If you make it to an interview at a top investment bank in the next two months, you can expect to be asked questions. A superabundance of questions. But only one will really matter: what makes you better than the people that bank employs already?
"Banks are already interviewing for positions they want to fill next year," says Michael Karp, chief executive officer of search firm Options Group, "But most of their interviewing is for upgrades, not for headcount increases."
Upgrades means what it says: you'll need to be an improvement on the existing model. Most banks have headcount freezes; when someone comes in, someone goes out, and the incomer needs to be an improvement on what they've got already.
Banks can only engage in upgrades, however, when they've established how current staff compare to what might be on offer elsewhere. For this they need to do some benchmarking. And the best way to benchmark a market is to scrutinize a random sample. Hence the interviews - they're as much about establishing whether a bank's current staff are any good as whether interviewees are actually worth hiring.
"There's a lot of benchmarking activity happening at the moment," says Russell Clarke of Figtree Search. "All the banks are trying to secure the top 20% of talent and a lot of effort is going into working out what that looks like, where it's located and how to entice it away."
While the top 20% of finance professionals are in what Clarke describes as a "buyers' market", the remaining 80% are stuck attending endless interviews as banks try to gauge what the top talent looks like. There's interview fatigue setting in, says Christian Robbins at search firm Alpha Tradestone. Candidates are becoming wise to the "benchmarking interview," he adds: "They understand the importance of attending interviews and building relationships but they also understand that there are so few opportunities out there that it's worth asking directly whether the person interviewing you has an actual role to fill."
And if a bank insists it does have a role to fill? If you want to prove you're better than current staff, you'll need to very clearly articulate what you do and how you do it, says Clarke. "It's all about how, exactly, you make revenues on your current platform and whether that will translate to the firm interviewing you."
The problem is that even if you're exceptional where you are, you may not be able to replicate such exceptionalism somewhere else. Front office bankers today are increasingly dependent upon internal systems, capital availability, and the broad 'franchise' of the firm they work for. Because of this, a bank's existing staff - who know the environment already - will have an advantage over outsiders. The real question you must answer therefore is not just whether you're better than existing staff, but whether you'll still be better than existing staff when deposited in the interviewing bank's ecosystem. This is far harder to answer convincingly, but it's the only way you'll find a new job for 2017.