The Business

Time is surely one of life’s most precious commodities. Why don’t you quickly think about a lasting memory from childhood. A moment, good or bad, you can vividly recall.

Time has flown since, has it not? If you think carefully about it, within the context of your life, then you’ll agree that it (time) should never be wasted. Chances are that, as you read this, the building next to you may have been around before your mother was born and will remain long after you depart. Yet most of us (myself included) often squander it as if it has no limit. How foolish of us. We should look after it more carefully than we do our money.

Everyone’s time is precious and every day we ought to remind ourselves of its scarcity. When I do, it makes it easier for me to say “no” to events that waste my time. There are so damn many of them and they come in different forms (useless meetings, unnecessary conference calls, poorly made television shows, get-togethers I’d rather avoid, etc.). Similarly, remembering the value of time gives me joy to say “yes” to activities that feed my soul.

I can think of few more satisfying ways to spend my time than to travel. The very act takes us out of routine, which causes life to fly right past us, and breathes excitement and novelty into our being. Wonderful things can happen when one sets off on a journey.

Arousal of the senses

You’re travelling abroad in a foreign land, surrounded by foreign people, in foreign dress, serving foreign food in foreign ways. Your body, mind and soul are completely open and vulnerable to all forms of stimuli. Take me. I’m yours.

And once in a while, during your beautiful dance, for that is what you do when you travel (the rest of the time you’re pretty much sitting down), an astonishing statistical unlikelihood occurs. It arrests you at once and leaves you momentarily dumbfounded.

That is precisely what happened to me several years back in a beautiful little island off the east African coast. [READ MORE…]

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“To answer or not to answer. That, my dear ibanker, is the question you must ask yourself.”

- Jean-Pierre (A senior investment banker)

Those were the very words that came out of Jean-Pierre’s mouth one Thursday evening at quarter to eight as he got up from his chair to head home after a long day. He was my line manager and, as with people in the business, never gave a moment’s thought to anyone but himself.

I had pulled an all-nighter the night before with but only one little break – when a taxi drove me home at 5:30am so that I could shower, shave and put on a fresh suit. The driver just sat in his car while the meter ran. I was then driven right back so that I could be at my desk by 7:30am. I slept for no more than ten minutes en route to Canary Wharf. Colleagues had already started calling.

So here I am sitting at my desk, having missed out on a much-needed night of sleep, when, just as I’m beginning to think about the lovely prospects of packing up to head home, one of the phone lines on our desk area begins to ring. Oh God.

At this time, there are three of us junior bankers still working away. Custom has it that one of us should answer the phone and do so quickly. You never know, it could be a client, someone from the New York office or another team within the building that needs immediate help. It was an unwritten rule that a phone line should not go unanswered for more than three rings. I’ve seen Managing Directors yell across the room at junior bankers for not jumping at the opportunity to answer. [READ MORE…]

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Once upon a time, Roman gladiators fought against one another in massive arenas surrounded by the deafening cries of thousands of blood-thirsty spectators who craved to see no less than blood carpet the ground, gouged eyes brandished like a cowboy’s lasso and decapitated heads affixed to the sharp end of swords like kebabs on skewers.

One would need to momentarily turn a blind eye to the fierce brutality of what was once upon a time considered a magnificent sport, if they are to truly perceive the noble elements of the game. Just as the crowds used to. For in their hearts, the audience longed for more than just the sight of blood. With determined eyes, they religiously followed each swing of the mighty sword as it cut through the air toward their opponent’s body. With each breath the audience impatiently waited to witness the manifestation of ideals and virtues which long confirmed the elegance of the sport.

The crowd held strong admiration for those who fought valiantly and displayed great courage. When a gladiator put on a good show and revealed integrity, he or she was showered with gifts, honours, sexual partners and even freedom. In other words, the gladiator received a bonus.

Though those days have long gone, except in the imagination of a few poor yet ambitious Hollywood scriptwriters aspiring to bring to life the next great Ancient Roman blockbuster, some practices remain.

