The year I joined the bank I befriended another new joiner named Takeshi, a Japanese student who sailed in from Harvard Business School. It was 11:30pm on Friday and we had just completed a week-long session of intensive financial modelling training. We decided to grab a few beers at a nondescript pub around the corner from us.
So exhausted were we from the week that by the time we knocked back our third Peroni both of us were borderline drunk. We cheerfully discussed a variety of topics on the mind of all new male bankers: bonuses, women, holidays, suits, watches and cars. It was exciting to think of all the goodies we’d soon enjoy.
At one point the conversation went quiet and neither of us uttered a word for a good 30 seconds. One of Madonna’s songs was playing in the background and we found ourselves bobbing our heads to the beat. Takeshi looked my way and opened his mouth slightly, as if about to speak, but then hesitated, gave up and looked away. “What’s on your mind,” I inquired with a smile. He looked me straight in the eye and without hesitation he said something I’ll never forget, “we are now Samurais.” I smiled and raised my glass. He followed suit and we drank to that.
A beer later we were both officially drunk and Takeshi began philosophising aloud.
According to him, an investment banker lived by a code of honor. One which was predicated on unquestioned obedience to one’s master, acceptance that work duties constitute part of the highest good and the practice of constant self-sacrifice.
“The bank is my master. No, my line manager is my true master. Excel will be my Katana (Samurai sword). And I will give up my social life for the next five years.” He was not silly enough to touch on frugality and loyalty – we are bankers after all and will a) spend and b) go where we are paid the most.
A week later Takeshi went away to work in our Tokyo office and, because an investment banker’s job everything out of you and your priorities are violently re-shuffled when the moment you take your seat, we lost touch. It wasn’t until nearly half a year later that I witnessed first-hand, in the lobby of our building, an event which reminded me of Takeshi and that funny phrase of his. The trigger was a discussion between a recently fired analyst, Paulo, and a senior managing director in the Capital Markets team, Steve.
Paulo was an emaciated Italian whom everyone believed was anorexic. Every day after lunch he went straight to the bathroom and if you happen to be inside when he entered then you heard enough to suspect something was wrong. I didn’t like Paulo for two important reasons: firstly, you could never trust him; secondly, he spoke behind everyone’s back and, therefore, I was sure mine as well. But that’s another story altogether. As for Steve, thought he was a highly intelligent man with strong credentials, he was repulsively arrogant. An Oxbridge grad, all it took was one look to see he was scrawny and social inept kid in school everybody, including girls, slapped around for fun. Steve grew his first chest hair only after he became an investment banker.
So one day we all receive the customary e-mail forewarning us that, given the difficult times ahead, the firm was going to fire more than a handful of peons. Well it so happens that Paulo was one of those unfortunate souls summoned to the firing line shortly after we received the notice. The scene I stumbled upon was a discussion between Paulo and Steve a few hours after the former was given the terrible news. Paulo stops Steve.
Paulo: seemingly distressed. “Steve I would like to speak to you for a second. Please.”
Steve: preferring to avoid this discussion but knowing Paulo has a right to address the matter. “Alright. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
Paulo: “I was made redundant.” He takes a deep breath. “It’s cool. That’s business. That’s life. I understand that. What I don’t understand is why me. I work harder than everyone on my team. I stay two or three hours longer than the other analysts. Every day! I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at my desk.” He takes another deep breath and begins to get teary-eyes. “Steve, I missed my grandmother’s funeral because I was working on a deal for our team.” His hands clasped in prayer moving forward and back. “Do something for me please.”
Steve: acknowledges Paulo’s sacrifice with an earnest nod. “Paulo, I can appreciate the sacrifices you’ve made.” Pointing to himself. “I missed my father-in-law’s funeral last year because of a deal. But this is not about you or me, it’s about the interest of our firm. We know you’re a hard worker. Look, I will do my best to place you in another area of the bank. I gotta run.”
I imagined the day Steve would get fired. He’d tell his superior, probably the CEO, that he sacrificed so much for the bank and even missed a relative’s funeral. Would the CEO, in turn, respond by saying he could empathise and that he had missed his wife’s funeral to close a deal?
Samurais and investment bankers do share things in common. Bankers obey their masters, put work above all and sacrifice a great deal. But if you miss your grandmother or father-in-law’s funeral you’re not a samurai. You’re a first class loser.