"Why do you want to work for Goldman Sachs?" What to say based on Goldman's new documentary about itself

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Undergraduate finance clubs will be booking the media rooms and ordering in pizza and popcorn this weekend for their showings of “Goldman at 150”, the ten-part documentary series commissioned by GS to celebrate their anniversary, AKA 'Goldman Sachs the Movie.'

Although Goldman hired a proper Emmy-winning film director for its production, the movie isn't exactly a definitive documentary history of Goldman. It’s more like a very extended corporate video, and there are some clear messages in it about the stories that Goldman wants to tell to itself and to the world. 

If you're applying for a graduate (or maybe any) job at Goldman Sachs now, you’re going to need to be able to convincingly pretend to have watched it. 

Life, however, is short and Goldman Sachs' movie is long, so here are our main takeaways and how to package them into interview soundbites. 

"I'm a big fan of Sidney Weinberg"

You need to know this name. Sidney Weinberg is the subject of episode 3, but is repeatedly referred back to as the creator of the Goldman Sachs culture (not least by his son John Weinberg, who ran the company in the 1970s).  He worked his way up from the mailroom, had scars on his body from knife fights in Brooklyn but impressed everyone at the firm with his ambition and energy.  After the firm nearly collapsed in the Great Depression, it fell to Weinberg to lead it out.  He also helped the war effort, leading President Roosevelt’s relations with the business community, and building an extraordinary investment banker’s contact book as he did so.  His crowning deal was the IPO of Ford Motor Company, and this also carries an interesting message for the Goldman culture – the fee on the deal was embarrassingly small, but Sidney took it on in order to build the name and franchise, the equivalent of league table credit.

"I know how well-respected Goldman is by its clients" 

After a discussion of the Crash of 1929, the film cuts to a modern day partner, looking straight at the camera and saying “This is a cultural lesson”.  Waddill Catchings was the senior partner immediately before Weinberg, who was responsible for marketing Goldman-sponsored investment trusts with 140x leverage to the public.  The resulting lawsuits nearly destroyed the firm and damaged its reputation for a decade. Goldman has learned from this.

"I'm long term admirer of Goldman's investment banking business"

This film is all about the investment banking division (IBD). This is not surprising given the background of the CEO who’s paying the filmmaker’s bills.  Although there are respectful summaries of the careers of traders like Gus Levy (episode 4) and Lloyd Blankfein (episode 9), there’s a lot more enthusiasm for deal-making and underwriting.  The period when Goldman was lead jointly by John Whitehead and John Weinberg gets two episodes (5 and 6), including a long segment detailing the international expansion and a series of UK privatisations.  Even into the Blankfein era, there’s just as much material about expansion into emerging markets and the growth of China.

"I am a BAME woman"

Interestingly, although the first three episodes detail the struggle of firms like Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers to break into the Wall Street underwriting cartel dominated by J Pierpoint Morgan, there’s no mention at all of the fact that this was very much a struggle against prejudice by the WASP establishment.  Once we move into the modern era, though, every episode emphasises Goldman’s track record on diversity, almost always concluding with “and this diversity of perspectives is good for the business and good for the clients”, or similar forms of words.

"I know you have learned from the financial crisis"

The bad publicity that affected Goldman at the time of the financial crisis is something that clearly hurt; the famous Rolling Stone “vampire squid” article is brought up in episode 9, although Fabrice Tourre only appears in a short archive clip.  The view from Goldman partners, past and present, is that they had been too secretive in the past and that as a much bigger firm than the original partnership, they needed to be more open and put their own narrative out into the open.  The very fast segue from “people misunderstood our role” to “we have learned from our mistakes” suggests that wounds are still deep.

"I want to work for a bank that maintains its partnership culture"

Episode 7 (“Going Public”) is almost entirely devoted to navel-gazing, as partners of the period recall the agonising questions of whether the decision to IPO the business would destroy their unique culture.  It clearly matters a lot to them – the strand running through the whole film is the extent to which it’s possible to maintain a constant culture while the business itself changes so much.  And they make a pretty convincing case that the existence of the Partner rank, rather than just having senior MDs, makes people more likely to work together and sacrifice short term revenue credit for the good of the firm.  One subtle detail worth noticing is that none of the talking heads are given any title other than “Partner” in the onscreen captions. 

"I want to work somewhere that learns from and embraces change"

The Waddill Catchings episode is actually titled “hubris”, but throughout the film, we have “culture moments” where it’s emphasised that a healthy paranoia is part of the culture of Goldman Sachs, and that the firm’s biggest crises in the past have always been the consequences of getting too self-satisfied (it’s possible to wonder whether some of the partners participating were worried about the optics of doing a two-and-a-half-hour corporate history film).  “Embracing change” is repeatedly stressed as a corporate value, but it really comes out when Goldman is forced to change because old ways have stopped working.

As a film, you would probably need to be quite a dedicated Goldman fan to watch the whole thing all the way through – it drags quite badly in the middle when talking about international expansion and only really comes back to life with the crisis. 

The film gives frustratingly few clues as to the future, although it’s notable that the final “Going Forward” segment is all about civic responsibility and engagement.  But the historic episodes have some fascinating detail on the origins of the company and taken as a whole, it gives a fair shot at answering the question with which David Solomon starts the whole movie – how is it that this bank survived, in relatively unaltered form, for 150 years when so many of its competitors didn’t? It also provides a useful guide to what Goldman wants to hear when you're asked why you think the firm is so special at interview.

Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Contact: sbutcher@efinancialcareers.com in the first instance. Whatsapp/Signal/Telegram also available.

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