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Five Questions Investment Bankers Must – and Must Not – Ask in Interviews

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Talk to any career coach: the questions you ask in interviews are just as important as the ones you answer – sometimes more so. But it’s not about unloading a list of mundane inquiries. You’ve got to choose your questions wisely, particularly in investment banking interviews where time is money.

Below is a list of questions you should be asking during interviews with investment banks large and small, along with a few that should never leave your mouth.

DO: Ask about recent deals the bank has been involved in. And not generically; mention the deal yourself to show you’re following the company – and unit – in question.

“For example, Deutsche Bank was just an advisor on a huge equity offering for Apple,” said a current investment banker at DB. “If the interviewer works in equity capital markets or the tech group, ask if they were involved on that deal.”

“Asking about a group’s recent deal in the interview process reinforces an individual’s eagerness and enthusiasm,” said Joanna Lee, an investment banking MBA recruiter at J.P. Morgan.

DON’T: Ask about salary, benefits and bonus plans. It’s not only a huge turnoff for the hiring manager, you’re also looking presumptuous putting the cart well before the horse. “Never ask about salary or benefits until AFTER an offer is made,” said Peter Laughter, CEO of Wall Street Services.

Candidates should be able to do some research on their own – whether online, through their school or through networking – to figure that out, said the Deutsche Bank source.

DO: Ask questions that show your knowledge of the overall market. Talk about a specific industry trend, then ask how it is affecting the firm’s investment banking unit.

One example provided by the Deutsche Bank source: “The debt markets continue to be on fire, do you think they will slow down anytime soon and if so what implications do you think that will have for your business?”

“Ask where they see the market going,” said Chris Mitra-Hall, director at London-based Burlington Wellesley Search. “In ECM, for example, do they think it will be more about IPOs; rights-issues; accelerated book builds this year and next.”

DON’T: Inquire about the firm’s balance sheet or ask “where the bank is headed.” Don’t ask about revenue, profit margins or any other metric. First off, it’s not going to give you any insight that you can’t get from the New York Times, said Adam Zoia, CEO of Glocap, a New York-based executive search firm.

More importantly, it suggests you may be questioning the health of the firm, a serious faux pas in any interview, he said.

DO: Ask them why they joined the bank in question, said Mitra-Hall. It’s a subtle way to coerce them into selling you on the job and opening up more about the firm.

Ask them about why they chose investment banking over private equity firms, hedge funds and venture capitalists, he said. This will give you an opportunity to state that you are interested in a career in banking and do not see it as a path to the buy-side, a common fear amongst hiring managers in banking.

DON’T: Ask about the work/life balance, said the DB banker. “There isn’t one.” Moreover, it will leave questions in the mind of the hiring manager whether you’re willing to put in the grueling hours or if you’re likely to burn out early.

DO: Ask everything and anything about the person across the table. When not talking about yourself, make the interview about them. “Bankers love to hear themselves speak,” said Zoia.

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.

“People in this industry are egotistical, so focusing questions on them can be a good idea,” said the DB banker.

DON’T: Ask about the possibilities for career growth, particularly at the junior level. Investment banks hire people to do a job that needs to get done. They don’t care where you want to be in 5 years, especially if it’s sitting in their chair.

DO: Recognize that you are NEVER interviewing them – they are always interviewing you. In an initial conversation, it’s all about what you can do for them.

“The Q&A section of an interview is an unknown pitfall that many candidates fall into unwittingly,” said Laughter. “The old adage ‘you’re interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you’ is a lie told by people who should know better.”

The only time a candidate gets to “interview” a prospective employer is after the offer, he said. Use your questions strategically.

DON’T: Ask banal questions. If you already know the answer, don’t ask the question, said the DB banker. Hiring managers at investment banks hate wasting their time.

“What is the typical work day of an analyst?” is about the worst question you can ask, said Mitra-Hall.

Comments (2)

  1. If this advice is true then it suggests a worrying trend that banks will be full of “dead wood” in a few years. There is an underlying suggestion that the interviewer thinks that any candidate in front of them is “desperate” and any genuine candidate would probably ignore all this advice anyway. It may be a demand driven market now for recruitment but only hiring people who massage your ego and don’t ask awkward questions will prove a disaster in the long run. More to the point, with the big push for hiring in compliance you want people who can and do challenge, not shrinking violets.

    The reference to the NY Times indicates that it might be a US centric article so might not apply in other markets, and only applies to investment banks where a lot of information is already in the public domain. In my opinion:

    DO ask about the financial health of the company particularly if it is a start-up. Failure to do so indicates that you are doing no due diligence on your own financial security, why would I hire you to estimate risk for others.

    DO recognise that you are interviewing them – it is not a ‘myth’. The interview process is one of asymmetric information. The candidate knows more about their skills and ability and the interviewer knows more about the role. A failure to interview the company indicates a fundamental lack of interest in the role.

    DO ask where the firm expects the successful candidate to be in five years time…. it’s not a question that any interviewer should be afraid of. If a candidate doesn’t ask this question or fails to have a clear picture of it then it suggests that they are probably not going to be in the role for the long term and probably the wrong hiring choice.

    DO ask about work life balance, particularly if you have children and are returning to work after a period of being at home. There is a big push by organisations (Goldmans, Deloitte, Ernst and Young to name but a few) to recruit mid to senior level women back into the workplace. This is a sub-group that does not need to return to work (presumably) where there is strong demand and low supply. It is reasonable to ask about what sort of work-life balance they could hope to achieve there…. particularly since there is such a wide offering for working parents at firms.

  2. I am gonna go with the 1st commenter on this one. I just had an interview and while i was impressed that this firm was actually going to pay me for my time and not try the commission after 50 bs, it showed me they were at least willing to take a risk on me.

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