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How to break into the investment banking cliques

The impenetrable office clique

The impenetrable office clique

If you want to get ahead in an investment bank you’ll have to be big on teamwork. At least, that’s the theory. The reality is that banking is full of cliques and you need to be part of the right clique to get ahead.

What’s a clique? In banking it’s usually a tightly knit group of friends working in your department. They might be in management, they might be in your peer group, but they always go for lunch together, they always coordinate their Seamless orders, and they can usually be seen talking covertly by the coffee station. Still don’t know what I’m talking about?  You’re probably outside of the clique.

Being outside the clique is bad news. It’s a bit like being outside of the cool group of kids at school. Except that instead of being a social outcast who misses out on all the best parties, you’re not frozen out from social events. – You’re frozen out from promotions, and you’re pushed to the back of the queue for bonuses.

At my employer – a large European investment bank – one of the MDs had around six in his inner circle that came under his management responsibility. These guys were always (subtly) looked after when it came to handing out promotions and bonuses. The rest of us were second class citizens. We got the scraps and were barely thought of when it came to career opportunities, regardless of how well we performed.

What can you do about clique exclusion? I’m assuming you’ve already tried your best to infiltrate the clique – you’ve been out for a few drinks, tried to mingle, alluded to some ‘private jokes.’ You’re still as popular as Boris Johnson at a Green Party event.

In my experience you have three options. And they are limited. You can get out of there by either moving banks or departments. You can try and make the clique depend on your for something, or you can keep your head down and hope you outlive the clique.

Working backwards, the last option works – but not in a good way. The internal backslapping often means those in the inner circle are promoted more quickly. They’ll disappear, leaving you behind. Ultimately, this may free up opportunities for you, although by then you may be too gnarly to progress. It’s better if the manager leaves – he may take them with him, but deprived of a figurehead a clique tends to dissipate.

The second option only works in certain circumstances, Do you have a specialist skill-set, or distinctive knowledge that the team needs? Do you have the numbers to back up your performance, meaning your departure would be a big blow? If so, leverage this position – tacitly let them know that if you’re not happy, you could leave. This often works, but only so long as someone new doesn’t come in with the same skill-set as you. In that case, the clique could strike back.

In most cases, as defeatist as it sounds, I suggest the first option. Joining another firm or department can open up new opportunities and remove you from the toxic clique environment.  It may feel that you’re giving up and quitting. – But why should pointless politics dictate the progression of your career? If you have a good level of experience and a skill-set that’s in demand, quitting is a good option. And if you don’t? Bad luck.

The author works at a large investment bank in the City of London. He is a mentor at online banking and finance mentor programme Wiseround

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