Investment Banking Doesn’t Come With An Instruction Manual

Sometimes it’s the painful and annoying experiences you suffer through at work that are most instrumental in promoting your personal growth.

New joiners beware

I can tell you that for me and all of my former colleagues in banking, and I’d say most people working 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” or “ASAP.”

You were never approached with 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 and turned yet another hair on your scalp grey.

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 carry out the task. Nothing. Nada.

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 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? Similar to a lovely evening stroll along the beach somewhere in North Goa? A saunter in Hyde Park. A promenade in Ubud. 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.

“Your line manager agreed that you help me out. Both my Associates are travelling at the moment and we have nobody on hand to help.”

Hello to you, too. I felt yet another task was going to be added to the stinky pile of work I could already barely manage. I’d been so busy the last few hours that my damn breakfast had gone cold. “Sure thing. What can I do for you?”

“Update the Project PORTO Excel file and deliver a print out to Stephen Johnson’s office in 15 minutes.”

15 minutes. God, not again. “What’s Project P—”

His mobile rang and he immediately answered and began walking away. A few steps later he covered the microphone on his mobile with one hand and turned around to face me. “15 minutes max.” He took his hand off, put his mobile phone back up against his ear, threw me a dirty look, turned back around and quickly disappeared.

What the f&@k is Project PORTO? I had no clue. There was the city of Porto in Portugal and Adam looked after Portuguese banks but that didn’t do much for me.

On top of that, Stephen Johnson was the Head of Investment Banking at Paris Berkeley Capital. That pretty much made him a god and a terror at the same time. His seniority and track record of firing hundreds of people in recent years, coupled with his infamous temper, made it all the more stressful.

I took a deep breath and looked around. As if I expected someone to come and save me. No such thing. You don’t get saved in ibanking. You look after your own ass or someone gives it to you when you least expect it and you end up in the street.

Dont think. Just act

I knew it was futile to spend time trying to figure out how to update the Project PORTO file, let alone figure out what the hell PORTO stood for. Banking was not about sitting on a park bench and pondering higher meanings like a pipe-smoking, tweed jacket-wearing academic for whom time moves at a slow, imperceptible pace.

Cliché as it may be, time was money. If there was one place that was as true as gospel it was in an investment bank.

So when you’re in a situation like I was put in then you simply have to make the best use of the best resources available to you. I’m talking the very best resources available to mankind. I speak of investment bankers.

So it begins

Move 1: I run over to Adam’s desk area to find one of his colleagues I could speak to. Nobody in sight. Crap.

Move 2: I identify his personal assistant and talk to her. She has no clue what Project PORTO is but gives me the number of an Associate in the Lisbon office who may be able to help. His name is Pedro.

Move 3: I run back to my desk and ring up Pedro. I discover Project PORTO is the project name for an M&A transaction involving a Portuguese bank. Pedro tells me he isn’t working on that project. The rest of the team is out for lunch and so I should call back in an hour because nobody answers their phone during lunch. (Note to self: I should transfer to the Lisbon office). It’s useless to wait an hour as it will be too late by then. Pedro refers me to an M&A Analyst, Ethan, in London who sits a few floors above me. I thank him and hang up the phone.

Move 4: I run up to the M&A floor and find Ethan. He is barely able to keep his eyes open. He probably pulled an all-nighter. I ask Ethan about Project PORTO and the Excel file. He tells me the Project PORTO file is in the shared folder but that the system is down so I’ve got to wait on IT to fix the problem.

Move 5: I’m running out of time. I order Ethan to call up IT right away. He does and hands me the phone. The IT guy tells me the problem will be fixed in about an hour when they get to it. I lie and tell IT that senior management has asked me to make sure it becomes a priority and that if there is a delay someone will be in serious trouble. IT guy assures me it will be fixed in 5 minutes. I tell him to make it 3 minutes and hang up before he can utter a syllable.

