COMMENT: Actually, you can’t plan your banking career...so don’t even bother trying

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As an ex-banker, if I made a dollar off every email asking me for career advice, I’d make Jeff Bezos look poor. More often than not, however, I find most people asking for career advice are simply looking to assuage their professional insecurities, particularly with respect to making a ‘bad’ career decision.

The most critical mistakes young banking professionals make are thinking their first career choice (into M&A, for example) will be their last, and that they can carefully plan each step of their career from the outset. In a sector as fast-paced as banking, both assumptions are unlikely to work out. Just look at what happened to me in my career…

My working life has been nothing short of random (and hilarious). My first-ever job was at university, working in sales at a glamour photography studio – one of those places that used so many filters that customers ended up looking as ridiculous as today’s Instagram selfie addicts. To earn a bit of extra cash, I also worked the graveyard shift at a Sydney nightclub, cleaning up the vomit of patrons who had a penchant for one-too-many tequila shots.

Finding my first internship was just about as glamorous. After spending the best part of my teenage life institutionalised at an all-boys boarding school, university felt like unsupervised parole. I seldom attended class and my early grades were nothing to write home about (especially to my Chinese mother, for whom “A” stands for ‘average’). However, the companies I was applying to had strict academic cut-offs, and the internship application process felt like being on the receiving end of an interminable swipe-left session on Tinder.

Fortunately, after dozens of rejections, I finally landed a role at PwC as a tax consultant. While the company was great, the role was about as exciting as listening to Melania Trump speak about…well, just speak. It was 2005 and I saw many of my friends wander off to the greener pastures of investment banking to earn mega-bucks. I wanted in.

After some careful planning and lots of perseverance, I jumped ship to UBS in Sydney, working in corporate strategy and internal M&A. About 20 months in, I set sail for Hong Kong (my home town), escaping the joys of Australia’s 46.5% personal income tax rate, only to hand my newfound tax savings over to the landlord of my Hong Kong apartment (otherwise known as a coffin, just smaller and less comfortable). Rent aside, the move was great. But less than two years into the role, I was getting itchy feet (not tinea) and felt I needed a new challenge. I made a lateral move to work in UBS’s group client coverage team, dealing with its largest accounts in the region.

Of course, the career itch didn’t end there. From UBS, I went to Oliver Wyman, underpinned by a long-suppressed desire to prove my intellectual prowess on hundreds of PowerPoint slides in front of corporate boardrooms. At times it was hard – I was married to my laptop, flew more than a pilot, and my best friends ended up being the guest relations managers of every hotel I frequented. I didn’t care that they were paid to be friendly with me; I just enjoyed any human interaction beyond my Blackberry.

After enduring what was nothing short of a baptism of fire, I took a sabbatical to recharge. However, it wasn’t long before the lure of a big pay cheque and fancy corporate title had me clamouring back into banking. It was 2014, and I was now head of strategy for Deutsche Bank’s equities business in APAC. But the shine soon wore off, and just two years later, with somewhat of a disgruntled expression on my face (and far less hair on my head), I left to set up my own strategy consulting firm, Quinlan & Associates.

The point of my banking and consulting career story is twofold: (1) nothing succeeds as planned; and (2) it can take time to find out what you enjoy doing for work within the finance sector. Be thankful for what you learn in every job and take that knowledge with you into the next phase of your career. When you look back, you’ll be surprised how much you’ve learnt from the firms that you had once tried so hard to escape.

Benjamin Quinlan is a former UBS and Deutsche banker who is now CEO and managing partner at Quinlan & Associates in Hong Kong.

Image Credit: franckreporter, Getty

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