Just as many forms of punishment, once open to the public, moved behind closed doors, so too have some of today’s modern gladiator fights disappeared from the public eye. Particularly those of financial gladiators.

The punishments, however, remain. Even though they are out of sight…

Origins and the present

Gladiators usually came from one of two sources. They were captured soldiers who had fought and lost against Rome. Or they were slaves. Through their status as gladiators they would have the opportunity to redeem themselves and potentially attain freedom. Perhaps even fame.  [READ MORE…]

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Sometimes it’s the painful, annoying and ridiculous things that happen to you at work that turn out to be positively important ingredients in your personal development.

New joiners beware

I can tell you that for me and all of my former colleagues in ibanking, and I’d say many people who work for a large powerhouse investment bank, there was no instruction manual to refer to when, on our first day and not long after we seated ourselves comfortably on what was to become an extension of our rears, some senior banker appeared unannounced and barked an order to have this or that done “NOW!”

You were nearly always approached with everything but a gentle or friendly “hello”, “excuse me”, “would you mind”, “can you please” or any of that fluffy, time-wasting nonsense. There were exceptions of course, when someone put their hand on your shoulder, smiled and kindly asked you to do something for them. But those events which were few and far in between occurred when you daydreamed for a few seconds at your desk as a coping mechanism before another urgent deadline landed on your desk like a meteor.

Generally, someone just commanded you to “get X done in 10 minutes”. And trust me when a managing director stares right at you with bloodshot eyes, a threatening open mouth and bulging neck veins you begin to stress very quickly. And as soon as he’s done giving his request and turns around you get to work and you call on every single cell in your brain to get their shit together and perform at 100%.

Parkinson’s law

There’s a saying that goes, work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. That’s Parkinson’s law. The time pressure and urgency to complete a task of epic propotions in 10 minutes leads you to become more efficient than you’ve ever thought imaginable.

But it’s not just about a 10-minute deadline which normally takes five people working together an hour to complete. What makes the situation highly challenging and significantly more stressful, is that you’re not given directions on how to do the task. Nothing.

No directions? Isn’t that counterintuitive? Given ibankers work on such important deals wouldn’t it make sense to be instructed properly on what to do? You may ask yourself plenty questions like these. The reason why instructions are not given will be the subject of another article. However, for the purposes of this post, I’d like to highlight how much of a good thing it can be for you not to receive any direction.

If you look past the momentary hell it puts you through and the spike in stress levels your body must adjust to, not to mention the greying of two or three additional hairs on your scalp or the probable onset of an ulcer, it can actually be a very good thing for you in the long run. Before things get good there will be pain. More often than not, lots of it.

Does anyone really think that the superior skills and abilities an ibanker comes to possess through years of experience on the job are intangibles acquired by way of a comfortable and soothing journey? Perhaps similar to a lovely evening stroll along the beach somewhere in North Goa? If only.

Project PORTO

One could fill thousands upon thousands of pages with incidences of tasks assigned with no direction or instruction. As I am in Portugal at present, I am reminded of the time Adam, a senior investment banker covering Portugese banks, appeared at my desk one fine Wednesday morning. [READ MORE…]

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It’s showtime. You’ve finished a presentation, printed a copy in colour and placed it, correctly stapled, on the Managing Director’s desk.

Enter the Managing Director (MD).

The MD calls you over. Pointing at the document before him he asks, “this is the final draft?”

Hesitatingly you reply. “Yes.”

The MD makes himself comfortable, throws one quick glance at you with a look which unequivocally says ‘you’d better have gone through this doc carefully at least 50 times before putting it before my royal ass’, and then begins going through the document. Having done this for over 15 years, it has become like bread and butter for him – errors, mistakes and typos practically jump out at him as would a Buddhist monk at a hedge fund conference.

