It helps to be a political animal to work in investment banking. As much as firms like to present themselves as collegiate, team-centric organisations, the reality is that it’s a cut-throat business that requires both cunning and commitment. There’s a reason that investment bankers attend 2am conference calls when on vacation – someone would happily gain an advantage by being there in their place.
However, to assume that you need to be a back-stabbing Machiavellian to get ahead would be a mistake. Some behaviour can quickly spiral from competitive spirit into an HR issue, while some tactics to advance your career are just plain dumb.
Climbing the greasy career poll means impressing those who matter, right? Well, yes, but to do so while treating subordinates as mere tools to aid your advancement will do you no favours. “A lot of mid-managers in investment banking make this mistake,” said Andrew Pullman, founder of consultancy People Risk Solutions and a former head of HR at Dresdner Bank. “This is frustrating for the team, who usually go out of their way to undermine him and set him up to look like an idiot wherever possible.”
The ability to banter will get you ahead on the trading floor, and will be welcomed during the long nights in the investment banking division. Jokes usually found on a building site will, quite rightly, put a black mark against your name. Roy Cohen, a careers coach and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide, says that one investment banker he worked with ‘joked’ that a client was gay, which quickly became part of the rumour mill.
“He was not and he happened to be working in a very conservative environment that would have preferred not being presented with this information even if it was untrue,” he said. “My client was passed over for a major promotion that had all but been guaranteed.”
You spend the vast majority of your waking hours with these people, so why would you want to spend a minute more than you have to going for a drink with them? Because if you don’t, allegiances will be formed in your absence, relationships will solidify and you’ll be on the outside.
Bonding with your team is one thing, mooching in bars with the boss at any opportunity will not ingratiate you to your colleagues. “It may be viewed as nepotism or playing favourites. When it appears that you have a special relationship with a key decision maker, it is bound to make your colleagues jealous. Jealous colleagues will punish you,” said Cohen.
Telling someone a potentially damaging piece in information or gossip in a relatively informal situation ‘in confidence’ may seem harmless, but it rarely stays between the two you. This can be bad for your reputation, says Pullman: “Be careful what you say and who you say it to. Information may be safe with your best mate, but don’t develop a reputation for gossip.”
Undermining colleagues in a group environment and taking credit for the work of others will lose you respect of your peer group, and they’ll find a way of making you pay, said Cohen. “Wall Street is about survival of the fittest...the smartest, those who work harder than the rest, and those who deliver results. Being sneaky is considered bad form and is never tolerated. The group will ‘out’ you.”
As the string of emails published by regulators during various investigations into rate fixing scandals – from the infamous Barclays’ Bollinger big boy to Captain Chaos et all at UBS – demonstrates, emails can come back to haunt you. Investment banks are required to keep every electronic communication on record – how would you feel if it was made public? “I always advise to write emails as though you wouldn’t mind if they appeared on the front page of a newspaper,” said Pullman. “I’ve seen instances when some have gone viral outside the organisation, so the repercussions can be more immediately negative for your career.” The same principle applies for phone conversations.
You need mentors to get ahead in banking. As Cohen points out, without “advocates” in the firm to “achieve visibility and stand out and apart from your colleagues”. However, don’t gloat about your relationship or the green-eyed monster is likely to emerge in your peers.
“One of my clients, a ‘golden girl’ was viewed by a top male executive as an important junior person to mentor. There was absolutely nothing sexual about their relationship. Nevertheless, jealous colleagues spread rumours that the two were having an affair. And, as is often the case, as the junior person and as a female, she took the bullet,” he said.