Move 6: I wait at Ethan’s desk. Finally we are able to access the shared folder. Ethan opens the file and explains to me how it needs to be updated. But I’ll need input from Andy, an emerging markets trader. I will need to run down to the trading floor where Andy sits. I ask Ethan if he knows what Andy looks like and he replies in the affirmative. I tell him to come with me and point out the trader. My tone made it very clear to Ethan that he had no choice but to help me. I’m stressing quite a bit at this point.

Move 7: Ethan and I avoid the elevator but take the stairs and practically sprint down toward the trading floor. We run out on the trading floor to discover that Andy has left the building and is en route to have a medical check-up in a nearby clinic. We call Andy’s mobile but there is no answer. We speak to Andy’s colleagues but none of them can help us update Project PORTO. I ask Andy’s personal assistant the name of the clinic Andy is at. She isn’t sure. It could be one of 2 places. I give one address to Ethan and tell him to run over and call me if he finds our trader. I head off in the direction of the other clinic.

Move 8: I arrive at a local clinic and am sweating so profusely that sweat stains on my shirt have become the size of watermelons. Though out of breath, I try speaking to the receptionist but she is dealing with another person and asks me to take a seat. I’m growing more nervous. I decide to sneak around. I see a door and knock. I call out “Andy”. I hear a response. “Come in.” I open the door to find a young woman only wearing underwear and a bra. She is about to get dressed. “I’m Andy.” I thought Andy was a guy. She probably thought I was a doctor. I apologise and tell her I’ve been asked to update Project PORTO and it’s a matter of life and death. She is a bit shocked by the whole situation. Nonetheless, she updates me on Project PORTO. I excuse myself and run out.

Move 9: I get back to our building, take the elevator up and run over to the Ethan’s desk and find him sitting there eating a sandwhich. I instruct him to put down his food and update the file according to what Andy has told me. Meanwhile I eat the remaining half of Ethan’s sandwich without thinking twice. When he’s done, I ask Ethan to make a printout. I shake his hand and tell him “it’s been special” and I leave.

Move 10: I run over to Stephen Johnson’s office to deliver the printout.

Move 11: I knock on Stephen’s door and enter. I introduce myself and explain to him why I’m there. I hand him the printout and apologise for being a little late. He tells me to keep it as there’s been a change of plans and he won’t be flying to Portugal anymore.

All for nothing.

Necessity is the mother of invention

That’s a relatively mild scenario. It gets much worse.

Sometimes you’ll have multiple urgent deadlines land on your lap at the same time and your first reaction will be to think it impossible to manage. But when there is no choice but to deliver you will find a solution.

It royally sucks to be asked to deliver something you have absolutely no clue about in 15 minutes or less. It causes stomach pains and other stress-induced inconveniences but in time it makes you damn resourceful, efficient and very direct.

Investment banking can very much feel like an long obstacle course. But after you do it enough times your body hardens, your muscles increase in size, your pain threshold rises and you may…I said may…become a master of the universe one day.

10 thoughts on “Investment Banking Doesn’t Come With An Instruction Manual

    • Jamie says:

      Anthony- I’m pretty sure that saying no to a Senior Banker (esp the head of IB @ PB) would get you fired immediately. So you’d have no choice but to do what you’re told, even though it might end up being for nothing.

      TiB- As always, you’re great at telling stories. I’m thinking a book/ebook is in order for you, I know I’d definitely buy it. Cheers!

      • The ibanker says:

        Hi Jamie,

        Thank you for the kind note. I’m in fact working on one now 🙂 Not easy as it it’s very time intensive to write a novel. I underestimated the level of effort required. But I’m determined to have it completed before year end. So writing on planes, weekends I’m off and anytime I can squeeze words in. Will keep you posted.

        Have a good week.


  1. aonymous says:

    So you couldn’t make out from Andy’s voice that she was a chick…or the man in you was just hoping to catch her at that frame of time…

  2. Marcus says:

    Hi ibanker,

    I’m 17, doing my AS levels this year. I’m very keen to become an ibanker. What tips do you have for a young person pursuing this lucrative career? Also, how necessary do you think it is to go to Oxbridge?


    Marcus; North London

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