At first, it looked like a simple case of utter good luck: the first investment bank I applied to quickly invited me in for interviews; I got along fantastically well with everyone I met; I passed all the screenings and obstacles placed in front of me; and I was repeatedly told – as if to stress the point – that I would really like working with them. Towards the end of the process, however, it painfully dawned on me that, in fact, I was shit out of luck.
The story is as follows…
I had completed my dissertation at the London School of Economics and promptly flew out to Los Angeles where I aimed to assess my chances of breaking in to acting (no joke). Just to be clear, I did not expect miracles over night. No, no. My intention was to meet with Hollywood directors, producers and actors and gain a clearer understanding of what it takes to break in to the movies.
After several months of deep contemplation I decided, for personal reasons, to gravitate towards a career in finance in London. The commitment I would need to make in order to break into acting did not outweigh other considerations at that point in time. I would find a way to indulge in acting in London, I reassured myself. After landing the ‘right’ role I’d simultaneously take drama courses at one of London’s many highly-reputed institutions, such as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) – one of the most renowned drama schools in the world.
So I drove cross country from Los Angeles back home to Washington DC, where my parents live. I spent a few weeks hanging out with friends in DC , reconnected with people in multilateral agencies (e.g. World Bank, IMF, IFC) and DC’s vibrant political scene, and later caught a flight to the land of the mighty English Breakfast.
(Photo credit: joadl)
In London (in the Fall)
One evening, I receive a phone call from a cousin of mine who’s lived in London for years.
Cousin: “Hey, it’s been a while. How are you?”
The ibanker: “Hey! Good to hear from you. I’m great. How are you? How’s the family?”
Cousin: “I’m well. Everyone is fine. It’s been too long!”
The ibanker: “I know!”
Cousin: “What are you doing? Shall we meet for coffee?”
The ibanker: “Sure. When? I’m pretty flexible these days.”
Cousin: “Now. Can you come to Harrods?”
The ibanker: (Harrods? Don’t you have to pay USD30 for a cappuccino?) “Sure, I’ll be there in 20mins.”
Cousin: “Meet me at the ground floor cafe.”
So we meet at Harrods. Same ol scene. Lots of rich Arabs from the Gulf buying £200,000+ watches and consuming £15 chocolate sundaes.
I meet my cousin, order a coffee, black, and we start chatting. Eventually, we get to the topic of work.
Cousin: “So I hear you’re looking to break into finance.”
The ibanker: “Ya. It’s gonna be difficult. I missed all the on-campus banking events.”
Cousin: (with a wry smile) “Too busy chasing Hollywood?”
By now, every time someone brought up my ‘Hollywood’ story, rather than get all weird about it I actually felt somewhat proud. Let’s be honest, how many people give their passion a real go? [ Note: I won’t say I took a full plunge yet I’d like to think it was a nice, refreshing dip].
The ibanker: “Never mind that. You know a lot of people in the business. Can you help me get an interview?”
A thing about my cousin I failed to mention is that she is a social butterfly and networker par excellence. With a background in luxury and fine arts, not to mention having worked with one of the leading auction houses, she got to know many of the who’s who of finance in London over the years. Let’s face it, getting a nice finance job is often a matter of who you know, as there is no scarcity of qualified candidates. Think of all the renowned universities across the globe…you could fill the incoming analyst and associate classes of all the big investment banks a hundred times over (perhaps more) with just the top 2% of undergrad business and economics graduates and MBA students at those institutions.
Cousin: “I’m going to call Fadi right now. He’s a VP at Bank X. They’re sending him to Dubai to head up the office there. His package is out of this world.”
Fadi was a Sales guy at one of the bulge bracket investment banks. He was young and successful. Later, I was told he earned a little over £1 million bonus earlier that year.
My cousin briefly caught up with him on the latest gossip in their circle of friends and then asked him to help me out.
Cousin: “He said they’re interviewing right now. You need to send him your CV and he’ll deliver it to HR and ask them to invite you for interview.”
The ibanker: “Awesome. What’s his e-mail?”
Fast forward in time…I send Fadi my cv…Human Resources (HR) calls me, they’re impressed with my CV (thank you Fadi) and would like me to come in for a first round interview.
The very first step was a telephone interview. Someone from HR called and questioned me for about 20 minutes.
This is the simplest part of the process as you tend to know what you’re going to be asked and have had plenty of time to prepare – and of course print out the answers and lay them in front of you. The real trick is not to sound like you’re reading from a paper and throw in occasional pauses, coughs, ahems, etc 🙂 Pure theatrics.
I do recall taking a timed numeracy and verbal tests. Not too bad.
Truth about these is that most of the people cheat on them. I could ALWAYS tell if someone was taking one of them on campus. How? Firstly, you’d recognize the screen. Then, you’d notice a group of 2 or more students bunched around a computer screen in a computer lab. Sometimes I’d see up to ten people! All have pen and paper in hand. Everyone speaking fast and brimming with excitement. There was always at least one Asian individual in the group. Obviously for the maths element. Just being honest.
Candidates / students helped each other out. Quid pro quo. Someone strong in numeracy would team up with another whose strength was maths or vice versa. Teamwork, right? Isn’t that something the banks like to see in their canditates?
