Things to Bear in Mind if You Want to Break Into Investment Banking

Some of the most fascinating characters of our time are the high-flying men and women of finance – those razor-sharp individuals who juggle billion-dollar deals while traveling the world first-class, wearing fancy suits, and earning far more than their peers.

And though many types can play this role, one in particular has long been the envy of college students and working professionals around the world: the investment banker, or ‘ibanker’.

A title that elicits both admiration and jealousy

So much hype and glamour has been created around this mythical creature, it’s hardly surprising that the ibanker is seen by most as an extraordinary being.

After I became a banker, whenever I was introduced to new people in a social gathering at a restaurant or someone’s flat, as soon as the words “He’s an investment banker” were uttered, I could see people forming opinions. The look in their eyes, as well as their comportment in the ensuing moments, suggested that my job title had made a real impression.

Some were enthralled and asked all kinds of questions about what I did, how I did it, and why. Others, though, automatically assumed I was a heartless, arrogant shark in search of nothing but profit. These people generally ignored me. Then, there were those who were keen to impress me with a list of their own responsibilities and accomplishments. After questioning me on my day-to-day work, the projects I worked on, and the responsibilities I held, they’d speak almost confrontationally about their own jobs, insinuating how much better theirs were to mine. This even though the last thing I would do was to boast about my title, which I very well knew was just that.

Others found it mesmerizing that an individual could deal with such large sums of money. They were curious to know what was so special about me. In reality, there was nothing special about me – I just had a sexy job title. And whether the person in front of me respected or despised my role, there was no denying that my title packed a punch.

Though it of course depended on the crowd I was in, I generally preferred to say little about what I did. First of all, I spent far too many hours of the day in the office. So, when I did get some free time, I simply needed to switch off – and talking about work didn’t help. My sanity depended on such breaks. Secondly, having gone through the experience of telling others I was a banker and fielding the whole gamut of responses, I found it was simply easier to avoid the discussion. I’m not saying it’s tantamount to being a celebrity, but sometimes, especially when meeting new people, you want to fly below the radar. This was particularly the case around the time of the global financial crisis.

Investment banking gives you the opportunity to work on headline-grabbing deals

Because it was challenging to summarise my role in a few sentences, people sometimes asked for examples of deals I worked on. Many people know little about investment banking aside from what they see in movies and the news – people dressed in suits playing with numbers and making loads of money.

I lived and breathed these deals, so when someone asked me, the answer flowed out of my mouth. “I just wrapped up a USD3 billion capital raise for one of the largest banks in Abu Dhabi,” or, “I’m advising one of Africa’s largest telecommunications companies on a USD500 million acquisition of a regional competitor.”

The moment I started throwing figures around, people raised an eyebrow or two. Most of these people worked on transactions, deals or projects that ranged from thousands and hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, max. But when you’re working for an investment bank, and for a big one in particular, you may be dealing with billions of dollars day in and day out. And the clients are very recognizable corporate giants.

The media and sensationalism

Portrayals of bankers in movies, TV shows, magazines and newspapers tend to accentuate certain personality traits and attributes. Bankers are often depicted as being:

  • Supremely self-confident, assertive and unafraid to speak up;
  • Highly intelligent;
  • Mathematically adept;
  • Ferociously competitive;
  • Strongly analytical;
  • Excellent communicators; and, of course
  • Filthy rich

We all know the media likes to sensationalize things in order to get more readers and viewers. Also, not all of their coverage is positive, especially when the economy is doing poorly. Yet, there’s some truth to how they paint bankers.

Prior to banking, I worked in a number of different sectors but never in a setting with such a high concentration of self-assured self-starters as in an investment bank. To say that the business is competitive is an understatement. People aren’t just comfortable with numbers, they use them like Shakespeare used English: to enchant and dazzle. A good banker can communicate and simplify the most complex financial structures so that even a barber can comprehend them. And, yes, there are some in the business who make shockingly huge amounts of money. Keep in mind, however, the majority of bankers don’t make the hundreds of millions that you read about. Only a handful of individuals make the really big bucks. Nonetheless, a front office banker will make very good money, be able to live in the nicest part of town, and never be deterred from entering a restaurant because of menu prices. But do remember that they sacrifice their time for the pay. Everything has a price.

There is also truth to the stereotype of bankers as being overly moneydriven. But then again, they work in an investment bank, not a monastery. Every single day, from morning till night, a banker is working with money to make money by using money. They can’t escape it. It is at the core of their business. A bank is like a manufacturing plant that assembles moneymaking machines (ibankers) who will then continually feed the ever-hungry bank with revenues and fees. But this doesn’t mean that bankers have to sacrifice their souls. You can be in the business and remain grounded if you make a conscious effort to do so.

