Notwithstanding its own not-insignificant challenges and the social opprobrium currently attached to investment banking by society at large, it’s hard to blame the poor dears:
Unlike, say, 99.6% of all other jobs available to a wet-behind-the-ears idiot in proud possession of little more than an expensive college degree, becoming an investment banker fresh out of college is a huge rush. Depending on what role they perform, new entrants just weeks into the job can participate in billion dollar underwritings, multi-billion dollar mergers, complicated cross-border restructurings, or devilishly complex trading programs, all the while possessing a level of experience formally known in the industry as “jack shit.”
In what other industry, I ask you, can a 22-year-old who just stopped wetting the bed three weeks ago participate in a deal which runs for weeks on the cover of The Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times? To be sure, he is probably doing little more than making copies, getting coffee, and trying not to look as stupid and lost as he feels, but at least he is in the room. Contrast this, if you will, with a fresh McKinsey recruit tasked with interviewing shop floor supervisors to develop a human resources inventory for a ball bearing manufacturer in East Bumfuck, Illinois. Or a pre-law student who spends 80 hours a week in a windowless basement cross-checking sale-leaseback contracts for a patent dispute in Moldavia. On average, young investment bankers spend less time traveling that management consultants and more time sleeping than corporate attorneys. Plus, they get to tell their friends and family that they carried Bruce Wasserstein’s bags. What could be better?
Unfortunately, from their perspective, many of the youngsters who contact me fear they do not possess the “right” degree from the “right” school which they believe will magically open the secret door into this wonderland of fun. Often they have tried and failed to pursue the standard on-campus recruiting paths or have come up short with the fearsome Human Resources harridans who guard the gates to Analyst or Associate recruiting. And so they reach out to Yours Truly, pleading for fifteen minutes of my time on the telephone or in person to give them the key to investment banking Valhalla.
For the avoidance of doubt, and for the benefit of the 20 hapless supplicants feverishly typing emails to me in response to this post, let me make this perfectly clear:
No. Nope. Unh-unh. HELL NO.
I don’t do phone calls or meetings. Haven’t any of you seen Enemy of the State?
By the same token, it is a waste of electrons to send me your resumé. To whom would you suggest I send it? “Oh, uh, hi, Jerry at Goldman Sachs. I, uh, just happened to find this fascinating resumé lying on the fax machine. Would you mind taking a hard look at it? Wait. What do you mean? No, I don’t know anybody named ‘TED’. Why do you ask?” Consider my carefully defended pseudonymity an impermeable barrier to contact, referrals, or recommendations in the real world. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.
However, as partial recompense for your pains, and to show I am not a completely heartless bastard, I am happy to share with you here the same advice I give aspiring applicants to my industry under my own identity.
First of all, having a degree in finance or economics from a top-ranked college or business school is not a sine qua non to get hired into investment banking. But I’ll not kid you: it helps. Especially now, when the industry is under severe pressure to retrench. Why? Because it acts as an easy screen for harried recruiters to winnow down the hundreds if not thousands of job applications they receive to a more manageable horde. Taken separately, a degree from a top school shows that other demanding institutions have deemed you worthy in the past, and a degree in finance, economics, or accounting shows you have an understanding of (and possibly a love for) the basic tools and concepts of our trade. Beyond that, they tell us almost nothing about whether you have the drive, passion, and capacity for our business. The only way we can find that out is by throwing you into the fire itself.
For I have seen dozens of top-ranked Ivy League graduates flame out (or worse, fizzle) over the years, mostly due to lack of energy, drive, or commitment to do what has to be done. Not because they weren’t smart enough; no, they were just too lazy or too entitled to get down in the mud and wrestle with the alligators, which is why we hire young cannon fodder like you in the first place. Survive the alligators, and you have a chance to rise into the haughty position of power, influence, and respect you feel you deserve. Don’t survive, and we’ll toss your mangled corpse out the back door onto a trash heap like a used Kleenex.
Did I mention investment bankers are heartless bastards?
What does it take to succeed in my business? You have to be really smart (don’t kid yourself on this one: it’s a high hurdle), determined, aggressive, and indefatigable. You have to be quick on your feet, too, because change is ever present in investment banking, and you have to be able to adapt to wildly different situations and volatile personalities. You have to learn how to work with financial statements, accounting concepts, and spreadsheets. You have to be good with people. You have to be a quick learner, because no school can teach you what you need to know and how to do it: investment banking is and always will be an apprenticeship business. And you have to (learn to) love the business. If you don’t, you’ll burn out: it’s just too hard and demanding.
Nowhere in that litany, you will notice, did I say you need a finance degree or an Ivy League diploma. Those help getting in the door, but they tell us little about whether you will be a good hire. So, what do you do if you don’t have the kind of credentials which almost guarantee you will get a first round interview? You have to be creative in your approach, flexible and clever in your campaign, and you have to convincingly demonstrate the traits of successful investment bankers I have enumerated above when you get in the door.
Reach out to people you know, ask for recommendations to senior bankers from your friends and family, request informational interviews with these bankers (but not unreliable, curmudgeonly pseudonymous bloggers), and go show them you have what it takes. Don’t give up. It will be very hard. But if you can get in the door, you will have proved to yourself and your employer that you have all the tools you need to make a positive impact.
And maybe one day, if you are smart, hard-working, and very, very lucky, you’ll be kicking some prissy Princeton prima donna the HR geeks sent you to interview out on his ass because you can’t trust him to bring back your coffee order from Starbucks correctly.
Good luck, campers.
(Oh, and one more thing. If you really want to stand out, it helps to be a girl. Just sayin’.)
© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.