A few years ago now I interviewed for a graduate position at a major investment bank. This is the story of my application, and all the fun I had on the way. I’ll refrain from disclosing the name of the bank, though I’m confident that any of you who have read Liars Poker by Micheal Lewis, or indeed have experience of the industry will see a familiar picture.
An investment bank
When I was in my final year at university, I was in the fortunate position of having a virtually guaranteed job offer from my sponsoring company Bovis Lend Lease. Rather than sit back and wait for my contract to arrive, I thought I would take the opportunity to play the field and see how much I was worth (if anything!). I made a list of desirable employers and ranked them in order of my salary expectations and application deadlines, which interestingly were strongly correlated. In September/October 2004 I filled out my online application for a particular bank that I hadn’t quite chosen at random.
It was a fairly conventional form, like almost all the others for graduate employers. I can’t remember if I had to do a cheesy cover letter that included a quote from the founder or current CEO of the bank. I’ve certainly written a couple of those in my time and it makes me feel rather uncomfortable! I filled out all the usual details, such as my entire educational history, previous work experience, hobbies, interests and the competence questions along the lines of:
- Tell us about when you worked in a team
- Tell us about when you took a leading role
- Tell us about how you dealt with a conflict or difficult situation
After pressing the send button I crossed my fingers and waited. I knew if they liked my answers (or even bothered to read them!) I should have the paper qualifications to at least make the first round. I was also expecting a numerical/verbal reasoning/how smart are you type online test, which I duly completed in response to the email invitation. At the same time I had applied for the Government ‘Fast Stream’ civil service recruitment program, so large numbers of online tests were nothing new – or especially challenging.
After a couple of weeks my first round interview invitation arrived. I was still quite naive at this point, and hadn’t really figured out that there would be numerous stages to the process – however I have to say I enjoyed all of it. The first round interview took place in a small meeting room at the Bank’s offices, on their executive entertainment floor. There were two interviewers, one manager from Operations, the department I had applied for and a second from HR. It was clear from the first question that the manager was the key player in the room and the one I had to impress, whilst taking care to keep HR satisfied that I didn’t have any undesirable ‘downside’ attributes.
The questions initially focused on some of the points from my online application form. I was able to tell the stories about my leadership experiences, previous employment and hobbies in a bit more detail. The operations manager then took more of a handle on the interview and started to ask me questions to test my analytical capabilities. Two questions I remember in particular were:
- How would you evaluate the value of an option to lease two additional floors of this building?
- If I gave you £10,000, what would you invest it in?
The first question was quite interesting, as we discussed things like market growth, business cycles, headcount, the opportunity cost, strategic interests of keeping competitors or other organisations out of the building, and the future cost of leases. However the second question completely blew me away. I’d done some reading in the economist prior to the interview – if you’re going for this type of interview you are always well advised to have the price of gold, crude oil and at the very least the current BOE base rate written on the inside of your eyelids. However, as investment strategies go I didn’t really have a clue at the time – and wasn’t going to be able to come up with something in the 2 seconds thinking time I bought by sipping my glass of fizzy interview water.
I was quite pleased with my answer – I stated calmly that £10,000 wasn’t a lot of money. Really to make a serious investment you would need at least £100,000 or ideally £1M+. I still didn’t really know what I would invest this amount of money in, so I said that I’d start my own business! The operations manager really liked this – he’d probably heard about 20 stories about hedged bond/equity portfolios by this point from all the other candidates. Anyway, a few seconds later the interview was over and I was on my way out of the polished walnut paneled hallways and headed back to earth with the security guard in the marble clad lift.
Sure enough a couple of weeks later I got another invitation to a ‘Meet the Managers’ type event at the Bank’s offices, where we would have the opportunity to meet a selection of senior staff, our potential future managers and the other applicants for the same roles. The format was an after work evening talk, given by a senior VP or MD (everyone seemed to be at least a VP actually.. this guy must have been more than that, maybe he was COO) who was responsible for all bank operations in Europe. He told us about how great the bank was, and how it was the biggest bank in the world by some measure or other. I’m sure every bank has a slide that it shows the new potential recruits showing how it is the leader in a particular field of looking after other peoples money. Anyway, the most interesting things was what happened after the talk had finished (and of course after the more annoying ones among the candidates had finished asking their stupid questions). We were lead into the buildings grand atrium and provided with access to a free bar, and some rather diminutive nibbles.
