'The unnecessary stress and the work is really a rite of passage'.
She got in touch writing that "one perspective missing from your blog is that of recent MBA graduates who still are extremely enamoured by the 'glamorous' world of mergers and acquisitions. While all of us have heard the stories and read standard books like City Boy and Monkey Business, one really thinks it can't be that bad. But the typical life of an MBA associate in M&A is anywhere between one and three years, when eventually most realise that the salaries are not worth the suffering."
She is a cheerful woman in her mid-20s, born and raised in Asia. She has also written the hilarious Game of Clones blog about her time in an investment bank.
"Because some star bankers behave so arrogantly they are an easy target for popular anger, but I really believe a lot of them just need a hug. After I left the bank, I saw this documentary about narcissistic personality disorders. It was interesting to see how narcissists lack empathy but remain extremely sensitive to criticism because deep inside they are so insecure. Looking back, I was surprised at the number of similar traits I could identify in my colleagues and superiors.
"If you are genuinely confident, you don't need to act arrogant. Why buy all those expensive bottles of champagne unless you have something to compensate for and need to make yourself feel better through material possessions?
"Banking is a great place to get a stamp of approval from the world. It validates your intelligence, your education. If you have the brand name of a major bulge bracket bank on your résumé, it proves that you have been through the grind and can work hard. Everybody loves to hate bankers, but people start to consider you in a new light when they hear you work for a major global bank.
"I did an internship first. Why did I stay? Well, my internship experience was less than ideal. But they offered me a great sign-on bonus which, at that time, I thought was a quick way to pay off my debt.
"However, after almost two years, I realised it was not for me. I am now in a different area in finance, still in an investment bank but no longer front office [revenue generating]. It's a very different work environment. People actually greet each other in the morning. I don't get frowned upon when I have to leave for a dentist appointment. If I have not been well, people will inquire how I feel the next day. Compare that to the front office. One time my superior told me that getting the flu had been 'reckless'.
"In my time there, I learned so much. Professionally, of course: how to handle stress and all the monkey tasks they make you do. But the real lessons were personal: how quickly you can forget yourself, and how easily you become the worst version of yourself.
"My frustrations were at the tip of my nose. I was permanently stressed, and this carried over to the rest of my life: the chocolate getting stuck in the vending machine, the taxi showing up late, being stranded in traffic – it took very little to provoke a reaction. You have to be fast and on the edge and alert all the time in your work, and you begin to expect the same instant gratification from the rest of the world.
"Then there's the gradual loss of the ability to empathise. There are people out there with far greater problems than bankers, who are so much worse off. It helps if you can see that, but somehow people in investment banks lose touch with reality.
"I am from the non-western world and saw extreme poverty. The thing is, the life of an investment banker is such that you become entirely self-absorbed and self-centred. You forget there's a world out there with real problems.
"You spend so much time at work that even your partner doesn't really know what you're going through. You find more and more commonalities with your peers at work, which feeds into this sense of living in a bubble.
"When junior bankers are recruited at school, we are told that we'll be working on 'transformational multimillion deals with regular client interaction and visibility with C-level executives' of large corporates. In reality, for junior bankers, there is a lot more execution/implementation work, like an assembly line with very little strategic input. The only 'senior management exposure' you realistically get is your own VP or MD (line manager), and the only jet-setting you do is from work to home and back. So investment banks hire the very best people, then make them do really basic and routine tasks, despite putting them through an incredibly stressful hiring process.
"I have to say, though, that professors in business school did have a running joke: 'You will all go into investment banks and we'll see how long you last.' They've seen the pattern. Some even said: 'So you have sold your soul?'
"What's the work like? Mergers and acquisitions is about trying to convince business clients to do a deal and then executing those deals. To gain the initial business – there is a lot of pitching and marketing. And these pitch books are put together by … junior bankers. So what I found myself doing all day was reviewing work of my analysts, formatting presentations, making mind-numbing iterations provided by seniors, doing some Excel wizardry, fixing footnotes on pages … A managing director doesn't like the mustard yellow you used in the presentation and now you have to spend a full night replacing it with light yellow. Or a few hours before the deadline, a director insists that we remove the gridlines behind all the graphs ... I realised, I have a brain and it's not being used.
