When I left investment banking after a decade in the industry, it was with a dance in my step and a song in my heart. Yes, I was happy to say goodbye. Over two years have passed and when I look back, it’s without even a hint of regret.
Starting a career in banking pushes you to your limits while building an essential set of skills, both technical and interpersonal. You’ll be at the top of your game throughout your career, wherever you end up.
Forget skills for a minute, let’s talk dollars. Fresh out of university and strapped with student loans and the new reality of independent living expenses, the unparalleled salary (and signing bonus) for new banking analysts and associates is more than a luxury. It's the fastest way to establish financial security – stability which can, in just a few short years, allow you to take more risks in your career. That tech start-up with the one-in-a-million chance of paying big might seem enticing right now, but it doesn’t pay the bills.
Few would count the work-filled weekends, sleepless nights and non-existent social life among positives. But after working 90+ hours a week, one thing is certain: it can only get better. That’s a rose-tinted view, but it’s true. Once you learn what total exhaustion feels like, anything short of physical collapse will seem like a holiday. To be fair, medical residents can also claim to understand theses demands. Fortunately, as a banker, if you make a mistake at 3am, no one’s life hangs in the balance (although your senior bankers will likely argue otherwise).
The only way you will enjoy any free time as a banker is if you make that free time - you learn to squeeze the most out of each hour. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to sit around for hours while senior bankers tend to business, only to receive new assignments at the end of a normal working day. No one is looking to provide you with the most efficient flow of assignments. And that makes time management critical.
When faced with an hour lag on some lucky afternoon, you learn to do whatever you can to make sure that, when the assignments finally do pour in (and they will all inevitably arrive at the exact same moment, each flagged as being intensely urgent) that nothing stands in your way. Even if that means stepping out for a hair cut or a shoe shine during a brief lull, you seize the opportunity.
In banking, when something is needed as-soon-as-possible, you’re already late. Being unresponsive means taking more than 10 minutes to respond to an email. When I left banking, it took me a long time to appreciate how this amped up sense of urgency is so rare. To the rest of the world, “As soon as possible” doesn’t mean “Immediately, if not sooner”. Returning with a response in two days may actually be “as soon as possible”. So if you leave banking, your new co-workers will likely be nothing short of stunned at your turn-around.
What does this even mean anymore? It’s a watered-down term that every interview candidate knows to mention among their strengths, but few actually possess it. To someone who has worked in banking, true attention to detail means endlessly updating footnotes, aligning company logos down to the pixel and triple checking model outputs before passing them to senior bankers. It’s gleefully discovering one mis-numbered page among 100 just moments before a pitch goes to print. It’s looking at a memo and noticing that one line of text is in size 10.5 font rather than size 10. A banker learns to see the forest, the trees and the tiny features of the bark. For better or for worse, it’s a skill that will never leave you.
Standing around at a recent wedding reception attended by many current and former bankers, someone asked what everyone thought of the ceremony. One desk-jockey replied, “There was inconsistent formatting on the bullets on the second page of the program!” That was honestly his first reaction. By a show of hands, everyone else in the group admitted they had noticed the same thing. I kept silent on the fact that the third page had a heading in an inconsistent font.
The call comes in at 8pm. It’s a request from a senior banker for talking points on a new deal that he will be presenting on an internal morning conference call with senior management. He also wants a summary of the debt, equity and M&A markets for the last quarter, just in case. And he also wants an updated run of an LBO model with new assumptions for a deal you thought had died last year. At the end of the call, he adds, “… but I won’t need it until 9:30am tomorrow morning…”, and as if adding a note of support, “so please don’t stay late!”.
Your head could explode, but by the 17th or 18th time this scenario plays out, you’ve developed a pretty thick skin. All of those long hours, well-intended time management, hyperactive sense urgency and required attention to detail ultimately sum up to some rather unrealistic expectations. Recognizing the absurdity of those demands and learning to cope are skills in and of themselves – perhaps the most difficult to master. For many people, myself included, it can be one of the key reasons for leaving the industry. And no matter where your career takes you and no matter how unreasonable people may be, you can always laugh and say, “Hey, at least it’s not banking!”
Deal-driven bankers aren’t typically recognized for their compassion and understanding. There’s growing evidence that many of the top rain-makers in the industry are borderline sociopaths. But that doesn’t mean that the vast majority of bankers are not decent, well-meaning individuals. Particularly as the philosophy across the industry shifts, no longer do those who grew up in the industry feel compelled to perpetuate the same cycle of misery. They know, first hand, that the job is stressful and demanding. And, shockingly, some even appreciate that there is life outside of the office. Hopefully that’s a philosophy you bring with you throughout your entire career, carried along with everything else you gained by starting your professional career in banking.
Mark Franczyk is a former investment banker of ten-years. After becoming a vice president, he finally decided to leave finance, attended culinary school and became a pastry chef in New York City.