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J.P. Morgan MD: Job-hopping is not good for your career

Nicholas Johnson

You’re competing for an investment banking job with another graduate who boasts an equally flawless academic record and relentless work ethic – how’s the bank going to tell you apart?

One way is by scrutinising your extra-curricular activities, according to Nicholas Johnson, an MD at J.P. Morgan in Hong Kong. Hobbies aren’t a substitute for good grades, but they might mark you out as a potential leader who works well under pressure.

Johnson should know a thing or two about the successful leadership – he’s been with the US bank since 2000 and has risen up the ranks to become head of real estate investment banking Asia, working on some of the region’s most ground-breaking deals.

He spoke to eFinancialCareers about how he moved from the Big Four, why bankers in Asia still job hop too much, and why the best grads are able to keep their sense of humour, even during late-night deals.

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How did you begin your career?

I studied law and was called to the bar in the UK after graduation, but I became frustrated with the law – people only ever came to you when they had a problem. It is a reactionary environment; I wanted a more proactive career. I joined Price Waterhouse working initially in audit and subsequently in corporate finance and transaction services.

Why did you decide to join J.P. Morgan?

I enjoyed the work at PwC, particularly in corporate finance, but the exposure was limited especially when it came to capital-markets deals, the work would go to the investment banks. That’s when I knew I needed to make the switch.

Is a Big Four firm still a good route into investment banking?

A Big Four gives you a great understanding of accounting and finance matters, and business practice. If you are able to gain corporate finance experience all the better because a lot of the skills are transferable – for example, running a sell-side process and project management. Remember that a financial-services career is a marathon, not a sprint, so don’t get hung up wanting to join an investment bank at a particular level – you may need to take a step back.

What was it like moving to Hong Kong?

I had visited Hong Kong before moving and was fascinated by how vibrant the place was. In the early 2000s real estate was still a young industry in Asia and I had a great opportunity to join it at the beginning of the lifecycle. For example, my team worked on the first Reits in both Singapore and Hong Kong.

Mandarin skills and China experience are in demand in Asia. Is it becoming harder for Western bankers to move there?

If it’s a China-coverage job, it will be challenging without Mandarin skills. However in certain industry roles, where we seek to leverage international knowledge, and other areas in bank, such as equity sales and product development, there are still opportunities. If you look at Asia more broadly, there are opportunities in Southeast Asia, where English is the predominant business language.

Are you looking to hire in real estate investment banking in Asia this year?

Yes, we want to selectively hire exceptional candidates, particularly at the associate level.

Describe your ideal candidate

Of course if someone has undertaken three yeas of relevant banking experience in Asia or elsewhere, that’s an advantage. But candidates must understand that first and foremost they need core investment-banking skills in areas like corporate finance, regulation, structuring and presentation. The coverage area, whether that’s industry or products focused, can be picked up.

What’s the main recruitment challenge facing investment banks right now?

As always, finding the best and brightest candidates. It’s not as bad as before the financial crisis, but there’s still a tendency for junior bankers to move around, often for marginal financial gain. People underestimate the importance of internal connections to their own career success and these connections are lost when you move. I don’t like bits-and-bobs CVs.

You’re involved in graduate recruitment. How do you rate the current crop of interns and grads?

They are very good. I’m seeing a high level of academic results and they are all highly motivated. While grads these days are typically asking more questions about working hours and lifestyle, they should be under no illusions: it’s a rewarding job, but it’s hard work. For next year’s intake, I’ve told our recruitment team that I’d like to put more focus on extra-curricular activities, while maintaining the same academic standards.

Why is that?

Leadership and teamwork are important to banking careers, and sometimes extra-curricular activities – for example, playing in a band or a sports team – provide an indication that you can excel in these areas. We need people who can maintain a sense of humour under pressure – still be able to crack a joke and lift the team’s mood when you’re all working on a deal at 2am.

Why would a graduate want to join your bank?

Great career experience from an exposure perspective and great people to work with. Our corporate culture emphasises an ongoing commitment to training and development, and I’ve always found that throughout your career at J.P. Morgan, you are given as much responsibility as you can handle. More importantly, we also give young people the opportunity to have strong mentors in their team – ultimately the way you work with your team is one of the keys to your career.

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