If you want to impress Guy Hands, the founder and chairman of private equity firm Terra Firma, don’t mention your academic prowess.
Hands, who has severe dyslexia and dyspraxia and “couldn’t copy from a blackboard or pronounce words properly”, scraped into Oxford University despite only getting an A and an E in Economics and Physics at A-level, largely thanks to his school-time business ventures rather than his academic achievements.
He then got a third class degree – again, principally because he spent a huge amount of time running an art gallery and art supplies business at Oxford. Hands ended up graduating with a £40k debt (about £128k in today’s money) because the said art gallery started crumbling and required substantial repairs.
“My careers advisor at Oxford advised me to declare bankruptcy and get a job where this would not be a disqualification, which would have effectively excluded professions such as banking. Instead, I asked him to tell me the highest-paying graduate job that would help me to pay off my debt,” he told the London School of Economics Alternative Investments Conference.
That job was at Goldman Sachs, which paid £13k plus a big bonus in 1982. Hands said all the other graduate recruits were “blue boys, head prefects”, but his qualifications were “clean driving license”, “no foreign languages” and “I own an art gallery”.
“I was flown out to New York, which I was convinced was some sort of experiment. I was asked that since I had a clean driving licence, could I drive a truck,” he said.
Despite all this, Hands says he was the first graduate recruit in Goldman’s London trading team and managed to move up to head of Eurobond trading by the time he was 26.
This is how you should go about impressing Hands.
Actually, don’t prepare. Just be prepared for the unexpected. “People who are bright are good at preparing for tasks, and an interview is a task. They tell you want you want to hear about being a team player etc,” he said.
So, what should you expect? “I throw in a question completely off the chart – I usually ask what the perfect murder would look like.”
Here’s some classic interview advice – when you’re asked to describe your weaknesses, turn it around as a cleverly disguised strength. When you’re asked for an occasion when you failed, deliver a great story about all of your ‘learnings’. Hands wants to see some honesty.
“One question I ask is an example of how they have failed in life, and most people come up with a wonderful demonstration of how good they are at something. I want to know when something really went wrong for them. One person burst into tears – I’m much more likely to hire someone who did this than someone who gave a pat answer.”
Private equity firms usually hire the elite. This means graduates from top universities with top grades and the necessary extra-curricular activities to make yourself seem interesting. Or, it means the top-ranked investment bank analysts who have clawed their way to the top of a competitive group. The problem is, this gives you the (false) impression that you’ve already made it.
“I’m not looking for what they already know; what’s most interesting to me is how they think,” he said. “The best young people who join Terra Firma are rarely the ones who are keen to show us how much knowledge they have acquired about private equity or a particular industry. Rather, it’s those who show the most willingness to learn and to adapt.”
Hands says that for the 25 years leading up to the 2007 financial crisis, there was a “consistent story” in financial services and that implied seemingly endless growth. The perfect personality at the time was “macho, and I hate to use the term, but it was used at the time – a big-swinging dick”.
“The world has changed, we need people who have humility,” he said. “At Goldman, we had a test which tested self-motivation and self-reliance and the top score was 18. A guy we nicknamed Jaws scored 18 and excelled there. But Jaws wouldn’t survive today, because he didn’t give a damn about anyone else.”
“As a graduate, you go from being top of your class to starting from scratch. You’ll attend meetings; scribble notes; write up minutes; and try to participate in discussions without having any real idea about what’s going on. If you try to be 100% right all of the time, you won’t get anything done,” he added.
If academics don’t impress Guy Hands, what does? Getting along with people.
“Success in business is not an intellectual process,” he said. “You have to bring people along with you on an emotional level, especially today, given how people’s means of communication have changed. E-mail, Facebook and Twitter have changed the way people communicate ideas – people want you to simplify your argument down to a level they understand instantly.”
It’s not just the people of the UK who are seemingly tired of ‘experts’.
“The experts got everything wrong last year. Not only did they fail to predict which way the votes would go, they misjudged their effects on the markets. The experts all learned in the same way you have; they all have doctorates and master’s degrees like you. But they couldn’t use their intelligence, knowledge and learning to reach the right conclusion,” he said.