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12 handy hints for fitting into Goldman Sachs’ culture

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Goldman Sachs has people queuing up to get a job there. It’s the most popular bank among finance professionals. It only accepts 3% of applicants and – once in – people tend to stick around (average tenure is nine years).

Goldman likes to view itself as a good employer that offers competitive pay, good benefits and a strong culture. Others would argue that this culture involves a degree of brainwashing that requires intense loyalty to the ‘firm’.

But what’s it really like to work for Goldman Sachs?

We’ve pulled together a number of sources to give you an insight. For a start, an academic study based on interviews with former employees called, ominously, Problematizing Goldman Sachs: indoctrination, paradigm shift and revolving doors by Yoann Bazin at ISTEC in Paris. And also our own (and other) interviews with senior execs. This is what you need to know about culture at Goldman.

1. You must adopt a uniform

Expensive suits should not be flashy. At all times where quality attire, but this should be “dark suits, white shirt, neutral ties and short hair”, says the research. Presumably this is the male uniform. Our own analysis of (male) Goldman employees shows that most people express themselves with colourful ties – purple and red were among the most popular. CFO Gary Cohn opted for orange in the last annual report.

2. Fitness first

Flabbiness is a sign of weakness, perhaps. “Goldman Sachs employees are expected to be in shape and practice sports with colleagues,” says the research.

3. You must pull out the stops for colleagues

“Collegiate” is the term you’ll hear bandied about in investment banking. Not just at Goldman, to be fair, but the bank seems particularly keen on promoted its team-working ethos.

Greg Lemkau, co-head of M&A at Goldman Sachs, told us: “If you need an answer to a question, you can pick up the phone and call anyone. Or walk into anyone’s office and ask. People will drop what they are doing to help you. If you have a piece of business you are trying to win, people will get on airplanes and fly anywhere to help you win it.”

4. Everything is career-related

Invited on a stag weekend in Las Vegas with colleagues? Lucky you, this means you have been accepted into the fabric of the firm, but there are still “stakes at play” that could affect your career during a seemingly innocent social occasion. Similarly, a casual inter-office ping pong game is an opportunity for career advancement, says the research. Once you’re up to speed on Goldman’s cultural values you must “spontaneously know how to behave inside and outside the firm.”

5. It’s still survival of the fittest

Goldman’s ‘360 degree’ annual appraisal process, often an opportunity to big oneself up, allows the bank to divide its employees into quartiles by performance, with the bottom 10% usually fired before Christmas. Sharpen your elbows.

6. You need advocates

New employees are “actively encouraged to follow mentors and culture carriers”, says the research. In other words, an advocate in the company is essential.

7. You must be flexible to survive

Lloyd Blankfein’s career pearls of wisdom are becoming an annual event, and they rarely fall into HR cliché. Goldman clearly doesn’t value people who are mere subject matter experts. Blankfein says that you must be “nimble and flexible”. It’s about knowing the company, the business and the industry rather than the products.

8. Rising stars are rock stars

Goldman values a “cult of performance” whereby rising stars within the firm are idolised and praised for their “excellent relationships with clients, accurate analysis and strength of conviction”, says Bazin’s research.

9. But don’t shout about it

Despite the aforementioned tendency to brag in appraisal scenarios, generally egocentrism and bravado are viewed as “major flaws” at Goldman, says the research. Instead, you must present yourself as “austere and efficient”.

10. You need to take criticism

If you go into Goldman with an unpoppable ego, convinced of your own superiority, Blankfein suggests that you’re unlikely to last. You need to “make yourself coachable”, he said. Be the sort of person “that people want to help… Don’t be too defensive, be open to criticism”.

11. The job is the centre of your new universe

This is not down to the pressure and the long hours expected of Goldman employees, but instead because your “network now revolves around the job”. Friends and family “cannot understand why and what you’re experiencing”, says the research.

12. The intense competition is ultimately rewarding

Goldman Sachs bankers are the most satisfied of any investment banking employees, according to a 2013 study by UBS analysts on corporate culture. Goldman employs competitive high-achievers and encourages them to do what comes naturally, thereby creating a “virtuous cycle, both reinforcing employees’ competitive spirits and endorsing a positive perception of the firm”.

Photo: zest_marina/iStock/Thinkstock

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