Then the moment comes. You’re looking over the MD’s shoulder when, as he’s carefully perusing a slide, you notice that you’ve misspelled the name of the client in one of the paragraphs. Absolute catastrophe. This kind of mistake generally warrants outright humiliation in front of the whole team. You nearly faint. Without warning a drop of sweat descends down your forehead and then crashes onto your MD’s back leaving a momentary wet stain. He senses something and violently turns and looks up at you. You return his forceful stare with a puny smile which an onlooker may mistake for constipation. He quickly turns round again and resumes his critique. He is about to detect your error. It’s imminent. Meanwhile you’ve shortened your life by 2-3 days from the stress of being caught.

The MD cries out: “What the f@&k is this!”

The torture of the wait is over. He will unleash hell but at least you’ll be out of your misery. [READ MORE…]

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Investment bankers drop out of the business daily and there are plenty of causes for this unfortunate phenomenon. Poor performance tops the list and, come on, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. Every young banker knows what she or he signs up for before they start. If you don’t perform as you’re expected to you’ll be fired. Very fast.

Another cause of departures has to do with a nasty case of bad luck. If the bank is getting ready to lay off people you could get the short end of the stick. It happens. Investment banks lay off people without mercy. No exaggeration.

Then there are also self-led exits. Say the job becomes so damn overwhelming that you cannot hold up the weight of your responsibilities anymore and so you just give up. You throw in the towel and decide it’s time to get out. Who knows, maybe the real reason is that you want to spend more time with your friends and family; you can’t take any more crap from your boss; or simply because, as you build your 19,000th financial model, it dawns on you that you’ll remember the best years of your life having been spent with Mr. Excel. Whatever your reasons there’s a little trick that can make life a little bit easier at the bank, save you from getting a few additional grey hairs and help you reduce – but just a little – the labour abuse that’s an inevitable part of ibanking. It’s a two-letter word which conveys one of the most powerful human messages. An expression of refusal or denial whose mastery becomes a rite of passage for all successful ibankers who remain in the business and go on to attain great success, perhaps even one day grace the  cover of the Financial Times. That word is “No”.

1) The desire or need to abuse is the natural state of affairs in the jungle of ibanking

A jungle is a wild mass of vegetation but is also a place where animals struggle to survive. You must have thick skin to endure. The tiger doesn’t hesitate to devour a wild pig the moment the latter falls in view. It doesn’t think about little piggy having piggy desires and piggy ambitions and wearing piggy pijamas. It will simply rip the prey in half, walk away and then take a nap, thinking nothing of the slaughter which occurred moments earlier. Piggy was just a means to survival.

Similarly, in an investment bank many bankers won’t give a damn about you or how hard you slave away. You’re a means for them. Your very presence elicits, in them, a desire to give you work. And regardless of how awful, stressed or agitated you look they’ll pile on more work on your plate if they can and won’t think twice about it. I’m not saying they’re heartless bastards. It’s just the nature of the business and people are there to make money. They do what they have to. In fact, it’s very likely that the abuse being dished out was done just as badly to the guy who is doing it to you. And in time you’ll do it to the school of  fresh-faced goldfish that joins the firm.

2) The naturally weak will attract more predators for they are easy prey

Ruthless struggle is part of jungle life. And easy prey is, well let’s be honest, easy. If you’re a starved feline you chase the slow, helpless creature (i.e. meal).

In an ibank’s junior class there will always be a number of young grasshoppers eager to please all. Sadly, in their attempt to demonstrate eagerness, this demographic will be seen as willing and subservient servants. And surely they will be treated as such. They are generally incapable of refusing requests, which in a bank tend to come across more so as commands – remember, ibankers are assertive.

Therefore, when a junior ibanker is identified as a “yes” man or woman they will very likely be given a steady flow of work. More so than their more defensive peers. The “yes” people in time become quite miserable. [READ MORE…]

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More Than Just A Word

The word bonus can mean different things to different people. If you were to randomly stop someone in the street and ask them what the word means to them you’d probably get a response along the lines of the following:

“Hmmm…something extra that’s nice. Real nice.”

“An amount or sum given in addition to what I expected.”

“An additional prize, award or bit of cash. Expected or unexpected.”

