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Seven survival tips when you work for a boutique investment bank

Boutique, boutique investment bank, boutiques, M&A advisory, office politics

Working in a large financial services organisation often necessitates being part of a small fiefdom, where playing office politics is as important for your promotion prospects as any performance metric. What about if you work at a boutique?

Many people that come from larger firms naively think that the smaller the firm, the less politics will exist. This is generally untrue, according to Jeanne Branthover, managing partner and the head of the global financial services practice at DHR, an executive search firm.

Smaller firms often recruit people they know, so there are cliques of teams that have worked together successfully for years in other firms. There are lift-outs that come from other firms to increase revenue quickly with their own culture and click.

“In a smaller environment, politics is harder to hide, it is also harder to hide from,” Branthover said. “Figuring out the politics of the firm and who are the main players quickly is important and how to work with them successfully is key.”

Here is some advice for getting to know the firm’s hierarchy and playing the game of office politics well so that you position yourself for success.

1. Make sure you understand the office culture and fit in

It’s important to understand that office politics are really closely correlated to office culture.

“Senior people set the tone, rhythm and processes, as well as the culture of the business, and either you fit into that or you don’t,” said Jocelyn Greenky, the co-founder and CEO of Sider Road Media, a strategic consultancy. “People at the top value employees who share their own outlook, likes and dislikes, and they want to know that they fit in with them.

It’s not just about the big boss, you need to get the lay of the land.

Understand how the system works. You should be able to answer these three questions: “Who makes which decisions?”, “What matters to them?” and “Who influences them?” Figuring out the answers to those will help you navigate office politics more successfully.

“You want to understand the politics of what’s going on and how things get done, who has power to do what in a small bank or boutique, but don’t be political in terms of playing people off of each other, using your powers for evil, not good,” says May Busch, executive coach, speaker and author and the former COO of Morgan Stanley Europe.

2. Know when to rock the boat and when to shut your trap

Sometimes senior executives value subordinates who speak their mind in meetings and offer a fresh perspective, and there are plenty of cases when that’s is appropriate and beneficial. However, there are other cases when the top brass have already made up their minds and are looking to build consensus, rather than have a brainstorming session about other potential ways to go.

“Don’t make 50 suggestions for how something should change within the first three months after you’ve been hired,” Greenky said. “Early on, your job is to listen and absorb how things work at the company.”

3. Find a good mentor and nurture that relationship

If you’re not producing revenue, then playing politics effectively becomes more challenging. That’s when strong intra-office relationships become all the more important.

Get to know your boss and other decision-makers at the firm. Do you know their kids’ names? Their hobbies and interests? What their last vacation was? Get to know your boss personally and make sure you’re doing all the work as he or she expects.

And if a senior executive asks you to donate to charity, sponsor a 5k race or buy a few boxes of Girl Scout cookies, do it. You pretty much have to participate.

“It’s important to align yourself with your boss, [but it’s equally important to] get a mentor who’s not in your direct line of reporting, a senior person in a different department or role,” Greensky said. “Aside from your boss, your mentor is the first person to champion you for that new role or promotion.

4. Be like George Washington

“Don’t let people down,” Busch said. “Those organizations are much leaner, so there’s less room for someone to not carry their weight.

“Always do what you say you’re going to do,” she said.

And if you do chop down the cherry tree? Come clean.

“Don’t lie,” Greensky said. “If you do, you’ll get caught.”

5. Don’t engage in office politics whenever possible

Unless you’re actively drawn into the fray, often it’s best to remain on the sidelines of petty battles and competitive one-upmanship among colleagues.

Typically it’s far more effective to climb the ladder the old-fashioned way: taking the tough assignments and being willing to work longer and harder than your colleagues.

Figure out how to be a rainmaker – at small firms, you “eat what you kill” and will ultimately have to be great at bringing in business, not just executing on the business that others bring in, Busch said.

“Don’t play politics; do your work,” said Carol Hartman, managing partner of the financial services practice, North America, at DHR International. “Become an expert, become really good at what you do.

“Quality, substance and content will outweigh the political game,” she said. “What you sacrifice when you play politics is your integrity – if you’re asked to do so, flee, because you can always get another job, but you can’t get your integrity back.”

While sometimes engaging in politics is unavoidable, Busch agrees with that sentiment.

6. Avoid burnout

Rachael O’Bryan was a client relations specialist and the executive assistant to the founder and chairman of boutique Greenhill & Co., Bob Greenhill. He launched and led Morgan Stanley’s mergers and acquisitions department in the early ’70s, invented the investment banking analyst program and was the CEO of Smith Barney before starting his own firm in 1996.

O’Bryan’s advice for junior bankers struggling to find success at a boutique? Absolutely stick with it.

“It’s an incredible opportunity that will ultimately jump-start your career,” O’Bryan said. “It’s imperative to make sure to have that work-life balance – I know sometimes it can be difficult, but it’s important to keep that balance.

“It will help with feeling burned out,” she said.

7. Never ask for more work

Think you’re showing conscientiousness by demanding extra work from more senior colleagues during relatively quiet periods? No, you’re setting yourself up for a fall.


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