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.
Errors are ERRORS
The smallest of errors are costly in the world of ibanking. They are costly not only in that they can mean the loss of millions in fees, revenues and consequently bonuses, but they’ll also cost you your precious health.
We all know that punishment is one way you learn to avoid mistakes. And because the stakes are so high in ibanking the punishments are severe. They damn hurt. Therefore, like any rational human being would, while you’re working there you do your best to avoid punishment. One of the ways to do this is to never make mistakes.
So this is the environment in which a young ibanker must work and operate. You can’t complain either. After all, you’ve signed up for it and you’re getting paid lots of money and you stand to earn a gigantic bonus at year end which could be multiples (x2, x3, etc.) of your already nice salary.
Having said that, it would not be unreasonable to assume that experienced, senior management at a top ibank would never err when it comes to critical company matters. For instance, the hiring of a hotshot dealmaker responsible for overseeing business development in a new geography isn’t something they would make a major mistake with. Right?
To err is human
An old friend of mine from Washington DC, Jonathan, worked in the Dubai office of a competing ibank. We met up one summer weekend in the South of France to celebrate a mutual friend’s birthday. The birthday boy was one of London’s most successful hedge fund managers and was celebrating his 30th in style on a luxury yacht. Standing on deck overlooking the French Riviera, and with a freshly made mojito in hand, I listened as Jonathan told me a fascinating story of a man called Tarik who happened to be one of his firm’s costliest and most embarrassing mistakes.
Jonathan’s company was looking to bring in a senior ibanker to head up the Middle East Sales team. They wanted a star banker with lots of powerful connections and influence with the local Middle Eastern players. Somehow, Tarik was appointed.
Interestingly, Tarik wasn’t an ibanker by trade. In fact, he had minimal finance experience. Also, he hadn’t held executive positions with any major Middle Eastern corporations which normally would have meant he was well-connected locally. “None of us knew what the guy did prior,” said Jonathan. “I asked around and someone mentioned that he used to manage an Italian restaurant in Beirut but we never confirmed it. His resume listed some random boutique financial advisory firms which according to Tarik were bought out by bigger players in discreet deals and because of confidentiality he [Tarik] could not reveal any more info.” He emphasised, “it all was a bit dodgy but there wasn’t reason to suspect anything at first.”
What Tarik did well was to sell himself as Mr. Gatekeeper of the GCC (i.e. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE). Apparently, the whole firm was excited about the arrival of Tarik. Promised a mouthwatering guarantee pay of 750,000 dollars, a paid-for flashy apartment and car and the power to hire staff, Tarik moved to Dubai with a big fat smile.
A year into the job and nothing at all had materialised. The firm, which was spending quite a bit on expenses for the Dubai office each month, grew concerned and decided to send Jonathan to Dubai for a few months to assess the situation.
Jonathan’s first day in the Dubai office was very telling. “I read the Financial Times, surfed the web and waited to meet Tarik,” he said with a smile. “And everyone I spoke to in the office seemed to have no clue what was going with general business development. It felt like I was in a film.”
One week in and nothing had changed. The office was always half-full and there was little buzz to the place. Jonathan had only managed to sit with Tarik once for less than ten minutes before the latter quickly excused himself and set off to meet a “potential client” in Beirut. Facebook photos later revealed Tarik was the life of the party several nights in a row at some of Beirut’s trendiest nightclubs.
After three weeks Jonathan finally managed to sit down with Tarik. It was Tarik’s second time in the office during that timeframe. Jonathan started asking questions about the strategy in place to grow their business and wanted to learn more about what had been achieved to date exactly. Tarik only grew annoyed and made the same statement he would repeat time and time again as an excuse for any lack of traction.
“Look Jonathan, this isn’t London or New York. Things happen slowly and take time. It’s the Middle East style.” Then he’d try to lighten the mood by saying something like, “just get to know people in the office and enjoy for now and as things pick up I’ll bring you in.”
Another week passed and nothing had happened. Tarik would come and go, have three hour lunches and leave very early each day to play tennis.
Jonathan decided it was time to get a lot more assertive.
Jonathan had no choice but to invite himself into meetings and get involved in Tarik’s affairs. He couldn’t help but express a sense of shock as he recounted the final showdown with Tarik:
“The more time I spent with him, listening in on calls he led or discussing presentations one-on-one with him, the more I realised Tarik was a complete idiot. He had no clue about finance. I learned that all the guys in the office he hired were personal friends of his and they all did nothing all day but get paid a shitload of money to post photos online. Tarik was a straight up hustler.”
“What did you do,” I asked amazed by the story and unable to hold back a huge smile.
“Nothing. He figured out I was there to report back on him. So as soon as he realised that I knew it was all a lie and that he could not generate any business for us he resigned right away.”
Those days are over
The days you could pronounce an Arabic word with an Arabic accent and impress senior bankers in London or New York and get a big package are over.
Even ibankers err
There you have it. Even senior ibankers who are some of the most calculating of animals can make mistakes. Big ones at that!
Is there a Tarik in your line of work?