Goldman Sachs is like a 1970s Weeble: despite the occasional wobble, it always bobs back up again. Nine years after the financial crisis, five years after the scandal surrounding the Abacus deal, and a year after Goldman paid $5bn to resolve a U.S. government settlement into its sale of mortgage bonds, it's the most desirable place to work in the UK among finance professionals.
Goldman's allure undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that transgressions relating to the financial crisis were long enough ago and so commonplace that they don't really count. Just ask Deutsche Bank, which agreed a $7.2bn settlement with the U.S. government in December 2016, or Barclays' - whose settlement is still outstanding. But there's more to its appeal than candidates' willingness to overlook its blemishes. Goldman comes with a mystique which CEO Lloyd Blankfein said encouraged 130,000 people to apply for 5,000 internships in 2016. Like it or not, Goldman Sachs seems kind of special. We asked Helen Ouseley, Goldman's COO of talent acquisition in EMEA to help us understand why.
"The answer I hear most frequently from people explaining why they've applied to us is that it's about the quality of the people at Goldman Sachs and the quality of the work here," says Ouseley. "People who've worked for Goldman highlight the fact that they're been given an opportunity to have a real experience from the internship onwards and that they've made a real impact on the team they work in."
While there are complaints from junior hires at other banks that some of the work can be inherently uninteresting, Ouseley says Goldman does its best to ensure its people are always learning and being challenged: "The quality of our people and our strong client base means you are pushed to do the best you can."
Despite being a public company since 1999, Goldman Sachs is still known internally as "the firm" - a throwback to its partnership days. Those days have also bequeathed a notoriously collusive culture. "Goldman Sachs is a very collaborative environment," says Ouseley. "You don't make a big decision independently here: we always involve others and seek consensus on the best approach." Sometimes this can be exhausting - like when you have to go through 20 rounds of interviews with Goldman staff before they can agree on hiring you, but Ouseley says it's an important differentiator. "You're involving other people and using teamwork to make sure you're making the best decision you possibly can."
Goldman is also alert to the changing needs of its workforce. Although Ouseley says she's not personally a big believer in generational groupings like Millennials and Gen Z ("Everyone is different and these definitions are so broad that they don't fully reflect the diversity in each generation,"), Goldman has done its best to adapt to changing expectations. "We evolve and flex our model to the external environment and to clients' needs," says Ouseley, "But we've also recognised that people want to work flexibly and have increased the opportunities for them to do so."
This flexibility is partly manifested in new technology that allows people to work remotely and from multiple locations. Senior Goldman executives have a reputation for communicating with staff through old-fashioned voicemail, but Ouseley says Symphony - the instant messaging start-up backed by Goldman, is now used for most internal communication and allows people to interact differently. "Yesterday, the head of our division [human capital management], hosted an internal chat forum in which people could ask her questions. It was live and interactive."
This doesn't mean a job at the firm is right for everyone. 20% of people working for Goldman Sachs today are technologists ("engineers") and Goldman is going all out to attract STEM students who might otherwise aspire to work for the likes of Google and Facebook. In this, it's succeeding: Goldman ranked ahead of tech companies as a desirable place to work in our survey. Nonetheless, Ouseley says technologists who apply to Goldman need to come with their eyes open: "Goldman's culture isn't the same as a Facebook or a Google. We have hired some really expert people into technology to solve complex problems and progress our business, but we're a financial services firm rather than a tech firm in the purest sense. If you work for us, you'll be working on some very important technologies in a financial services environment, so an interest in our industry is a plus."
It's a testimony to the strength of Goldman's brand, that Ouseley says people who aspire to join should stop and think first. - Is Goldman right for you? Why do you want to work there? If you're just applying because of the name, that's not good enough. If you're a student, you need to know what type of culture you want to work in, and which kinds of products you want to work with, says Ouseley. You also need to do your research. "People often apply to Goldman Sachs with preconceptions," Ouseley says. "They know we're an investment bank, but they don't know that we recruit into finance or operations, or internal audit, or that a large proportion of the people who work here are technologists. You need to find out where your skills match, and where you think you'll be most successful."