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Why banks are full of elites. And what to do if you’re not one of them

Banking elites

Do you come from the right socioeconomic background for banking?

So you want to to work in an elite investment bank? You’ll need to be a member of an elite already. Alternatively, you’ll need to know a member of the banking elite who can vouch for you.

This is the message of a new book ‘Pedigree,’ by Lauren Rivera, associate professor of management at Kellogg. The subtext of Rivera’s title is ‘How elite students get elite jobs’, and in 375 pages of densely referenced research based upon 120 interviews with Wall Street bankers, consultants and lawyers between 2006 and 2008, she sets about demonstrating just how the process of ‘elite reproduction’ takes place.

1. Bankers go to the right schools 

Ask a banking graduate recruiter which schools they hire from and they’ll tell you they’re institution-agnostic. This isn’t true.

Banks mostly hire from ‘core schools’ and from ‘target schools’, says Rivera. “Core schools are the three to five elite institutions from which firms draw the bulk of their new hires.” Target schools are a further five to 15 schools which banks hire from, but less enthusiastically.

And if you don’t go to a core or a target school? Irrespective of your grades Rivera says banks will see your choice of institution as indicative of both intellectual and moral failings – attending a less prestigious school is a marker of “faulty judgement or lack of foresight.”

Stephanie, a banking recruitment manager, told Rivera that students outside the core and target group are lucky to get anywhere. “I’m just being really honest, it [the non-target application] pretty much goes into a black hole… ”

Which are the right schools? Try any of the top 10 on these lists.  Alternatively, try universities that banks have a nepotistic connection with. “We started recruiting at [my school] because the CEO’s daughter was in my class there and now the chairman’s two kids are there,” said one banker to Rivera, “It’s a good school but it’s definitely those types of connections that make us recruit there.”

2. Bankers who didn’t go to the right schools know someone who did 

Yes, banks do accept some people from non-core and non-target schools, but Rivera found that they accept hardly any. Maybe one. Maybe two. And those people have to be top of the class and exemplary in every way. “Once in a while you see someone from a state school, but they’re usually only there because of connections,” Jason, a banker, told Rivera.

If you didn’t go to a core or target school and you don’t want your CV to disappear into a black hole, you therefore need something to differentiate you. That something is almost certainly someone who already has a connection with the bank and can make the case for hiring you. If you’re not a target/core hire, Stephanie told Rivera that. “You need to know someone, you need to have a connection, you need to get someone to raise their hand and say, ‘Let’s bring this candidate in’.”

Rivera found that having anyone vouch for you is better than nothing. Even having an analyst or associate intercede on your behalf will get you somewhere. Best, however, is having a managing director (MD) or client put a good word in. “A senior employee could generally push through a candidate to interview stage for any reason, even a personal whim, regardless of the quality of a candidate’s resume,” Rivera says.

3. Bankers have the right extra-curricular activities on their résumés  

Banking is all about ‘fit’. Bankers want to hire people they can spend most of their waking hours with. One banker told Rivera he likes to subject new hires to an ‘airport test’ – how much fun would they be when you’re stuck in an airport with them for 10 hours plus?

This being the case, bankers making hiring decisions need to work out how much they have in common with the neophytes they’re interviewing. And they do this by asking open-ended questions about what applicants do when they’re not studying. “Evaluators used candidates’ extracurricular activities as a proxy to judge candidates’ sociability and well-roundedness but also as a proxy for cultural fit,” says Rivera.

“We look for someone who has got personality, something to bring to the table….someone you can shoot the shit with,” says banking HR Stephanie, “Typically they were in sports, they were involved in different activities on campus.”

Some extracurricular activities carry more weight than others. Because bankers have the money to engage in expensive hobbies, expensive hobbies take precedence. Skiing, skuba diving and tennis will all count for more than running in the local park. It’s not enough to go hiking in the locality, says Rivera – you need to climb Kilimanjaro or Everest. Equally, it’s not enough to deliver food to needy people locally, you need to go to Costa Rica and build some houses for Habitat for Humanity.

4. Bankers are ‘polished’ 

Alongside everything else, Rivera says the banks she studied were looking to hire people with the nebulous quality known as ‘polish’. What is polish? Confidence has a lot to do with it – but you mustn’t be too confident.

One banker, ‘George’, described a candidate who was polish personified: “‘This guy was laid back, but he was confident. He was young, very young, but he was confident. He went with the flow of the conversation but he was very cool and even in a casual conversation would get his sell points across.”

Rivera points to research suggesting that privileged children are more likely to appear polished than others: “Economically privileged children are socialized into interactional styles emphasizing independence, self-expression, agency and entitlement,” she claims.

How to break through the elite barrier

So, how can you get into banking if you don’t adhere to any of the markers above? Finding an insider to vouch for you is clearly the most important thing. “First year analysts or associates could successfully push through an individual they knew from class, athletics, extracurricular activities, their hometowns or word of mouth to the interview phase,” says Rivera.

Failing that. she suggests the following tactics:

A. Make the most of a ‘serendipitous connection’

This isn’t actually a tactic – more luck.One interviewee got a job offer when it became apparent that her interviewer was a single a mother and she mentioned that she too had been raised by a single mother. Another got an offer when she commented that her interviewer’s belt was nice and a bit ‘piratey’, promoting the interviewer to confess that she’d always thought of herself as a bit of a pirate.

B. Hire an ‘insider coach’ 

Rivera found other non-elite candidates who were paying ‘cultural insiders’ to coach them on how to behave like bankers. These insiders were ex-bankers who were charging students for their insights on what banks look like from the inside.

C. Mimic people who are members of the elite 

You might want to spend the days preceding your banking interview in the company of the most economically advantaged people you know. Rivera describes the case of Kumar, a lawyer, who spent his interviews pretending to be his best friend from law school (the son of a Fortune 500 executive). “I’d just sit there in my interviews and pretend to be him,” says Kumar. “I’d ask myself, ‘WWSD’ – What Would Simon Do?”

D. Make yourself into a charming caricature 

If you can’t feign elite-dom, Rivera says you can always try the risky strategy of making yourself appear non-threatening by conforming to an elite caricature of a non-elite group. Rags to riches stories (think Lloyd Blankfein) work for Goldman Sachs. Gritty realism can also be a workable strategy: “I’m from the South – like the real South…. I played up the whole small town country bumpkin thing,” said one consulting interviewee.

E. Go for compensatory credentials 

Finally, Rivera says that there are some signifiers that will get you through the door of banks and professional services firms even if you don’t otherwise hold all the right elite badges. One of these is time spent in the military. The other is a pass from something like ‘Sponsors for Educational Opportunity’ (SEO) which helps talented black students into top jobs.

In most cases, however, it’s hard to get into banking, or law, or consulting, if there’s nothing elite about you whatsoever. “Students from less privileged backgrounds who successfully entered elite jobs tended to have preexisting social or institutional ties to elite individuals or organizations,” says Rivera.

Comments (1)

Comments
  1. Or ask Daddy to buy you a company?

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