Most analyst and associate classes at investment banks get filled through internship programs and campus visits. The problem for many hopeful bankers is that the Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgans of the world don’t visit every university campus. In fact, they tend to only target a short list of top schools.
So what do you do if you didn’t attend a Harvard, Wharton, NYU Stern or London Business School? You try to set up as many informational interviews as you can. And for candidates at top schools or with exceptional academic profiles, informational interviews can help develop relationships before the official on-campus recruiting process begins.
Traditionally, informational interviews are networking sessions with people already working in banking who aren’t necessarily in a hiring capacity. While they often don’t directly lead to job offers, they are critical in getting your foot in the door and eventually helping you secure an interview or a recommendation. Really what you are doing is talking to someone who may know someone else who can get you a job. But you can’t just go ahead and ask them directly. The point is to learn from them, gain their respect and try to leverage that relationship at a later point.
Build your list
The first thing you’ll need to do is create a list of contacts at banks, especially people working in divisions where you’d like to work. The best way is through your alumni association. Even if you don’t attend a top school, surely a handful of graduates are working on Wall Street or have contacts there. In fact, people who attended schools with few alumni in banking tend to be more helpful, as they were in your exact position at some point and don’t get asked as much.
Other options include contacting family and using their connections in the banking industry. You can even contact someone who you share some type of connection with through LinkedIn or other social media platforms. Banking jobs require people to be aggressive, particularly those in the front office. While you’re likely to get nowhere in a lot of situations, you will get a response more often than you may think. Again, they were in your seat once too.
After receiving a yes, let the interviewer run point on picking the time and spot and try to be as flexible as possible. Remember, they are doing you the favor. Always push for an in-person interview rather than a phone call.
Do your homework
Do your research beforehand. Take a look at the social media profiles of the person you’ll be meeting with so you know how long they’ve been with the firm and a few other facts about who you’ll be speaking to.
As with formal interviews, you’ll want to do as much research on the person as possible to help build a connection and ask the right questions. Find out where they went to school (if you are not a fellow alumnus), dig into their division, research recent deals they’ve worked on and any other details you can find.
Also, research the firm, including what their most recent transactions and deals have been, which industries they work in and which silos within those industries they target. Don’t just say it’s a healthcare-oriented role, ask whether they target pharma companies or any particular sub-segment.
“If you mention that in the interview, they know you’ve done your research, you’re interested in the position and you can highlight your most relevant experience you have for this particular role,” said Brianne Toole, principal consultant on the investment banking team, Americas, at Selby Jennings.
After some initial niceties, you’ll want to spend the rest of the time asking questions, and then responding to their answers in ways that reveal your understanding of and interest in the industry and company.
Believe it or not, they should be doing more of the talking, as the purpose – or veiled purpose – is for you to be learning from them. That said, be direct about what you are looking for (that is, the specific role, desk, group, division or firm you have in mind) so you don't waste their time or your own. Bring a resume, but don’t offer it unless they ask for a copy. Do not try to make this a formal job interview unless they take it that direction.
Be happy to be there. Look at is an opportunity to get your foot in the door of a competitive industry.
“It’s really important to demonstrate enthusiasm,” Toole said. “People might slip up if they don’t take it seriously or don’t come across as being enthused about the job.”
Some candidates are so focused on selling themselves to the hiring manager or banker that they don’t appreciate the fact that this person, even if it's a rank-and-file investment banker, is the gatekeeper. He or she is assessing not only whether you’re right for the job, but also whether you’re right for the organization and worthy of a referral.
“If you don’t come across as enthusiastic and prepared, you might not get a chance to talk to any of the hiring managers or senior bankers at all,” Toole said.
It sounds basic, but the truth is, people want to work with people who they like.
Ask the right questions
One of the big keys to informational interviews is to make the questions personal. Make the interview about them. Most bankers love to hear themselves speak. Inquire about their career progression, what it was like working for a particular CEO, their personal involvement in deals and their opinion on topical industry news. When they are done chewing the fat and selling themselves, let them sell their bank.
Here’s a selection of questions that MBAs from Stern suggest, depending on the situation:
- What are the organization’s personality and management style?
- How is the industry changing? How does your organization plan to adapt to those changes?
- How does the company differ from its competitors?
- What is the corporate culture?
- How are project teams organized?
- What kind of mobility opportunities exist within the company?
- What part of the job do you find most challenging?
And at the end, steer the questions back to you. Here are some examples:
- What educational preparation would you recommend for someone who wants to advance in this field?
- What qualifications does your company seek in a new hire?
- How do most people enter this profession?
- Do you have any feedback after reviewing my resume (if they did)?
- Taking into account my skills, education, and experience, what other career paths would you suggest I explore before making a final decision?
At the conclusion, thank them for their time and allow them the opportunity to provide any next steps. If they don’t, ask if you can stay in touch and keep them updated on your progress.
Always send a thank-you email. Be sure to follow up, especially if you’ve been connected through a recruiter.
“Send the recruiter and whoever you met with [at the prospective employer] a thank-you note, saying 'I really enjoyed speaking with you, I think I’d be great for this position because' such and such,” Toole said. “That will show you want to move forward in the process.”
If they provide you with any contacts, keep them apprised of how the meetings went and thank them again for the referral. If nothing concrete comes out of the meeting, keep the relationship active by forwarding them an article or blog that would pique their interest.
Then wash, rinse and repeat with as many people as you can, particularly if you don’t attend a target school and won’t have the opportunity for guaranteed interviews or campus visits.