"You work 15-16 hours shifts, your weekends are forfeited and you never know if you have to cancel your holiday. This combination makes it really tough; not only are you dead-tired, you cannot plan your schedule, and hence you cannot work towards a moment when you know you'll be able to relax.
"Because at any time your superior can claim you. This sinking feeling when you see the little red light flash on your BlackBerry. From that moment on, you have to check it, you have to know if something important has come up. It was all too common to go for dinner with my investment banker friends on a weekday and there would be a moment when all of us would be checking in with our BlackBerrys.
"It is not unusual to see investment bankers become stressed, depressed and lonely. Many look much older than they are because they age so much faster. I used to think of people that I worked with and look up their pictures on the intranet. All these once healthy, youthful, smiling faces had slowly morphed into raisins.
"It's not the long hours, though these are terrible. What got to me was the artificial stress. We were constantly put under fake deadlines, creating unnecessary stress. I'd be told to have something ready by 10pm on Tuesday, although my superior wouldn't look at until midday on Thursday. Yet, the 10pm Tuesday deadline causes incredible grief.
"Outsiders focus on the pay investment bankers get. What they may not see is what that pay means to the bank: they effectively absolve themselves of all responsibility to treat you well. Your superiors don't care if you haven't slept in four days, or that your weekend is ruined.
"You're a resource in banks, not a human being, and that applies to the people higher up as well. Years of service don't matter. How much money you brought in doesn't matter. If you are seen as no longer performing ,you are chucked out without the bank batting an eyelid.
"That's such an inconsistency: you are treated as completely indispensable in the sense that, when the bank needs you, you have to drop everything at once, cancel vacations or weekends. Then, from one moment to the next, you're fired and marched out of the building five minutes later. So how can the bank cope with your sudden disappearance if earlier your presence was absolutely necessary at all times?
"The unnecessary stress and the work is really a rite of passage, I think. My superiors seemed to think: 'I went through this, so why wouldn't you?' It makes you wonder: what are the investment bankers like who come through a system like this? Are they filtering out people for maximum endurance? Obedience?
"I suppose an important difference between me and colleagues who did stay on is that I never identified with the bank. The tipping point was when my parents were over from the other side of the globe, and I hardly saw them.
"Looking back, it's telling how little I have got to know about colleagues' personal life outside the bank. All those hours, yet everyone kept such a distance. At least with some colleagues who are from business school, you build a bond, but with most others, you just don't bring up personal stuff – this is something you pick up from the start. Just put your head down and work hard. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the main topic of conversation in the front office is complaining about other people at work.
"That's another change with the organisation I work for now: you know about colleagues' personal lives.
"As juniors they tell you 'after this, you can do anything'. The truth is, almost everyone at a given point of time in their banking career has seriously evaluated quitting and looks for an exit. However, there is a misplaced sense of prestige that comes from working at an investment bank that makes it hard for people to leave. There's the money: you're unlikely to find a job that pays almost 100K – most people will probably need a lifetime to earn that, while in banking it is earned by a 25-26-year-old. And finding something else is not easy, not in this economic climate. After I resolved to leave, it took me eight months to find a new job.
"One thing that pushed me towards the big banks are the visa requirements. It's simply much easier to be sponsored by the big banks if you are, like me, an international, ie, a foreigner from outside the EU. How it works out is that the administration costs are so high that smaller companies just can't afford me. Another consequence of this is that the exit opportunities for internationals are limited. If I quit at an investment bank without landing another job first, I can find myself kicked out of the country.
"On the dating scene, telling guys you're an investment banker is disastrous. I found out soon enough. It acts like a man-repellent. Men seem to feel threatened by women as investment bankers. Meanwhile my male colleagues told me: 'I'd never date an investment banker.' They know what kind of life a female investment banker lives, how she would always be tired and irritable and stressed.
"Looking at the very few women who made it to the top in our bank, I see their point. I remember one time I asked one of those women about her work-life balance, and she said: 'You have to get a stay-at-home husband.' Ha ha! I was like, 'OK, where do I get these? Is there a website?'
"I don't think that things have changed at all since the crisis, not fundamentally. Nothing will work until banks reorganise their culture so their employees become more vested in the bank's success."
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image: © Davy Landman