You’ve heard about imposter syndrome and how to overcome it, and career advice housed in catch phrases like “fake it till you make it,” but some truisms are easier said than done. For example, if you act like a leader, then you’ll be treated like a leader – it sounds simple, but it can be difficult to embody, especially if you haven’t had much experience actually leading a team.
So says Alison Mass, the global head of the Financial and Strategic Investors Group (FSIG) in the investment banking division at Goldman Sachs, which finished first among respondents in the U.S. in the eFinancialCareers Ideal Employer rankings for the second year in a row. She came to that realization years ago during a phone conversation with Henry Kravis, the legendary and somewhat intimidating co-founder of private equity giant KKR.
“It was with trepidation that I called Henry, but what I realized was that he did want to talk to me and he did want to hear what I had to say,” she said during an interview. “I had spent years up until that moment questioning my ability to be perceived as the senior person, but what I learned was that if you act like a senior person, you’ll be treated like a senior person; if you act like a leader, you’ll be treated like a leader. That was a major career turning point.”
Mass manages and oversees a group of about 40 investment bankers globally that are focused on covering the firm’s traditional and non-traditional private equity clients. She also maintains client coverage of ten or more key accounts. In addition, she is a member of the IBD Operating Committee, IBD Executive Committee and is a former member of the Partnership Committee. Previously, Alison served as co-head of FSIG in the Americas from 2003 to 2015 after joining Goldman as a partner in 2001.
Prior to joining the firm, Mass worked at Merrill Lynch from for more than a decade, holding several senior management positions in the securities group and investment banking division. Before that, she worked alongside Michael Milken, a.k.a. “the Junk Bond King,” at Drexel Burnham Lambert.
The following are Mass’s thoughts on her career, Goldman’s culture and how she’s overcome various challenges as she’s risen through the ranks in the banking industry.
What were some of your most important career turning points?
My biggest career turning point occurred when Drexel Burnham Lambert went bankrupt in 1990. I had spent my entire career up to that point at Drexel but was suddenly thrust into a new environment at a new firm, Merrill Lynch.
Early on in my time there, the head of banking asked me to call Henry Kravis directly about a business issue. At Drexel, even though I had been a senior banker, I had always worked under Leon Black [who later founded the private equity firm Apollo Global Management] and had never had to step up and make that senior-level call. So it was with trepidation that I called Henry, but what I realized was that he did want to talk to me and he did want to hear what I had to say. I had spent years up until that moment questioning my ability to be perceived as the senior person, but what I learned was that if you act like a senior person, you’ll be treated like a senior person; if you act like a leader, you’ll be treated like a leader. That was a major career turning point.
How did you make the transition from business school to banking?
I come from a family of engineers so that’s in my DNA, but I knew I wanted to be in business. I was an accounting and management double major at NYU Stern, and I interviewed for both accounting and banking positions. I ultimately chose banking because it seemed like a more dynamic industry that could lead in many different directions.
Why did you decide to make the switch from Merrill Lynch to Goldman in 2001?
By 2001, I had been competing against and co-managing business with Goldman for almost 20 years, resulting in numerous relationships with people here. Goldman was – and still is – the gold standard for banking, so when the time was right for both me and the firm, I had to make the switch.
What’s been the biggest challenge in your career?
The most challenging years in my career were my VP years. Becoming a VP requires a newfound comfort with delegation in order to be successful. You have more responsibility for the work but you need to be more hands-off. You also need to spend significant time mentoring and teaching analysts and associates so they can learn the business and you can focus more on your clients.
As a senior banker, I’ve faced other challenges – learning to lose with grace, dealing with difficult clients and managing conflicts – but my VP years were definitely the most challenging.
What are some lessons you’ve learned over the years?
There are a few key lessons that I have learned as my career has developed over the years. The first is that you need to find a career you truly love. In my experience, the people who are most successful in their careers, and in their lives, are ones who have a passion for what they do. And I can honestly say that I love my work, and I continue to be excited to go to the office every day.
My second piece of advice is to invest in relationships with people. Every opportunity I’ve ever had at work came from an investment I made in a relationship with someone. I’ve also learned that people want to do business with people they like and people they trust, so it is crucial from a commercial perspective to get to know clients personally and maintain those relationships, even when you are not actively engaged in a transaction.
Finally, be prepared for anything. A career is not a straight ladder you climb up – it is more like a jungle gym. In order to get to the top of it, you don’t necessarily get there going straight up. Throughout your career, you will have plenty of ups and downs – the key is to not let the downs define or defeat you.
What do you look for in new hires?
At Goldman we have restructured our investment banking summer internship interview process. Our new interview method, including questions meant to predict how candidates might react to certain situations, is intended to assess the same characteristics and competencies across candidates, with focuses on teamwork, integrity, judgement and communication.
However, if I was having an informal conversation with a potential candidate or interviewing someone for our experienced hire process, here is one of the questions that I like to ask: “We need all types to make Goldman fire on all cylinders. Some people are more analytical and love modeling while others are more relationship-focused. We all work in our careers to be more in the middle of the spectrum. Where do you see yourself on the spectrum between analytical and relationship-focused and what do you prefer to do? As I said, we need all types so there is not one right answer.”
What do you do to retain the most talented people?
As I mentioned, investing in relationships is crucial. I personally invest in the people who work for me and I am genuinely interested in what they are interested in.
I also make sure my employees feel like their voices are heard. I am very communicative with our senior leadership team and involved in important decisions that happen with our group globally. I believe a sense of inclusion makes people feel valued.