Let’s move on…

Maybe you’re considering a career in investment banking.

Now, you may have some questions running through your head.

Do I really have what it takes to become an investment banker? Can I do the job? Will I be able to handle that much responsibility?

You do. You can. You will. I’m not just saying this. I mean it 100%.

There’s nothing magical or alien about the craft of investment banking. Trust me.

Indeed, it is a difficult job. It’s very challenging. And it will require a lot from you. In fact, it will likely be more stressful than all the other jobs you’ve had and even those you’ll move on to after you’re done with the business.

The job, and the pressure that inevitably comes with it, will test you on many levels – emotionally (I’ve seen people cry), socially (I’ve seen marriages fall apart), and physically (I’ve seen people fall ill). But it is something most of us can do. We are all – and I mean all – very adaptable creatures. You’ve seen, heard or perhaps read stories about someone used to the pampered life (think an ambassador or politician) being thrown into a penitentiary in the least desirable part of the world and somehow adjusting to the new conditions over time. It’s painful, and the utter lack of freedom drives them borderline mad, but people are resilient and manage. With time, you can get used to almost anything. But that’s an extreme example. Banking is far easier.

Also, if you want it bad enough, you’ll do whatever it takes to acclimate faster, pick up on all the skills needed to do your job more efficiently, and start adding value quickly. And if you’re level-headed, there’s no reason why you can’t do it as a career and maintain a healthy emotional, social and physical life.

The hard part is breaking into the bank.

I’ve worked with people you’d never in a million years think had what it takes to become an investment banker. I’m talking of people who’d cringe if they were given the bill at a restaurant and asked to calculate what everyone owed; people who, before joining, had never heard of the likes of Lazard, Tata Group, McKinsey, Blackstone, George Soros, Sir Richard Branson or Kingdom Holding. People who never read The Financial Times or The Economist, and wouldn’t have a clue what a convertible bond was.

Imagine you’ve got 3 groups of friends.

  • Group A: These people are finance-inclined, read the financial papers, come from fields of study conducive to jobs in banking, and know a lot more about all things ‘financial’ than anyone else you know; they know a good deal about the world of money; they can name the top investment banks, their CEOs and even tell you what those institutions are known for and good at;
  • Group B: People in this group are generally interested in business and may know a tiny bit about finance but very little about investment banking; they’ll occasionally read The Economist.
  • Group C: These people know nothing of business, let alone finance; they would never read The Financial Times, Wall Street Journal or The Economist; they only read geography, travel or art magazines; their library at home includes only the likes of Twilight, the Complete Collection of Shakespeare’s Sonnets or Architectural Digest.

Well, I’ve seen Group C people break into the business. Those very same people joined a Front Office team and went on to become very good at what they did. They were language, literature or fine arts majors, but a few years into the job and they could comfortably speak about the Wallenberg family holdings, discuss the pros and cons of moving to Monaco, and summarise for you some of ADIA and CIC’s biggest investments.

Let’s settle this issue for once and for all. You have what it takes to do investment banking.

[Note: It will be more challenging if you’re not coming from a Finance/Economics/Math/Engineering type of discipline, since you’ll have some explaining to do, such as why you majored in, say, Drama if you want to be a banker. But the point is, you can always break in.]

No longer an Old Boys’ Club

The business of investment banking used to be kind of an old boys’ club, where only members of a particular group were able to enter the business. They included social elites and people affiliated with particular schools or associations.

Of course, some of this still persists in different forms, but it’s no longer a business reserved for people of just one background or ethnicity, particularly in cities like New York and London. Thirty or forty years ago, if you walked into a London-based investment bank, you’d probably only find Brits. But walk into the trading floor of bulge bracket investment bank today and you’ll feel like you’re in a General Assembly of the United Nations meeting. Not exactly, but you get my drift.

The business is still difficult to penetrate, but in many ways it is more accessible today than ever before. You don’t have to be called ‘Tyler Kennedy-Rockefeller III’ and come from Harvard to break in.

But I’m Not the Typical ‘ibanker’ Type

Many people are led to believe that investment banking is out of their reach due to how they see themselves in comparison to existing ibankers.

You run into a professional with a few years of experience and think, “Sheesh, I’m nothing like that.” The individual in front of you is sharp, sounds like a millionaire and carries himself with an air that’s foreign to you. But what you fail to realize is that this person very likely underwent a serious transformation. This person standing in front of you with poise and assertion may be completely unrecognizable from his or her former self.

I’ve seen some really dramatic metamorphoses. For some, the difference was astonishing between their former self and the person they became just a few years into the business. It was like looking at a whole new person. Think chicken shit --> chicken salad.

