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Tales of workaholic investment banking bosses, and how to survive them

Burnout is killing his career

It wasn’t the greatest precedent to set. Alex, a third-year associate working on a FIG investment banking team in London, had just seen her notoriously hard-driving managing director go on maternity leave. Three weeks later she was back at work.

“What does this say to everyone else? You can’t have children if you want to make it to the senior ranks?,” says Alex. “I’m about to get married, we’re planning children – three weeks’ maternity leave is a terrifying prospect.”

Investment banking demands hard work. You need to clock over 70 hours a week or you’re not even in the game. But what you’re working for a real slave-driver – someone who never switches off?

“I worked with one executive whose badge of honour was that he had only taken two weeks of holiday in 9 years,” says Graham Ward, the former head of European equities at Goldman Sachs and now adjunct professor of leadership at INSEAD. “His marriage was broken and he had no children. He worked weekends and had no hobbies. At 43 he was a very angry man, both to be around and with his life in general.”

One former associate at a boutique investment bank in the City says that his team was forced to take a conference call with their boss when they knew he was in the ‘cabinets’. Another says that an analyst was worked so hard that he was regularly found sleeping under his VPs’ desk, which was the warmest place in the office.

Adapt to survive 

“Adapt and learn, or resist and disappear,” says Ziad Awad, a former MD at Bank of America Merrill Lynch who is now CEO of boutique Awad Capital. “Ultimately, most managing directors are expecting utter commitment from their juniors, because they show the same. Everything is a learning experience.”

In theory, juniors are relatively powerless to resist a workaholic boss – if they complain, there are plenty willing to take their place. The key is simply to be savvy with your workload.

“It’s difficult to avoid weekend work you could not expect and that is time-sensitive,” says Marc Hatz, an ex-Goldman Sachs and Perella Weinberg associate who now offers advice on preparing for investment banking interviews. “But on the projects you already work on always think time-management.”

There will always be work that will drop in your desk unexpectedly, but the key outside of this is to work as efficiently as possible, he says. If you’re an analyst, always make sure that you prioritise workload with your ‘staffer’ – the associate managing you.

“Discuss the possibilities on projects you know you will realistically not be able to deliver on given your outstanding workload,” says Hatz. “Ask your staffer which project should be given the priority.”

Ward says that the key for juniors is to “deliver above expectations and then push back hard if more demands are made”.

“The best juniors are the ones that can work efficiently, it’s the only way to keep your workload in check,” says Awad. “Take financial modeling – banks will teach you a certain amount on Excel, but the top analysts spend the time working out all the shortcuts. A lot of people spend hours trudging through when they could spend one hour researching the best method.”

Ultimately, if the cause of the team’s anxiety is the senior managing director, it shouldn’t be the junior’s task to push back – use the hierarchy. “Always speak with your colleagues about your workload and ability to deliver,” advises Hatz.

Sitting it out

The most common way to handle these bosses, however, is to simply to sit it out – market dynamics have a way of sifting bad managers out of the organization, suggests Ward.

“His lack of perspective got him into trouble in the end,” says Ward of the workaholic boss. “He was unable to retain his best people, he was temperamental due to lack of sleep, and at scale he could not deliver. If he had not been fired, he would have been the richest man in the graveyard.”

Chris Roebuck, the former head of HR at UBS investment bank and now visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School, says there’s a generational shift – albeit a subtle one – and financial services organisations are conscious of missing out on young talent.

“I’ve known of people turning down jobs at Goldman Sachs because they didn’t want to be on call 24/7. Others have chosen other industries entirely because of the reputation for extreme hours in finance,” he says.

Roebuck says that when he was at UBS there was an HR issue when a managing director in his 40s refused to break his holiday for the third year running at the behest of a divisional chief executive in his 60s. “He said that he didn’t sign up for this, which was mystifying for a person of the previous generation,” he says. “Now, the younger generation want greater work-life balance – banks have to respond to this.”

 

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