1st round interviews
Summary: both interviewers are good friends with Fadi. In fact, the second interviewer had spent Saturday night getting pissed drunk with him at Tramp, a private members club. Apparently, they invited six ‘super sexy, yet broke’ Danish backpackers they ran into Friday night near Piccadilly Circus. They picked them up Friday afternoon, took them shopping and bought all six of them very short, provocative and tight dresses. Later that evening the limo picked the girls up and brought them to Tramp. By the time he finished recounting the story, the interview was up and he invited me to Tramp the following weekend.
Next day, I’m told that, given how impressed the interviewers were with my profile, I don’t need to have 2nd round interviews and can, instead, head straight to the assessment center, the final stage of the recruiting process. It can last anywhere from 1 to 3 days.
This stage of the process comprised several parts:
- Case study & presentation: I was given a 50-page document on a UK betting and gambling company and was asked to present my analysis of the company and offer a recommendation to the panel as to whether the firm’s stock was a Buy, Hold or Sell. As usual, the answer per se wasn’t what the panel cared most about. Instead, they wanted to see how you present, think, analyze and structure your argument. Theatrics helps again.
- More interviews: with senior people from the Emerging Markets Sales team.
- Group exercise: five of us (i.e. candidates) sat around a table in a conference room and discussed and debated a number of different topics. Two bank employees also sat in different corners of the room silently observing our interaction and jotting down notes on the way we interacted amongst each other. We were being analysed. Human zoology.
That same evening at the pub, I receive a call from HR congratulating me that I passed the assessment center, the most difficult part of the recruiting process. Next, I’d have to meet with John, the Head of Sales & Trading (S&T). This was more a formality and for the big guy to see if he had a good feeling about me.
Note: Once you get past a certain point in the recruiting process, what determines whether you’ll cross the line or not, like with most other jobs, is the answer to a very simple question:
Would I enjoy having a pint/beer with this person?
Bankers spend lots of time on the desk working very closely with one another so, irrespective of how capable and intelligent a candidate may be, a potential candidate needs to be liked.
Meeting with Head of Sales & Trading (S&T)
A young, female assistant – from Eastern Europe, judging by her accent – with a seductive gait greets me in the lobby and takes me to the office of the Head of S&T, located on a corner of the trading floor. John is hunched over his desk perusing black & white printouts with lots of numbers. Profit and loss figures of the day perhaps. As soon as I enter the room, John motions for me to sit. He does not lift his eyes off his desk. Off the numbers.
As he continues to examine the printouts he says:
John: “She’s fit, ain’t she?”
I’m not sure how to respond. So I don’t.
John: “Laslo from the Scandi desk says she screams so fucking loud in bed he’s got to close all doors in his flat. Half the floor wants to…”
The phone suddenly rings. John answers.
Even though he was sitting down on a chair, I could tell he was easily over 6ft tall. He had a bulging stomach. Sleeves rolled up. A few ink stains on his short pocket. He had a naturally loud voice (I imagined him screaming across the floor at some poor intern).
From what I could make out, the call was from a Ferrari dealer. John was looking to buy a new Ferrari. He previously owned two of them, including a Spider F1.
A little less than ten minutes later he hangs up the phone.
John: “Such a fucking pain getting a Ferrari these days. Do you own one?”
The ibanker: Think quick. “Yeah, a 308. Magnum P.I. style.”
John gives me a dead stare. I get worried that I may have gotten carried away. I obviously don’t own a Ferrari. I simply tried to sound witty.
The ibanker: Hesitatingly. “I’m just kidding.”
John bursts out laughing. I laugh along, but with 1/3 the intensity.
From that point on, it all went very very smoothly. The discussion was informal and John did not bother asking any technical questions. He was mainly keen to learn more about me as a person, my personal background, what I did for fun and why I had an unusual background (i.e. prior, non-finance experience).
We had a few things in common, such as our love of Bollywood films. We must have spent ten minutes chatting about Lagaan, a classic starring Aamir Khan.
Before parting, he put his hand on my shoulder and urged me to seriously consider joining the bank. I’d really enjoy working there, he emphasized.
Was that an unofficial offer?
I was convinced I had the job in my pocket.
Precisely a week after my meeting with the Head of S&T, I called HR to find out what exactly was going on. I was beginning to grow concerned. Usually, you hear back shortly after your final meeting. Some people hear back within a few hours after leaving the building.
HR informs me I would hear back within a few days.
A week passes. I e-mail and ring up the John (Head of S&T). He apologizes for the delay. Some important, work-related issues had come up and therefore the process was delayed a tad bit.
Perfectly understandable. So I continue to wait.
Another week passes and I decide to ring up John once more. However, I can’t get hold of him. I call up HR and am informed that he has fallen ill and has not been to work. They’ll get back to me as soon as they speak to him.
And more waiting
I call again the following week and finally get through to John. However, he is busy and asks me to ring back later in the day. By the time I do, he’s not longer at the office. So I ring HR who no longer has a clue where things stand and ask me to follow up with John directly going forward. Weird.
The following day I reach John who tells me that the guy whose team he wanted me to join left the firm and so my whole candidacy has to be put on indefinite hold.
What the f@*$!
Such is life
A disappointing yet minor setback. In hindsight, however, like many scenarios in life, it was a good thing.