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How you are sabotaging your banking career

investment banking careers

It makes no sense. You’re technically excellent, continue to bring in the numbers and yet your career is at a standstill. Management roles, or even a necessary bump up to get a bigger salary, continue to be elusive.

The fact is that career progression in banking, although very linear, can be difficult to manipulate. Your actions, however seemingly inconsequential, could be inadvertently sabotaging your career. What’s more, your own perceptions of your abilities could be out of line with how you’re seen by those making the decisions on promotions. Projecting the right image, walking the right line and talking the right talk are – like it or not – essential to making it into a leadership role. These are the mistakes to avoid.

1. You are pushing too hard, too early

Any junior investment banker spouting the advantages of working in investment banking will make reference to the ‘steep learning curve’. The fact is that the long hours and the rapid ingestion of technical knowledge can convince you that you deserve more than your rank suggests. Couple this with the competitive working environment encouraged by investment banks, and an individualistic attitude can too easily prevail.

“People fail to understand that all systems are political systems and the ability to play the game effectively is vital,” says Graham Ward, the former head of equities at Goldman Sachs and now adjunct professor of leadership at INSEAD. “Not being a collaborator and treating one’s career as if it were a solo enterprise does not work.”

2. You are focusing on the positives

Investment banks tend to subject their employees to 360° appraisals. This means that the bank will have a given set of competencies and deficiencies on which they judge their potential leaders.

Scoring badly on the positives is not the main issue, according to research by executive search firm Korn Ferry. Instead, it’s all about not scoring too highly on the negatives. Korn Ferry suggests that these include “failure to staff effectively, being non-strategic, or over-dependence on a single skill”.

3. You have backed the wrong horse

Investment banks can be political places to work. Mentors are important, and so are advocates throughout the organisation, but you cannot pin your hopes on a few key people. Management teams in investment banks get reshuffled all the time, and very often it’s the key lieutenant of senior people who follow quickly out of the door. Think Colin Fan, co-head of Deutsche Bank’s investment bank who departed shortly after co-CEO Anshu Jain departed last year. Or the fallout from Barclays after CEO Bob Diamond resigned in 2012. The key is to have a network within the bank, not to pin your hopes on a single individual or fiefdom.

“The predominant reason for failure in investment banking is not having the right relationships across a broad enough network of people within the organization,” says Chris Roebuck, the former head of HR at UBS investment bank and now visiting professor of leadership at Cass Business School.

4. You are learning the wrong lessons

Banks are notoriously bad at fostering leadership capabilities. Very often, it’s the top performers who are promoted to leadership roles, based more on their revenue-generating abilities than their capacity for leading teams of people. Once they reach a certain level, these problem derails their career progression.

“Leadership requires vision, ability to create strategy and implement it, and have ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” says Ward. “There is no secret sauce for this. Investment banks typically do not invest heavily in their people. So leaders need to learn on-the-job. That can prove fatal.”

5. You take, but never give

If you want to know how investment banks are viewing their future leaders currently, consider this – in 2014, Goldman Sachs employed the services of Adam Grant to make working conditions better for its juniors. Grant is the author of Give and Take, which argues that those who look after the interests of others gain over the long-term.

“Investment banks have historically fostered a culture which favours the individual. If you do one over another person, you can benefit, get a bigger bonus and progress,” says Roebuck. “The problem with that is that once you’ve done it once or twice, people get wise. You get a reputation for being a taker. You need to give as well or you will never truly move up.”

6. You are simply lacking in personality

As intangible as it seems one of the biggest areas where people fall down inadvertently is simply by having the wrong personality traits. Skills can be developed, traits are seen to be hard-wired.

Can you fake it? Maybe not. Korn Ferry suggests that being considered “volatile” or “closed” are among the worst because this makes you unsympathetic to others’ views and resistant to change. These two may seem obvious, but there are more.

“Traits such as trust or optimism seem positive on the surface, but too much of these traits may make leaders excessively hands-off,” said Steve Newhall, managing partner of Korn Ferry Leadership and Talent Consultancy, UK.

7. You are lacking the necessary openness

To manage people in investment banking is to straddle a huge range of cultures. To be able to thrive, you must be able to accommodate and empathise with a broad demographic. This requires “level-headedness, discipline, street smarts, intellect and the capacity to build teams”, says Ward.

“Investment banking is now global business and the ability to connect with people from different cultures is vitally important,” he says.  “Moreover, Generation Z have a different set of desires and values in terms of the working environment. A sensitivity to that is also vital.”

“I recommend leveraging your lunchtime,” says Roebuck. “So many bankers are in mini-fiefdoms, but speaking to people in other departments allows you to develop relationships and find out what issues they have and how you might be able to help them.”

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