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Do I Need Social Skills to Work in Investment Banking?

Sometimes I reminisce about my days in university when I was on the other side of the interview table. Even then I knew that some people absolutely sucked.

After taking Chinese for foreigners in first year university and dating a Chinese girl for three weeks, I decided that I was ready to work in China.

The next day, we get an email from the career centre – new information session: Investment Banking in China – Hosted by Global China Connection. Space is limited, register NOW. The speaker was a metals and mining banker in Beijing at a major global investment bank.

I RSVP’d and arrived in the auditorium where I found myself to be the only non-Chinese present out of 50 people. I recognized most of the audience – these were straight A students with 102% scores in math. They do not actually give over 100% in transcripts so they just ended up scaling my 98% down to a 72%.

Once the doors locked with a click, the speaker started outlining how he got into coverage in Beijing in very broken English.

Possibly out of respect for me, the entire presentation was in English and Q&A was conducted in English despite everyone in the room being far more proficient in Mandarin. After Q&A started, the conversation regressed into the bizarre.

“Hi, my name is ______, very thanks to you coming in today for session. Can you confirm that the investment bankers like to do hard drugs like cocaine?”

“No, please do not do that – if you bring drugs into the country you will be executed. There is a zero tolerance policy for drugs.”

I just stood there, mouth agape and trying to make shocked eye contact with someone to share in the ridiculousness of the situation. Wrong, everyone nodded solemnly and some girl was scribbling furiously into her notebook. Like come on guys, like anyone of you even know what cocaine is.

“Hi, last week I am curious as to how you are feel about health as an investment banker. Investment banker. I read that last week in New York, and investment banker was killed. How do you ensure your safety as an investment banker. Thank you.”

“I personally try to go to the gym when I can. Sometimes the hours are very bad, but you have to make time for the gym.”

“No, you misunderstood my question. An investment banker was killed. How can you be sure of your safety?”


“Was he killed because he was an investment banker?”

“I’m not sure.”

More silence. Furious scribbling in a notebook. No one laughed or indicated that questions were out of the ordinary.

My jaw was on the floor by this point.

Basically, the speaker did not understand the audience and the audience did not understand the speaker – and all of the questions were completely inappropriate, but despite all of this everyone was stone faced while I developed powerful abdominal muscles and terrible cramps from suppressing laughter.

One gentleman at the front raised his hand. The banker pointed at him. Next question.

“Hi, my name is _____, actually I already worked in investment banking last summer at RBC Capital Markets in Beijing.”

“Ok, great. What’s your question?”

“I forgot.”

This guy turns around and starts making fierce eye contact with all of the girls in the room. Sly dog! At this point I burst out laughing and ran out of the room.

I was ecstatic. If this was my competition, I would get into Goldman Sachs Hong Kong for sure! I was wrong, you actually have to speak Chinese. The job went to no one else in that room, however.

What’s the lesson here? You do need social skills to succeed in this job – investment banking is a client business and anyone who may randomly embarrass the firm is a liability. There have been so many interviews that I have conducted now on the hiring side where applicants with perfect grades and can handle any technical question I throw at them before getting dinged for asking something grossly inappropriate in any setting, never mind an interview. If you can’t hold it together in an interview we are never putting you on the phone with a client.

Recognizing that this is your weakness is key. A lot of very smart applicants fail the interview repeatedly because of social miscues. Instead of working on improving the softer aspects, they double down and study even harder on the technical section. This is mindless.

Talk to people, join a public speaking club (Toastmasters) and reflect on what went right and what went wrong. If you become very quiet when a woman walks into the room, work on that. If you find people give you quizzical looks and the conversation dies, reevaluate the topics you are bringing up.

But we also want to take the opportunity to dispel the myth that investment banking is all about fit. You have to pass a bar, but you do not have to be amazing.

The reality is that there is a spectrum. Grades alone will not make up for a lack of social grace. Confident voice projection, engaging dialogue and grooming cannot make up for being an idiot. I have never hired anyone who could not answer “Walk me through a DCF” (appreciate that I do know people at other firms who have been hired who could not answer).

You do not have to be an exceptionally high EQ person when you join investment banking, although the hope is that you can develop these skills (and as we have alluded to in other posts, this is a far easier task versus becoming good at math and corporate finance) before moving into a client facing capacity. Most analysts I worked with could use a little bit of business school polish but for the most part would know what was acceptable and what was not.

Some banks hire the same profile – you do have to be an eloquent conversationalist and well-spoken right off the bat. However many other banks are OK with hiring smart nerdy kids. I once worked in a group that hired only 90%+ students from a quant focused school. They were fantastic analysts with insane work ethic.

They pounded out 100 hour weeks on a regular basis and the numbers were practically always right. In addition, they were always coming up with new ways to improve Excel databases for precedents and comps with cleverly designed formulas. Pulling figures became easier for everyone.

These guys were socially awkward and were expected to shut up on the conference call unless called upon to explain a calculation. However, they were invited to the corporate seats at Jays games and would be thrown a bone here and there for free high end steak dinners (hello Jacobs and Harbour Sixty) and an open bar. Clients actually enjoyed watching them getting blasted and found them endearing.

Would they be trusted to take a client out for a beer alone? Absolutely not. But that is not the primary function of the investment banking analyst. They have at least 6 years to get to that point as an intermediate Vice President before client responsibilities become more pronounced, and we know some socially inept VPs.

EQ can absolutely be improved through trial and error or study, just like IQ can – and we have seen analysts that have absolutely floundered in terms of being caught alone with a client on a conference call before the relationship manager dials in and struggling with “How’s the weather over there in Toronto.” who can now lead client meetings and are the life of the party. They got there because they put in the work.

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ex investment banking associate

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