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Only sycophants get promoted to the top jobs in investment banks

VP promoted bank

If you’re a VP in an investment bank and you’re wondering why you can’t get further up the ladder, you have my sympathies. I’ve been there. I have been you. I was a VP for six years and for each of the last three I thought I was going to get moved up to executive director. Every time, I was disappointed. Eventually, they just moved me out.

So, this is what I learned from those wasted years.

Firstly, HR’s promotional process counts for nothing. Nor does all that advice about drawing management’s attention to your achievements. Nor does the belief that banks are some kind of meritocracy.

I know this, because I ticked all the HR boxes. I worked in sales and I regularly beat my targets. I loved winning business, especially from banks whose product was better than ours. I loved cross-selling, bringing in introductions and winning business for other teams in the firm. Throughout my career I noted things I’d achieved that would be of use to management when it came to the mid and end of year reviews and I made sure that I mentioned them in my self-appraisal. Seriously, I did it all. And it did not work.

If you’re in a bank yourself, you’ll know how these things go. The end of year reviews usually start around November and you get to write the self-appraisal. You review your colleagues and they review you too. You approach the colleagues you’ve worked with to rate you and if they trust you they’ll reciprocate. The whole thing is like a feedback questionnaire on Amazon: you get to choose between 1 and 5, where 1 is awful and 5 is awesome and the rest are something in between.

HR loves these appraisal systems. But I’ll let you into a secret: they count for almost nothing. During my time at a large U.S. bank, the results to the appraisals were consistently ignored. They were also consistently inaccurate: my manager loved creating unhealthy competition in the team and the appraisals were a great opportunity to stab fellow employees in the back. Everyone was afraid of being laid off. Everyone made sure they pointed out colleagues’ faults.

I discovered, therefore, that if you want to get promoted, you need to forget playing by the appraisal rules. Forget the cross-selling. Forget being a great team player. Forget noting all the good things you’ve done for clients. You need to do one thing and you need to do it very, very well.  You need to kiss arse.

Take an example from my team. There was one guy who was genuinely hated by the rest of us. He wasn’t a team player – he was out for himself and he received a score in the lowest percentile on his team appraisal. No one liked him, except the boss. A month after the appraisal process was completed, we were all called into a meeting room and asked to congratulate this shark for his promotion. Naturally, we did, but none of us meant it.

On another occasion, I was asked to participate in a colleague review call along with MDs from our overseas offices. We’d be reviewing a member of my team whom my manager was very friendly with. I mentioned my participation in the call to my manager as a matter of courtesy and then he dictated, word for word, what I had to say to make sure my colleague got promoted and stood by to make sure I said it. My opinion counted for nothing.

My experience may have been exceptionally bad, but I don’t think so. If you want to make it to the top in a bank, you need to make your manager feel like the most special person on earth. This really is all that matters. And if you can’t do that, don’t waste your time: you’re going nowhere fast.

Josh Ryan is the pseudonym of an equities salesperson from a U.S. investment bank

Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Contact: sbutcher@efinancialcareers.com
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Photo credit: Waiting by the phone by Chris Chabot is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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