Investment banking isn’t for everyone, particularly not for the long haul. The role is extremely demanding, plus it changes somewhat dramatically when you reach the senior ranks. Junior bankers who grind over spreadsheets and pitchbooks all day will eventually need to become client-facing revenue generators if they want to make a career out of it.
It therefore takes a certain kind of person to get, and remain, in the senior ranks. These are the habits you’ll need to succeed in the industry over the long term, according to current and former senior investment bankers.
Successful investment bankers are thick-skinned and egotistical
Once you make it to managing director, the pressure increases exponentially. Clients will be demanding, managers will be unreasonable and job security will always be shaky. An earlier study found that post-crisis investment bankers regard themselves as “survivors” who feel they have to put their own needs ahead of the bank. Researchers also discovered that emotions and investment banking don't mix particularly well. Most of the interviewees never found themselves “upset, happy, humiliated [or] perturbed,” even during tough times. Having the stomach to ride the roller coaster over and over again appears to be a prerequisite for the job.
Successful investment bankers are great salespeople
At the end of the day, most investment banks provide the same set of services. “It’s as much about selling yourself as it is selling the bank,” said one former Barclays MD. “Being likable is probably the most underrated part of the job.”
Those who aren’t able to build personal relationships or who wilt under the pressure of needing to constantly refill a pipeline of potential business aren’t cut out for being dealmakers. “Managing directors in investment banking last around 18 months,” Randall Dillard, the former head of investment banking at Nomura once told a room of students. “Most people simply cannot handle the amounts of revenue they are expected to generate year after year.”
Successful investment bankers mix work with pleasure
While senior bankers are under more scrutiny over how they can entertain clients, wining and dining executives is still a big part of the job. "Top investment bankers socialize at weekends with clients, they go to sporting events and they hang out with clients' families,” says Ziad Awad, a former Goldman Sachs and Bank of America Merrill Lynch managing director who now runs boutique bank Awad Capital. “This is something I've experienced on a regular basis.”
And if you don’t get any personal enjoyment from the entertaining clients, that’s also a problem. “A great deal of your social life will be spent with clients,” said the Barclays MD. “If you can’t have fun and enjoy the perks, it’s a hard job to do for 20 years.”
Successful investment bankers are risk-takers
Investment banking career paths are not always linear. They are not based in one location and they rarely stay in one sector. Take the opportunities as they arise, says Graham Ward, the former head of equities at Goldman Sachs and now adjunct professor of leadership at INSEAD.
"Sometimes as in war, your masterplan is ripped up on first contact. If opportunity knocks it rarely does so twice," he says. "The flexible and open-minded tend to be long-term winners. If you are offered a promotion but it is in Tokyo for two years, take it. The worst thing that will happen is you will learn something about yourself."
Successful investment bankers strategically avoid burning out
The hours are, of course, long in investment banking. What little time off you have should be used wisely. This is not always obvious chill-out time. "I know a lot of bankers who do competitive cycling or run ultra-marathons," says Awad. "I sail competitively and admit that I bring my competitive attitude to work to my hobby. But you need something to stop the demotivation or burnout when you're putting in the hours or getting up at 4am to catch an early flight for another business trip. Male bankers become obsessed with fitness when they hit 40."
Successful investment bankers are ruthless
If you want to be one of the people who climbs up the career ladder, you have to accept that there will be many who will fall by the wayside and need to focus on your own goals, says Ward.
"It is a competitive marathon and you pass a lot of corpses along the way. So having your eye on the horizon and having a strategic game plan is essential," he said.
Successful investment bankers are impeccably dressed
This sounds trite, but the one thing in the study investment bankers did care about was that they wore the right (expensive) clothing and knew how to dress at all times. “If you dress like s**t, you’ll likely never end up getting [to the senior ranks] anyway,” said the Barclays MD.