There’s a tired post-crisis joke that everyone talks about work too much at dinner parties, except investment bankers who pretend that they’re teachers, then change the subject. Most people have an ‘identity’ associated with their jobs, but investment bankers make an effort to minimalise their personality in order to progress their careers.
At least that’s the theory of a new study called ‘Money Matters; Teflonic Identity Manoeuvring in the Investment Banking Sector’ by Maxine Robertson at Queen Mary University in London and Mats Alvesson from Lund University, Sweden.
They interviewed several senior investment bankers in the UK over a number of years on their career history, challenges and issues of identity. The results showed how your personality is shaped – or eroded – by working in investment banking and just how tumultuous a career in the sector is.
Looking after number one
For a start, all the investment bankers interviewed lacked any sort of loyalty or empathy towards their employers. Banks are constantly talking about developing an internal culture, but being able to ‘fit’ into the organisation was less about identifying with their employer and more about “opportunities to take risk and make more money”, suggested the study.
“Being loyal to the bank would be a stupid thing. Being loyal to your colleagues is fine. Being loyal to the bank is something you learn not to be,” said John, an investment banker with 20 years’ experience.
The life of an investment banker is both transitory and focused on the individual. These bankers regarded themselves as ‘survivors’ constantly looking for career moves that would benefit only themselves. John, for instance, moved from corporate finance to equity capital markets. It didn’t work out, and he moved on.
“It didn’t do anything for my career, not really. I suppose it was interesting in terms of the product but there was nothing personally for me in terms of gains. It allowed me to pitch the crap offer, from a crap bank in a crowded market, but I had to move on,” he said. Not exactly living the culture.
Moreover, while investment bankers look out for themselves in their career, they do not have what the research terms a ‘positive sense of self’. This doesn’t mean that they hate themselves, but that they simply remain unfazed and unemotional about the whole experience – none of the interviewees were ever “upset, happy, humiliated, perturbed”.
‘Lee’, for example, said that he’d become used to his boss’s ‘dark side’ and doesn’t get upset when he ‘explodes’: “I don’t care, what can I do? And he’s unpredictable when he explodes. It doesn’t faze me. I am kind of used to it now and it just washes over me. I’ve developed a lot thicker skin and that comes in part from dealing with clients. I just see it as my job and don’t take anything personally.”
The right dress code
If investment bankers indulge in ‘identity minimalism’, one thing that does define the men in the industry is dress code. The rules are ‘precise’, but if you’re long in the tooth then you comply without even thinking.
John explained the rules for dressing in a hot climate: “And if you take your tie off, and you are wearing a suit with no tie, you still have to be absolutely… you still have to have the right shirt, the right suit, definitely the right shoes.”
This means the right sort of designer clothing and the right sort of ‘adornments’ that imply wealth – an expensive watch, cufflinks etc – especially when dealing with clients. Women are bound by similar rules – expensive suits that are the ‘boring options’ from a fashion point of view.
“I have what I call my ‘sell me your company suit’. It was a ridiculously expensive suit. It’s a Joseph suit and it would be seen as a kind of… well, a really high maintenance, wealthy woman kind of suit,” said Charlotte.
This dress code extends even to interns, but it must be coupled with the right ‘demeanour’ – namely, you must combine expensive clothing with the right grooming.
Charlotte said of one intern: “He had quite a lot of internships and really good experience, but now I know why he hasn’t got a permanent job. He kind of slobs around on the trading floor, he is one of those guys that can make a really expensive, sharp, nice suit looks scruffy and old. It’s all part of the wrap, it’s the kind of veneer we deal with in this business.”
Finally, the study touched upon the sort of behaviour expected of investment bankers and, in a world where clients are king, professionalism at all times is required.
Clients, suggested the study, can indulge in boorish behaviour, but a good investment banker needs to be impassive and detached at all times. Women were routinely subject to sexual advances from clients, but dealt with it “with a sense of humour, some cynicism and indifference”.
Being ‘professional’ as a investment banker involves doing anything to get the deal over the line, being “free of values and opinions” and ensuring that you repress your “personal idiosyncrasies”.
So, what’s the trade off? You do what it takes to get to the top, make the money and then head off into the sunset at some point in the future.
Lee said: “A close friend of mine has just bought a chicken ranch in New Zealand so he can take his wife and two small boys out there. And me and my colleagues were talking about this, saying, yeah, one day I’m going to do something like that… The job demands that you give up your youth, but on the other hand it gives you a lot of money to set yourself up, pay the mortgage, pay for school fees, not really have to worry about money again.”