Sunday, May 12, 2013

Go Ahead, Live a Little

Kick ass and take names, sister
Longtime followers of this cut-rate opinion emporium will recall your Humble Bloggist to be a gushing fan of Financial Times management inquisitor Lucy Kellaway, whose rapier wit, ear for human folly, and impeccable judgment have always encouraged me to envision her as a modern-day Musketeer wielding a PhD in bullshit detection while sporting sensible shoes.1 Among her many other contributions to modern society, she presides over an occasional agony aunt column for victims of financial capitalism entitled, appropriately enough, “Dear Lucy.”

As chance would have it, a recent inquiry therein puzzled me enough to encourage me to pop my head up from my hidey hole in the Volcano Lair and offer a judicious comment or two. The hapless correspondent’s plea is brief:
I have worked in Global Markets for an investment bank since I graduated six years ago. I’ve recently been given the opportunity to go travelling with my boyfriend, but I wonder how long I can be away from the industry and still have a good chance of being re-employed on my return. Six months? One year? Three years? I’m also aware that when I get back, I’ll be an attached, childless woman in her early 30s, which shouldn’t affect my employment chances but I’m worried it will.

How can I manage this before we go to leave as many doors open as possible?

Banker, female, 28
* * *

Now, my first reaction on reading this tidbit was “Huh?” The emphasis, phrasing, and even question itself is all wrong. “Bloodless,” Lucy calls it, and bloodless it is. Putting aside the apparent implications for this person’s relationship with her boyfriend, it raises serious questions in my reptilian Managing Director’s brain concerning the status of her employment. Certain clues, like “worked in” and “being re-employed” lead me to believe that, notwithstanding this supplicant’s self-selected sobriquet, she is nothing remotely like a real, front office, revenue-generating “banker” and is instead a faceless, gormless member of the administrative, sales, or information technology support staff at her so-called investment bank. A real global markets banker worth the title would have 1) puffed herself up—“built a successful career in Global Markets for a leading investment bank”—and 2) crumpled the letter up and thrown it away before sending it to Lucy, because of course any bank in their right mind would hire a banker of her genius and ability no matter what the fuck she did for three years. People who are successful (and who have a sporting chance of success) in my business just don’t undersell themselves the way this person does.

But, in the interest of charity (and producing a blog post more interesting than this might otherwise be), I will choose to put another spin on the affair. Perhaps her passive-aggressive boyfriend—who has had to listen for years to glowing reports of her fast-paced, exciting life among funny, brilliant, puissant young men who make many multiples of the pittance he brings in as a clerk at the Carphone Warehouse—sent the letter to Lucy in hopes of guilting her into quitting her job and paying for his beach vacation in Phuket for the next three years. Or perhaps this person really is a talented, driven revenue producer who eats nails for breakfast and spits iron filings for lunch but, like many in her industry, is simply incapable of writing her way out of a paper bag with a map and a blowtorch. Or maybe even this person makes £100 million per year trading Cadbury DairyMilk futures for her desperately grateful third-rate Spanish commercial bank but has been cowed by all the ex-Carphone Warehouse employees waving “Occupy Whoever Has Money” signs in Trafalgar Square into epic self-deprecation.

You get the idea. Let’s assume the improbable and take this person’s letter as sincere.

* * *

In which case, my next question is also “Huh?” For a person who has been working in the capital markets division of a major investment or universal bank for six years surely should have developed some horse sense about her industry. People just don’t take sabbaticals in capital markets or investment banking. As Lucy rightly says, things change too fast. Markets change, securities change, customer relationships change. Disappear for one year, much less three, and nobody will remember your name, much less care what you have to say about anything.

I had a Managing Director tell me years ago, when I was a mere pup, wet behind the ears, that the best strategy to succeed in investment banking was to keep your seat. Success would come, and success would go, but you could never enjoy the fruits of good luck or a heated market if you weren’t in a position where you could get paid. Young and naive as I was, I remember finding this advice rather cynical and dispiriting. Surely you kept your seat and made lots of money for your firm because you were really good, because clients respected and trusted you, because you gave them great advice. Because you were better than anybody else. This was stupid on my part. He was right.

Nobody is indispensable in my industry. Nobody. Ever. For every hotshot trader or investment banker glorying in her run of luck and outsized compensation, there are twenty waiting in the wings who could do just as good a job. And a hundred who would be willing to work for half pay to prove they could do so too.

I’ve said it a billion times: in investment banking or sales and trading, you’re only as good as your last deal or your last trade. And your last deal or your last trade had much more to do with you being in the right place at the right time—being in the right seat—than with your charm, skill, or intelligence. And none of us know when the right deal is going to hit.

Everybody figures this out sooner or later. Senior management knows it by heart. So when a banker leaves the industry of their own volition, the message is very clear: “I’m never coming back.”

* * *

Which is not to say you shouldn’t do it. Hey, maybe you’re tired of the grind. Maybe you’ve done your time in Hell, and it’s time to enjoy life a little. Working investment banking hours, under investment banking pressure, with a bankful of aggressive, psychopathic assholes for six years until the age of 28 is enough to make anyone want to chill out on the beach with an umbrella drink for a year or three. It’s your life.

Just don’t have any expectations that your old job, or anything like it, will be waiting for you when you get back. Your experience will be stale and out of date: useless. And there is nothing about your charm or intelligence that will distinguish you from the line of a hundred identical eager valedictorians waiting outside our hiring office. If anything, they’re probably hungrier and more naive (hence more malleable) than you. Intelligence is table stakes. What really makes an investment banker successful is drive and ambition. Will you still have it after traveling the world?

If so, feel free to reapply. But, take it from me, you better have some damn good stories to tell: why you left, what you did while you were away, and why you want to come back. Those are real assets. The rest of us poor slobs who stayed behind want to hear what the real world looks like. But more importantly, we want to believe if we give you one of the scarce seats we have to offer you’re going to have the skill and the drive to make us—and yourself—a boatload of money. That’s the tradeoff: our seat, and the opportunity to make ridiculous amounts of money if you’re lucky, in exchange for your single-minded ambition to do so.

Investment banking is a jealous mistress. She does not suffer indifferent commitment gladly. And she has far too many suitors for her favors to dally with anyone who is not willing to give her one hundred percent.

You do the math.

1 In contrast, say, to lazy dilettantes too eager to take cheap shots without doing the hard work of actually critiquing all too widespread management idiocies in an enlightening manner.

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