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Want to get ahead in finance now? Build relationships

What young bankers need

It's all about bridge building

If you trying to get a job in finance today, you’re probably technically proficient. I guess you’re a top student from a top school. You’ve probably passed a few CFA exams. You probably know all about PowerPoint presentations. But do you have the human touch?

I’ve spent a long career in financial services, mostly on the buy-side, and it’s this human element that’s missing from the industry today. When we hire juniors now, they’re technical experts – the sorts of people who haven’t done much else than study. They have all the qualifications, but no real experience or charisma. And yet, they’re technically proficient and cheap, and these are lean times…

There’s always been a place for these technical types in financial services, but in the past they were kept out of sight. In fund management, the portfolio managers used to be people who were either low in emotional intelligence or high in ego, or both. They were good at their particular jobs but kept away from clients at all costs. All the client-facing stuff was done by the more personable marketing professionals who understood the “value proposition” but were less good at the technical knowledge. There was a proper demarcation in roles.

Today, the technical juniors are being unleashed on clients early. Some wise guy’s assumed that because they’re technically adept, they should be able to build relationships with clients. It can’t be that difficult, right? Wrong. Just because you’re a technological whizz who asks all the right questions, that doesn’t mean you can build the bridges that lead to proper client relationships that will endure long term. This requires a completely skill-set. Technological aptitude and charm are not the same things.

I suspect investment banks are suffering from a similar problem. Juniorization means senior staff who hold relationships are being junked for cheaper mid-ranking bankers and juniors are being given more exposure. Banks like Goldman Sachs are promoting junior people more quickly and increasing their proportion of juniors to seniors.

The juniors who thrive in this new environment will be the ones who are more than just technical superstars. If you want to differentiate yourself now, my advice is this: grow some charisma. Do not be boring! As Morgan Stanley chief executive James Gorman said to his M&A bankers a few years ago, you need to have interests outside work that make you an interesting person. This will help you relate to clients who might not have spent their lives buried in books.

Nor is just about building relationships externally – you’ll need to be an internal networker too. Back in the day, finance jobs were made easier by an army of support staff. There were PAs. There were people who slaved away in graphics centres. As tasks become more automated, these support staff are being heavily trimmed. Increasingly, you’re on your own with PowerPoint software and Excel. If you want someone to help you, you’ll need to make them want to help you. In short, you’ll need to be nice.

Laura Woods is the pseudonym of an asset management professional 

Photo credit: The Stile by Pat Dalton…is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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