What it comes down to is a mindset. The difference is all in your head. You, too, can begin to think like a banker and feel like one. And after you join the business, you’ll be on the way to becoming a formidable dealmaker.

I haven’t studied at an Ivy League school or Oxbridge. I don’t come from a Grande École or some top-notch school.

I’d be lying if I told you that it doesn’t matter where you studied. It matters. The better the school, the easier the prospects of breaking in. But it’s not a make or break. Not at all. It’s not as if every Finance / Economics / Math / Accounting / Engineering / Physics student from Yale, Peking University, Princeton, HEC, LSE, University of Singapore, Oxford, or Harvard with an interest in banking gets into the business. In fact, the vast majority of them never break in.

First of all, there aren’t enough seats. Secondly, and most importantly, if you look at the profiles of most bankers, you’ll notice that a large number didn’t study at the brand-name schools. Instead, they went to good mid-ranking schools. Some to schools most people have never heard of.

There are pros and cons to every situation. Attending a Top-10 school has its own set of factors to deal with. Sure, more banks may come to campus, but then again you may have more competition. From a non-top school you’ll have another set of issues to deal with. Also, competition, though present, will be different. Fewer banks may come visit but you’ll be refreshing to recruiters’ eyes if you bring the right set of skills and experience to the table.

To let your schooling dishearten you is a pure and ludicrous waste of time. There are far too many variables at play for recruitment to be a simple case of, “You went to this school so you will [will not] make it.” It’s not like that at all.

Also, keep in mind that a lot of people go to certain schools only because they can afford the tuition. There’s lots of truth to that. There are plenty of kids who studied at top schools because their family had the wallet or donated money to have, for instance, a research centre built. I’ve seen it happen many times. You know where I’m going with this.

All that matters is where you’re headed. And you decide that, my friend.

To drive the point home, in recent years I’ve met many successful financiers and businesspeople that made fortunes for themselves. The majority didn’t study at top schools, and some didn’t even go to university. So let’s not dwell on that anymore. Let’s just look ahead. And if you are lucky enough to be at a top-ranked school now, then keep in mind that you’ve still got lots to do in order to set yourself apart from your fellow classmates.

I don’t have a relative who’s an investment banker. I don’t have any contacts in the business. Isn’t it about who you know?

“Who you know” matters a great deal. I’ve seen it override “what you know” and “where you come from” time and time again. And it applies to almost all areas of life and business.

But the great thing is that you don’t need to already have a relative or a friend who’s in the business. You can create your own contacts from scratch. That’s what I did. (Here’s one way you can do it.)

Yours truly

Not long ago, I was working for a large investment bank.

I began my finance career in London working in Capital Markets covering corporates, governments and government entities in emerging markets, with a focus on the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Eventually, I moved to the Financial Institutions Group, where I offered clients in the Middle East, and occasionally Europe, a range of products from debt and equity to M&A, strategic advisory and more. I worked on billions of dollars worth of deals.

After a while, I wanted a change, resigned, and took off on a month-long journey in Asia to recharge my batteries. Since then, I set up a few companies, joined the principal investment arm of one of the UK’s wealthiest families, and have worked with a number of other family offices from the GCC to Asia and the CIS.

I’ve had some good times and some bad ones, but most importantly it’s been exciting.

Working a long time for a large investment bank wasn’t for me, but it was an invaluable experience that gave me skills I would otherwise never have gained. I learned to be highly organized, comfortable juggling more items on one plate at the same than I ever imagined possible, and fluent in the language of money (finance).

And though what I do now is different, and maybe tomorrow I’ll work in a completely new sector, I owe much of where I am now to my experience within an investment bank. Banking experience was priceless.

A tremendous learning experience that will serve you wherever you go

With time, investment bankers acquire the skills to orchestrate large deals and take advantage of complex commercial opportunities. Their expertise, however, doesn’t just stop at finance; it enables them to be of great value in all sorts of ways to all kinds of organizations. A trained investment banker can be a tremendous asset to a politician, a corporate CEO, or even a charity.

Plenty of bankers have moved into philanthropy where they advise ultra rich individuals about how to spend money on initiatives that will improve society. Others have joined impact investment funds, which are pools of money that invest not only to make a financial profit but also to have a positive impact on the community. Some are hired by large foundations to put their amazing skills to use there.

Banking gives you the ability to do many things. I’ve known former bankers who became successful actors, film directors, hoteliers, technology startup founders and more. The skills they picked up in the bank helped them pinpoint revenue opportunities quicker and to act on them even faster.

And when people see investment banking experience on a CV/resumé, they’ll automatically assume that the person is, among other things, diligent, efficient and analytical.

