It’s showtime. I’d finished a presentation, printed a copy in colour and placed it, correctly stapled – for one could get a lashing even for something as small as a poorly angled stapling job – on the Managing Director’s desk.
I returned to my seat and began working on the next important task on my to-do list. However, concerns about how my presentation will be received played in the back of your mind. I became anxious. There’s nothing you can do but wait. Keep calm and carry on.
Enter the Managing Director (MD)
I noticed the senior banker returned to his desk yet I kept my gaze fixed ahead and pretended to be entirely preoccupied with a financial model.
As expected, he called me over.
“Come here,” he said.
I immediately got up and walked over to him.
Pointing at the document before him he asked, “This is the final draft?”
For a moment I hesitated. Speak up. “Yes.”
He made himself comfortable, threw me a glance which unequivocally said, “You’d better have gone through this doc carefully at least 50 times before putting it in front of my royal ass,” and then began flipping through the document.
Having done this for over 15 years, the MD didn’t struggle to spot mistakes – errors and typos practically jumped out at him, as would a robe-wearing Buddhist monk at a hedge fund conference.
Then came the moment. I was looking over the MD’s shoulder when, as he was carefully perusing a slide, I noticed that I’d misspelled the name of the client in one of the paragraphs. Holy shit. Absolute catastrophe. This kind of mistake generally warranted outright humiliation in front of the whole team. I nearly fainted. Without warning a drop of sweat descended down my forehead and then crashed onto the MD’s back leaving a wet stain. Shit. He sensed something and violently turned and looked up at me. I returned his forceful stare with a puny smile, which an onlooker would have mistaken for constipation. My superior quickly turned round again to resume his critique. I knew I was seconds away from disaster. He’s going to see it. It was imminent. Meanwhile I’d shortened my life by 2-3 days from the stress of being caught.
The MD cried out: “What the f@&k is this!”
The torture of the wait was over. Let him unleash hell. At least I was about to be put out of my misery.
Errors are ERRORS
The smallest of errors are costly in the business of investment banking. 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 fear of punishment is one way to avoid mistakes. And because the stakes are so high in this business the punishments are severe. And very painful. Therefore, you do your best to avoid pain and punishment. One of the ways this is accomplished is by never making mistakes.
This is the environment in which a young banker works and operates. 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 of an already nice salary.
Having said that, it would not be unreasonable to assume that experienced, senior management at a top bank never err themselves, especially 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 get completely wrong. Right? Well think again.
To err is human
An old friend of mine, Jonathan, worked in the Dubai office of a competing bank. 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.
Tarik the charlatan
Jonathan’s bank was looking to bring in a senior banker to head up the Middle East Sales team. They needed a star banker with a big Rolodex, powerful connections and influence with local Middle Eastern players. Somehow, Tarik was appointed.
Interestingly, Tarik wasn’t an investment banker. In fact, he had practically no experience. And he never held executive positions with any major Middle Eastern organisations.
“None of us knew what the guy did prior,” said Jonathan. “I started asking around the office to see if anyone had heard of him. Then one day this Lebanese intern comes up to me and says Tarik used to manage an Italian restaurant in Beirut near his parents’ apartment. ‘I recognize him’ he said to me. But I didn’t believe it. So I dismissed it. Everyone knew there was something funny about Tarik but we gave him the benefit of the doubt. He listed two boutique financial advisory firms on his resume that none of us had heard of. According to Tarik, they were bought out by bigger players in discreet deals. And because of confidentiality he could not reveal any more info. I suppose it was a bit dodgy.”
What Tarik did well was to sell himself as the gatekeeper of the GCC (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE). The whole firm was excited about Tarik’s arrival. Promised a mouthwatering guarantee pay of $750,000, 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 bank, which was spending a great deal of money 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. The office was half-full and there was little buzz to the place.
“I read the Financial Times, checked e-mail and waited to meet Tarik,” he said with a smile. “In the meantime, nobody I spoke to in the office had a clue what had taken place on the business development front since Tarik joined. I felt like I was in a bad film.”
One week passed and Jonathan had managed to sit with Tarik only once and 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. Largely funded by his corporate card.
After two weeks Jonathan finally managed to sit down with Tarik. It was Tarik’s second time in the office during that timeframe.
“Tell me about your strategy to grow the business in the Middle East and what has been done to date.”
Tarik didn’t like being questioned. He 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 way.” Then he tried to lighten the mood by saying something like, “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 came and went, had three hour lunches and left very early each day to play tennis.
Jonathan decided it was time to get confrontational.
Jonathan had no choice but to invite himself into meetings and get involved in Tarik’s affairs. Senior management had given him the okay. 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 and listened in on calls he led, the more I realised that he 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 Middle Eastern names with an Arabic accent and impress senior bankers in London or New York and get a big package are over.
Even bankers err
There you have it. Even senior bankers, some of the most calculating of animals on earth, can make mistakes. Big ones, too.
Is there a Tarik in your line of work?