So you are currently working in a back office role, but you want to make the move to the front office? Perhaps you’re looking for a new challenge? Or maybe you always wanted to work in the front office, but the opportunity never presented itself? And let’s face it, the superior compensation just might be a factor.
“Mission Rather Difficult”?
In investment banking, a transition from support staff to deal-maker flies in the face of the natural order. Who are you to question the laws of nature in the finance ecosystem? But anyone who truly has what it takes – the intellect, drive and, importantly, perseverance – to thrive in a front office role should have what it takes to make the move.
Before you set out on what is likely to be a long journey, you need to acknowledge some of the practical realities of your situation.
First, banks aren't really interested in internal movers. They want to recruit 100% of all their interns, analysts and associates (front or back office) into large classes on an annual cycle. Why? They do it because that is the easiest way to get a large number of bodies through the door with the least hassle and at the lowest cost. A certain percentage are expected to fail or quit not long after the start date, but when everyone has been evaluated, hired and trained in exactly the same way, hopefully enough capable resources will remain.
When you try to move from the back office to a front office role, you are throwing this entire process out of balance. You have to be evaluated separately. Anything outside of the mould takes more time and effort on the part of the recruiters. To make it worth their while, you need to stand out… really stand out.
What else is against you?
Well, you’re probably older. How will your peers and managers (who may be younger than you) feel about that? How do they know that you aren’t going to feel entitled to special treatment because of your prior work experience? Will you be looking for an early promotion in a year or two to get you “on track”? Can someone from the back office actually thrive in the front office? After all, if you were capable, why didn’t you start your career in the front office? Why should anyone take a risk on you now?
Be prepared for these questions which, if you’re not ready with a counterpoint, will become insurmountable hurdles to your progress.
Undeterred? Good! Then you are ready. Maybe.
Almost no one fresh out of university truly appreciates what an investment banker does from day to day. Reading Liar’s Poker may be helpful, but this and other guides provide only the vaguest of sketches.
But recent graduates can get away with this. Banks recruit those with top academics from top universities with the assumption that they’ll “figure it out when they get here.”
However, as an ‘experienced hire’, you will not be afforded such luxuries. Particularly if you have been working in the back office for any length of time, you must absolutely be able to articulate what an investment banker does.
More importantly, you must be able to explain why you want to be in the front office. If you cannot answer that question for yourself, consider it a huge red flag that should not be ignored. It would be bad enough to get a call from your manager after a month to hear, “Things just aren’t working out.” But even worse is having to tell yourself, “I’ve made a horrible mistake.”
It has been said a million times, but it’s simply true - networking is crucial. Having open dialogue with a larger number of people increases your chances of finding an opportunity to make your move.
But networking can also blow up in your face.
Hopefully this comes as no surprise, but most people will know if you are being insincere in seconds. If you’re scheduling coffee breaks with everyone in the bank, desperately hoping to find the one person you can use to make your move, then you will fail.
Be sincere. Be authentic. Cultivate a smaller number of quality relationships rather than aiming for quantity. Hopefully you connect with someone influential who, over time, recognizes your unique abilities and drive, and who takes a personal interest in your career.
If a recruiter thinks of you as little more than extra time and effort, how do you stand a chance, even if an opportunity arises?
First off, you have to be at least as good as everyone else. So what if you have a degree in Finance? So do 1,738 other recently graduated applicants on file who probably remember the material better than you at this point. If your academic credentials are in question, you need to fill any gaps before you take another step.
But what if while you were working in the back office, you earned your CFA charter and completed a month long intensive course in financial modeling? Now that is something worth highlighting. And perhaps your time in the back office has left you intimately familiar with all of the firm’s systems and tools. Being able to start with that knowledge rather than slowly coming up the curve during your first few months is worth more than you might expect.
Beggars can’t be choosers…
Maybe you want to be a Media Analyst working from the headquarters office, and you would like a start date of mid-January so it doesn’t affect your holiday plans. That’s never going to fly.
If you truly want to make the transition, you must be flexible. If an additional 30 minutes to your commute is enough for you to say “no” to a role, then you need to reexamine how badly you want to make the switch. Don’t build your own obstacles.
Being flexible includes more than just location and start date. The path from the back office to the front is rarely a straight one. Are you willing to start again as a first year analyst, shedding your current title and, quite possibly, your salary in exchange for future upside? It’s an important consideration – one that is too often overlooked in the decision making process. And no one can answer this question for you.
Even if you are extremely well-qualified, well-connected, and flexible, the move to the front office will not occur overnight. There may be many steps between where you currently sit and what you now believe is your dream job. But as you continue along your path, keep an open mind. Along the way, you may find yourself in a role that you had never imagined – a role that suits you perfectly. Do not get lost in the chase only to find that you passed on something even better along the way.
Mark Franczyk is a former investment banker who successfully transitioned from a back office role in Risk Management to the front office. Over his ten-year career, he worked in Credit, Industry Coverage and Equity Capital Markets. After becoming a vice president, he decided to leave Financial Services, attended culinary school and became a pastry chef in New York City.