Investment banking gives you the tools and skillset to do great things.

An unlikely ibanker

Before I joined an investment bank, I worked in a number of different sectors: technology startups (US), telecommunications (US), and economic development (Middle East and Caribbean).

I had done a bit of this and that, and didn’t have the typical ibanker profile – actually, far from it. On my CV, I had so many different entries under ‘Work Experience’ that recruiters were usually concerned I’d only stay for 6 months and leave. But with trial and error and relentless relationship building, I found a door into ibanking. That’s what you must do. Find a door. Or a backdoor. Or create one.

Where you don’t want to end up

I knew a guy, Jonathan, who was always passionate about investment banking. While the rest of us at university deliberated what to do with our futures and contemplated different career paths, he already knew without a shadow of a doubt what he’d do after graduation – ibanking. Jonathan wanted to be a banker more than any of us.

And he would have made a great banker, too.

Sadly, though, he couldn’t handle the pain one must often endure to get to the prize. After sending out more than 40 e-mails, most of which went unanswered, to various banks and making an equal number of calls to potential leads, he had only a dozen generic rejections to show for all his efforts. Worst of all, he saw people half as qualified and nowhere near as genuinely interested in the business seemingly glide their way into the business.

So he gave up.

It struck me that someone who wanted it so badly, and who had what it takes to succeed, just threw away his dreams and settled for a job in a firm within a sector he was completely indifferent about. And all because of some rejections and a belief that he was entitled to the job simply because he wanted it real bad.

But that’s not how it works. The system, universe or matrix (whatever you want to call it) doesn’t care that you want something badly and spend time in your room praying to get it. Wishing only makes things happen in your dreams. The real world requires sweat and tears. That entails working hard, meeting with people, and increasing your knowledge of the business through action – not prayer. You’ve got to get your ass up and pursue it and taste rejection enough to become immune to it and drink it by the litre.

Very successful people can rattle off an almost infinite list of rejections and failures for every win. They’ve all been through it. Those who tell you they’ve only had wins in life are bullshitting.

Having said that, I know people who barely tried and landed a job in banking. Yet, I know many more who were rejected time after time and were told they should look at other industries but who persisted until they broke in, seemingly against all odds.

I can tell you one thing for sure, and let this sink in – your quest won’t be easy. Not at all. You will have to try more than one strategy and meet with plenty of people, some of whom will be arrogant, condescending and straight-up assholes – this business has plenty of them.

But don’t become like Jonathan. It’s not like he’s gone into a deep depression ever since. Though he’s given up on banking for good, he’s now accustomed to what he does and is doing well. He’s not doing what he wants to be doing though. Not what he should have been doing. His job doesn’t excite him. Jonathan should have persisted.

There’s always a way

Computers may help filter applications, but ultimately people choose people. Remember that. A senior person within an investment bank can always make a call and bypass ‘systems’ to single out a candidate that he or she likes.

You don’t have to let a stupid computer program kick you out of the applicant pool because of where or what you studied.

And as long as you’re dealing with humans, there’s flexibility.

It’s a game

Treating your search like a matter of life and death will make you sick and will fill you with negative energy. It’s also one reason people give up.

I’ve found that the best way to tackle things like this is the same way I tackle doing business. Treat it as a game – a serious one, but a game nonetheless. Think chess.

What’s the worst that can happen? We tend to overplay worst-case scenarios.

The great thing about this game is that you can create your own rules and can always be a winner.

Besides, if you’re alive and healthy, you’re already a winner in life. Anything more is a bonus.

Key takeaways

Three things to remember:

  1. Investment banking is a great experience and is a line of work no longer reserved for a select few.
  2. Even if you do not have what may seem to be a typical “ibanker” profile, it’s still very possible to break in.
  3. Breaking into investment banking should be treated as a game, and you must be willing to bend the rules to win.

Now, do you want to increase your chances of breaking in? 

Then read The ibanker’s Guide to Breaking Into Investment Banking: An Unorthodox Approach.


3 thoughts on “Things to Bear in Mind if You Want to Break Into Investment Banking

  1. Chuck says:

    liked the section about treating job search like a game. You hear about people getting depressed when they’re not making progress. I say you are more likely to succeed if you are level headed.
    life is too short in any case.

    More of these posts mister ibanker.

  2. Mike says:

    Nothin, absolutely nothing, more sad than people like Jonathan. Makes me sad to know some people will never do what they should. We LIVE ONCE. ONLY ONCE damn it. What excuse do we have not do what we want? Go and do what you want. Become an actor. Violinist. Makeup artist. Free solo mountain climber (insane).

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