Fair enough. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of a bonus. But we’re not interested in generic, blanket definitions. We’re talking finance here. More importantly, the investment banking side of finance. To an ibanker, therefore, those above-mentioned answers are dishearteningly superficial. They are the words of one who knows nothing about the great journey of the ibanker. Alas, living a world that very few understand is part of the ibanker’s burden in his quest for glory and riches.

The most powerful things are difficult to define

In my years in banking I’ve come to know myriad ibankers. Women and men from different countries of the world, emerging and developed alike. From children of European banking dynasties and Chinese real estate magnates to first-in-the-family-with-a-university-degree Americans, Indians and Norwegians with boundless ambition and energy. Thin, tall, fat, short, I saw them in all shades and colors. And despite their personal idiosyncrasies and individual backgrounds none could ever give you a straight answer if you asked them ‘what is a bonus’?

How could some of the sharpest minds on earth stall when asked a simple 4-worded question? Remember, they included former debate club leaders, chess masters, straight A students (since birth), mental calculators, standardized test aces and even members of rhetorical societies. It didn’t matter. The question would arrest them. The reason is only they, that special breed of financiers, feel the overwhelming surge of emotions from this highly charged word. They are alone in that respect. [READ MORE…]

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Open anytime, any day

Investment bankers make money and make a shitload of it. The economy may be soaring to dizzying heights, streets can be filled with blood or the country may find itself on the precipice of collapse. Just as well, the ibanker will keep printing money.

Fear not for his or her fate my dear reader. The business is such that there will always be an angle to make money. In the worst of times it only means that some ibankers will be forced to walk the plank. Yet the bank, and the lucky, remaining bankers, will carry on doing what they do best: fill the organisation’s coffers. But only after putting clients’ interest first.

Clients first

As all investment bankers will be quick to tell you, one of the cardinal virtues of the business is dedication to clients.

By putting client first and delivering superior services money will continuously flow in, they say.

I can think of few better examples to illustrate an ibank’s uncanny ability to make money then one of my first advisory projects at Paris Berkeley Capital. The client was a large Qatari bank with an annoying problem. We were the doctor ready to diagnose and take away the pain.

Our opening hours were as follows: anytime, any day, and no appointments necessary. We always made time for clients.

An opportunity knocks

It was a morning like any other. I was in the middle of preparing one of a handful of presentations imminently due when, all of a sudden, Mario, one of the Managing Directors in my team, walks up to me, taps me on the shoulder and asks me to follow him into a meeting. He didn’t have to ask, I brought along a notepad and pen. By now it was second nature. I was so used to being given a shitload of work at any moment that I even carried pen and paper to the toilets.

We took the elevator to the floor reserved for important client meetings. Mario knocked twice and opened the door. We entered the room and proceeded with introductions. The CEO of the Qatari bank struck me as a distinguished  gentleman. I later learned that he was a close confidant of the Emir of Qatar and a very influential man in the Gulf. His countenance suggested to me that the nature of the meeting was of utmost importance so I was particularly attentive from the moment I took my seat…

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A covert operation tasked with a mission to increase bankers’ resilience to stress so they work harder and longer for the bank, the Comprehensive Banker Fitness (CBF) programme made startling discoveries about the race of pitchbook monkeys soon after its genesis.

Generously funded by banks, this clandestine division, which falls somewhere between the HR department and the executive committee, though one can only surmise, began to catalogue, study and analyse different conditions suffered by the foot soldiers of the business, analysts and associates. The one which intrigued them the most was what they named ‘ibanker syndrome’.

ibanker syndrome

At some point or another nearly every member of the banker subspecies race will fall prey to it. Some survive and get on with life just fine, while others are permanently scarred.

You’d possibly mistake it for the Stockholm syndrome. The weak are repeatedly beaten and cursed by the strong and by some strange twist of neurological circuitry, in time the former begins to feel positively toward the latter. In banking, however, the beaten develop an even stronger attraction, some would call it love, for their superior. That is because the tremendous weight and intensity of these – very often unexpected – diatribes and lashes upon the junior bankers penetrate so deep in the psyche that a powerful bond emerges between master and slave.

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