re very full of themselves – there’s a joke that goes ‘How do you know if someone’s a managing director at Goldman Sachs?’ – they’ll tell you within the first five minutes of meeting them.”
We've also collected a series of comments from (anonymous) current and former employees from Vault.com's annual survey of bankers. Below are our picks from each of the big banks.
J.P. Morgan: Breaking down silos?
CEO Jamie Dimon touts J.P. Morgan's mentoring program at every opportunity. It thinks of itself as a meritocracy and values intellectually curiosity and enthusiasm in its interns and juniors. Vis Raghavan, the recently-installed CEO of Europe at J.P. Morgan, says that optimism helps if you want to work in its investment bank: "I also like positive, glass half-full type people with a can-do attitude. We seek people who are confident, but humble. So essentially, intelligence, motivation and humility are the three important traits amongst others," he told us.
Here are a selection of anonymous comments from JPM employees:
“I've been at several banks on Wall Street, and J.P. Morgan has the best/most organized training of junior staff. I've seen employees transition from one part of the bank to another. Moving within the bank to pursue an opportunity outside of your line of business is not an impossible task."
“Many individuals are put into silos, leaving you unable to imagine yourself in a different role/group/function. The firm has taken a much more open approach, openly encouraging individuals to raise their hands; this openness has resulted in a number of my peers pursuing other opportunities within the bank.”
“There is a very strong work ethic at the firm and one that requires you to be on call 24/7. However, this expectation is because people are truly invested in the firm and our clients, so it is for the right reason.”
“It is important to check in frequently in the evenings and on the weekends, but you can do that remotely. Facetime is not an issue as long as you respond to important issues when they arise.”
“There is lots of client interaction at a very early age. But a BlackBerry culture requires constant connectivity outside of work. Hours are often very tough. The firm promotes work/life balance in theory, but in practice, everyone is stretched very thin. Stress levels are high.”
Goldman Sachs: Top heavy?
Goldman Sachs says that it's all about teamwork, but some insiders suggest that it is still a very competitive and political place to work. What's more, working at Goldman Sachs is likely to eat up your personal life.
“Formal training continues at every promotion stage and additional training is available for high performers throughout your career … providing developmental opportunities to help us manage our professional advancement through mentorship and seminars. In terms of the 'worst' aspect of career development opportunities, some teams are very top heavy; hence there is little opportunity to advance.”
"A great place to build and develop a professional career. However, it becomes overly crowded when it reaches to certain senior level, and career progression becomes difficult and slow."
"GS strives to provide a balanced work/life. However, the industry as a whole is very focused on productivity and being available to clients 24 hours a day. It can make it hard to balance a young family and a time-intensive career."
“In a global firm, it is naïve to believe that there will be a distinct separation of work and life. Goldman actively discusses work/life balance and encourages employees to take time off to maintain quality of life. However, I firmly believe that this is a double-edged sword for the firm, as our focus on costs results in constant downward pressure on headcount and staffing, making it very difficult for individuals to make time for quality of life purposes.”
Morgan Stanley: All-consuming, but fair?
“In most instances, if you are doing well, they will continue to find more challenging work for you. I got a trading book after only a year on my desk, and now, three years in, I am running three different books with an analyst under me.”
“The team environment enables you to take time for family commitments and vacations without worrying how well your clients will be covered in your absence. There is always more work to do and problems to solve. This is a blessing and a curse. If you are not self-disciplined, this place will consume you.”
“A part of any job at an investment bank is that the job requires hard work, and sometimes that means getting in early enough to be prepared and staying late enough to make sure things are done thoroughly.”
“Within my group, working from home (while not encouraged) is allowed without notice, managers are expected to justify why an employee can't take vacation rather than the employee being required to demonstrate their ability to take time off, and work product rather than hours tends to be the benchmark by which performance is measured. Unfortunately, that same work product requires a significant time investment to produce.”
“People work hard at Morgan Stanley – that's a fact of life at an investment bank. However, the senior bankers are aware of our hard work, and try to protect weekends and holidays whenever possible. Morgan Stanley does not have a strict weekend policy, and I really like that. It allows the junior bankers decide how to allocate their time on a weekend if needed. My friends at other banks are forced to work really long Sundays sometimes, and that kills their whole week.”
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