Uncle Carl and The Three Headaches of Banking

If you could get over that whole "work-life balance" thing, that'd be great.

Uncle Carl

Whenever I teach a grad program, I tell them about my Uncle Carl. He is a hilarious, 83-year-old, Harvard-educated MBA who worked in investment banking for years.

When I graduated from university back in ‘96, the first question I asked Uncle Carl was, “Can you get me a job?”


I immediately thought he was useless.

He went on, “The skill set that made me successful back in the day is not the same skill set that will make you successful today.  The best thing you can do is find a person your age who’s already successful and do what they’re doing.”

I felt better, as this seemed like golden advice.  (And to this day, it’s still the best career advice I’ve ever been given.)

I wasn’t done yet with the practicalities of the matter.

“Well, what would you do if you were me?”

I had just graduated from Villanova with a degree in finance and knew nothing.

“What Kind of Headache Do You Want?”

Uncle Carl responded with a question, much to my chagrin:

“Well, what kind of headache do you want?”

As I mentioned, my Uncle Carl is a brilliant guy, and I thought it was more of a riddle than anything else. But I didn’t feel like playing along.

“What do you mean by ‘what headache do I want?'”

Uncle Carl continued, “Well if you’re going to go into investment banking, you’re going to have one long, simmering, nine-month headache because that’s how long it takes for a deal to get done. If you’re going to go into accounting, you’re going to have one enormous headache every month. If you want to go into trading, you’re going to have one small headache every five minutes. So, which headache do you want?”

I winced at the investment banking option. I mean, I couldn’t imagine having a nine-month-long headache.  My hangovers were terrible enough.  So, I immediately stopped looking for investment banking jobs.

I’m 46 years old now.  In my career, I’ve worked in an accounting department, and it’s absolutely true. You have one gigantic headache every month. For the rest of the month, you do pretty much nothing.

For trading, which I’ve also done, you do have a small headache every five minutes. So, I’m going to assume that Uncle Carl was right about investment banking and that you do have one long nine-month headache.

The Goldman Sachs Investment Banking Kerfuffle

Here’s the thing. Let’s look at these Goldman Sachs kids.  If you haven’t heard, analysts there claimed “inhumane” work conditions.  Here’s The Guardian to their rescue.  Here are some rebuttals in the New York Times.

They get these jobs because they’re Ivy League-educated… or at least Oxbridge or Stanford or Northwestern.

These kids are extremely intelligent, and they probably used to get 4.0s on everything. Their parents loved everything they do, and they expect to be treated like royalty. Except they forgot one thing: they’re the noobs in the investment banks. They know practically nothing (to start, like everyone else who’s starting out).

I remember when my cousin, Uncle Carl’s daughter, went to work for what was then a major investment bank. She had just graduated from Hamilton College. She, too, is brilliant.

And one day, she was made to wait 36 hours for a fax.

I remember at the time thinking, “Boy, I’m so glad I didn’t go into investment banking.” But, people who do make those decisions now are whining about the decision they made. They want to be treated better and to work fewer hours. They want their bosses to acknowledge that they exist, even though they contribute little to the bottom line.

I find this staggering. The entitlement this generation feels is enormous. And really, that’s part of the problem across many industries and not just banking.

So, I have some advice for these kids.

They Have Options Unlike Any Generation Before Them

One, if you don’t like it, leave.  Find something else to do. Anybody could start a company nowadays. You’ll see how hard it is to build from nothing.  Right now, you’re trading on the single best name in banking.  It’s a lot different when you’re trading on your own name.

(I, myself, co-founder of a startup, cannot believe how difficult it’s been. And honestly, I wouldn’t do it again. But I think everyone needs to try it at least once.)

Number two, shut up and get on with it.  You’ve done nothing yet to earn any accolades. You’re going to figure out very soon that the only thing that matters in an investment banking career is how happy you can make your clients.

Analysts build models on Excel all day. Associates do the same… and also stand over the analysts they give some work to.  If they’re good enough, Vice Presidents become staffers, and they will organize the deal teams.

And then, once you get to Director, you better be able to bring in clients and make them jumping-up-and-down-thrilled with your work.

And that’s where most people fail. That’s where most senior bankers need to get executive coaching because nobody gives a toss they went to Harvard at this point.  They care about (GASP!) what your skills are to give them the best results.

Those who are good enough to bring in the business consistently become Managing Directors or Partners. And those people may not have been the best analysts.  But they know how to please their clients.

You need to be technically proficient when you’re young.  You need to be a rainmaker when you’re old.

Technically, They’ve Got Transferable Skills

Now, the technical proficiency is impressive among these kids. When I ran talent development for an investment bank, I thought it’d be a good idea to take an investment banking course. (Smart cookie I am.)

So, I did a mini-course that squeezes an analyst grad course into six days. I found it fascinating, and it was the first time in my life I had regretted not going into investment banking.

Using your mouse in excel ain't nobody got time for that

I was amazed at being able to stick all of these accounting things into a spreadsheet; something financial examinations do not make you do. By the time they’re done with their analyst tracks, they’re probably are worth more than most middle managers twice their age in other parts of their banks.  And they get paid accordingly.

I’m sure I’ll get people to disagree with me on that, but I’m pretty sure I’m right.

So, what I would say to young analysts is this: suck it up. It’ll get better. Try not to publicize your dirty laundry.

To paraphrase Clint Eastwood: “If you want a pool table in the office, work for Google.”