As with most other financial services professions, breaking into capital markets roles has a lot to do with networking.
Accordingly, many bankers and other people who do not know any better but feel compelled to give their opinion like to say, “get yourself out there and meet as many people as you can.”
Unfortunately, candidates get one chance to make a first impression. Meeting people early before you are polished will end up burning a lot of bridges, especially if there is a poor understanding of social context that comes more naturally with exposure to team sports and extracurricular activities.
In meeting candidates, many professionals I know upon realizing that the person across from them is a dud will let them know “well, it seems like you’re doing the right thing by reaching out, so keep doing what you’re doing.”
Ultimately, advice in this vein does aspiring students who do not know any better a disservice, because they never learn and they never wind up with a job that they are intellectually qualified for.
After the meeting they come back and skewer the coffee chat counterparty, cease communications, and recommend everyone else in the firm not to meet with this person. Effectively, that person has been blacklisted and will find it incredibly hard to find employment within that extended network. In addition, it turns professionals off from paying it forward through coffee chats, widening the gap between people with school networks and people without.
I have had the misfortune of being on both sides of some bad chats and would like to share some things to remember here. The crux of it revolves around something everyone should know – not just finance professionals – and that is to be considerate. There is no way to put it delicately, at least from a monetary perspective, the time you are taking out of a professional’s day is more valuable than yours and he/she is giving it up to help you – so don’t waste their time.
Offer to Buy Coffee in an Informational Interview
We understand the social dynamics at play on a first date where a girl makes the charade that she is fishing around her purse for her wallet. She never actually finds her wallet before the white knight steps in, but this gesture of pseudo-sincerity preserves the integrity of the meeting.
The same notion holds for a coffee chat – the reality is that most bankers are not going to let someone as financially destitute as a student (or worse off still, an accountant) pay for coffee – however the lack of an offer (preferably with gusto) is a red flag for entitlement. Financial professionals have hourly wages far in excess of a flat white, so a fake show of gratitude is appreciated.
Since I left the rat race to live out my liberal arts college dream to write for a meagre living, I now accept coffees and occasionally steak.
There are differing opinions about this, but being a psychological expert the benefit of flipping a resume over as part of the initial communication (or including your LinkedIn in the signature) exceeds the risk.
The worst case scenario is if the recipient thinks, “oh wow I don’t even know this person and he has the audacity to send me his resume, how forward.” The reality of the situation is that even if they think this is the case, they open the resume 99% of the time. If the resume is good, you will be contacted back assuming they have attrition problems and difficulties in filling vacancies.
Finance revolves around risk, and a coffee chat or a phone call is filled with unknowns. No one actually enjoys coffee chats and even for more precocious students they are not keen on a conversation about Spanish yields with a First Year. If they like you, they are going to ask you to flip your resume over after anyway – no one wants to know that you failed accounting after an insightful conversation.
Oh, no photos, please – we might look for your Instagram later if we are interested in finding out.
Communicate What You Want and Do It Quickly
Let people know what you want – a job in equity derivatives trading, and let them know quickly. Your email should have already communicated this to some extent, and it should include something such as “Hi Graham, I am a ____ from McGill interested in FX Sales” instead of “Hi Bob, Happy Friday! I am curious to learn about your job and whether I should look at Energy Investment Banking or join Cirque du Soleil as a stunt coordinator.”
Unless you are friends, do not talk about how you think you like something but you are not sure about the hours or the intellectual rigour. No one is here to sell you anything, you are here to sell yourself.
If you are having a conversation with a financial professional, it is already obvious that the end goal is a job or another connection. Unless it is solicited, no one cares about how great it was backpacking around Southeast Asia getting plastered with 10 new friends for life from Australia and Ireland.
The more time you spend talking about the water in Bali, the less time you have communicating why you are qualified, hungry and a good fit for a career in finance.
Listen and Learn from an Experienced Professional
If you are solicited, however, feel free to chat as this means it is a slow day and that your counterparty genuinely wants to build rapport. The more they like you, the more likely this chat will lead to something else. If they like golf, talk about golf. If they like food, talk about food. If they talk about something inappropriate, steer the conversation back into respectability.
Basically, be prepared to lead the conversation if your counterparty is silent but let them lead if they want to because you are borrowing their time.
If they want to talk, consider it a privilege – and even if you have knowledge about a particular subject, listen attentively and feign interest.
The worst thing you could say (actually, one of many) is to interject, “I know what you do,” when they are about to tell you what they do. It seems like common sense but seems to be a recurring phenomenon. This stinks of conceit and you will inevitably be asked to explain what they do and fail – because if you really knew, you would already be doing it.
Research and Prepare in Advance of the Interview
Do you know what a stupid question is?
“So, what’s it like working in corporate banking?”
“So, if you could change one thing about your job what would it be?”
Here’s a few more.
There is ample literature addressing these questions and it is a fair assumption that if you cannot be bothered to Google things before this coffee, then you cannot be bothered to figure things out by yourself on the job. A lack of intellectual curiosity and preparation suggests entitlement, and this is not a desirable trait.
It is also disrespectful because someone has to waste time explaining something that you should have known. Sometimes, professionals do not actually know what they do, embarrassing them and pushing you further down the blacklist.
After a few minutes, provided there is an absence of stupid questions, you have the privilege of getting tested for technical questions.
Reflect on Your Failures and Do Not Make the Same Mistake Twice
There is a guy who works with me on a profitable desk who came over from China in high school. He is immaculately dressed, well-spoken, affable and leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling in your heart. Clients send him wine and he has no shortage of offers for jobs.
I asked him about how he became so Zen, and he told me that when he was growing up he was a cantankerous and petulant child – and every time he sinned he had to atone for his transgressions via a 1,000 word self-reflection paper dedicated to Chairman Mao.
After about 40 of these papers, he became a very self-aware individual and figured out that he was reprehensible before looking to rectify his faults.
You do not need to write a self-reflection paper every time you say something cringeworthy at a coffee chat, but you should pay attention to moments where your coffee date seems uncomfortable and think about possible triggers. Some faults are more obvious – for instance, forgetting what the difference is between an operating lease and a capital lease (I would personally vomit). Technical errors are easy to identify. Social miscues take practice.
Focusing on what you did right is a loser’s game. It does not matter than you answered all the technical questions correctly if you did not get the job. Employment is binary, if you’re not first, you’re last.
Take Criticism Well, But with a Grain of Salt
Sometimes, a perceived fault is identified not by you, but by someone else. The benefit when this happens is that you may gain insight that you otherwise would not have known. The downside is that you have shown a poor hand and have exposed your weakness.
It is important to not take this personally – if someone tells you over coffee that you know nothing about corporate finance and will never make it into investment banking, focus on not knowing about corporate finance. Practice your technical interview questions.
Sometimes, people are just wrong in their criticism and you are not at fault. Being able to discern when that is the case takes experience and a cool head. Being able to handle that situation diplomatically is good practice for manoeuvring the political jungle that is the real job.
For the record, I know a lot of people who were told that they knew nothing about corporate finance and would never work in investment banking who work in investment banking. I am also happy/sad to say that they still know nothing about corporate finance.