I’m not sure if it was just my cynical mind which saw this as another form of ‘interview’ under the presence of alcohol. This viewpoint wasn’t shared by at least one of the bank’s managers who proceeded to down a few too many bottles of beer and start to talk rather loudly (loud enough for me to hear on the other side of the room). If the bank had intended to see how the candidates could handle their beer then they failed. In fact the boot was on the other foot and this manager (a die hard West Ham fan) was giving the bank a kicking! After he finished a particularly gratuitous ‘loads of money’ anecdote I thought it would be a good time to ask him about his team’s staff turn over. He stated bluntly “It’s bigger than 100%, you see 50% of the people I work with, or maybe 60% of the people I work with I don’t like them! So I have them fired. The other 50% tend to leave of their own accord”. Thanks for the tip…
I was pretty much decided that I didn’t really want to work there. And I certainly didn’t want to work for someone who makes a habit of firing 50% of their staff. At some point I heard a similar story from one of the 6 new graduates that had joined some 6 months earlier, recounting how one of them had already been fired by the self-same manager I had met above. The details in this case were even more frightening, apparently the now ex-graduate-banker hadn’t even been working for the manager when he got the chop. The manager had just seen him one day on the trading floor, thought he looked slightly un-tidy and immediately picked up the phone to HR to complain that he was untidy and should be fired. Bang!
One of the other war stories we picked up from the new grads was that the Bank’s entire Tokyo office had been fired recently. I’d heard that banks tend to make such decisions at high speed without much room for compassion, but this tale had them all fired over a lunchtime! I’m not sure if it’s true, but it certainly made me think about ‘stability’ and that old chestnut of ‘a job for life’ in the comparative benevolence of the construction industry.
The final part of the selection process was the dreaded (for those who cared…) assessment centre. The only thing I was dreading was the early morning start! We had to be at the Bank’s office for 7am on a Saturday. As my friends know, I’m not a particularly early riser – and indeed travelling by tube to ‘where you want to go’ in London at the weekend has been virtually impossible for a while now. So fortunately my dad woke me up super early and gave me a lift (in my best suit and tie!) down to the Bank. All the other candidates were already sitting in the big glass entrance in various stages of waking up.
The day consisted of a number of different exercises:
- Numerical and Verbal Reasoning Tests – to check that we hadn’t somehow cheated in the online ones
- Two personal interviews (I think.. I only remember one actually)
- Lunch in the brasserie on the corporate hospitality floor
- Team activities
The tests were simple enough. Perhaps it was a bit mean of me, but since everyone was wearing their hyper-competitive clothes and looking at each other through hyper-competitive eyes I guess I suffered a moment of weakness. So now is probably a good time to confess that I wrote the whole test as fast and loud as possible with my pencil. I slammed it down a lot louder than strictly necessary 3-4 minutes before the end of the 20 minute test, before I’d even finished, to make sure everyone in the room thought that I’d finished well ahead of time. I picked it up again a few seconds later and did the remaining questions quietly whilst everyone else was still blinded with panic.
The interviews were more or less unremarkable – with the only memorable incident being when a slightly mature looking guy asked me “So why do you want to do Banking when you’ve spent your education studying to do Engineering?”. He didn’t give me any pre-warning, but after I’d finished my polite response he put his cards on the table and said that he was trained as an engineer and that it’s always a good idea to be tactful when answering questions like that!
The group exercises were split into two parts – the first was competitions between groups, the second competition within the group. For the first competition they brought in a 5″ stack of FT’s and a few mini post-it tape dispensers. We were split into teams of about 5 candidates, told to sit together and then given the brief:
- Build the highest tower you can using just the papers and the sellotape
Fortunately this is the same kind of exercise I used to make the kids in my Church Youth Group do – actually it was harder for them as they had to put an egg on the top of their paper tower (and keep it there for 5 minutes!). Fortunately we didn’t have any eggs, otherwise most of the other teams would have broken theirs. My personal highlight of this exercise was the look on the face of one of my economics graduate team mates, who had obviously never done anything more exciting with the FT than read it. With a little sunday-school engineering knowledge my team produced the tallest tower – so big in fact that we actually touched the ceiling of the conference room! Activity feedback at the end of the process included the suggestion that a taller room would be more suitable…
After the initial group activity we were lead away into a conference room, just the 5 candidates and two Bank employees – one manager from Operations and one from HR. The Ops manager supervising my group was the same guy that had given me my first round interview, which was nice as I quite liked him. We all sat round a circular conference table and the next task began. The Ops manager dealt out some of his business cards and told us not to turn them over.
We were then asked to stick them to our heads, so that the non-business card side was facing out. This revealed a number of celebrity names – the aim of the next game being to work out what name you were wearing on your own head using exclusively yes/no questions. Again this is a game I’ve played with my church youth group, so not especially challenging! Though you would have thought it was brain surgery to hear what some of the candidates asked as their ‘yes/no’ questions. I think one guy out of the 5 of us failed to guess his name, which was something like Robbie Williams.
Once everyone had either guessed or been ‘informed’ of their name we moved on to the final game – the lifeboat. Again it’s a fairly conventional game to play, where everyone votes each round to throw one person out of the boat, until only two people remain. Candidate ‘Robbie Williams’ was the first to be fed to the sharks, closely followed by a couple of other less persuasive individuals. The day was rounded off a few minutes later with a ‘thank you for coming, we will call you in a week or two’ general announcement and I went home (for a sleep of course, I’d missed at least 4 hours due to the early start).
That is the end of the exciting bit of the story – a week later the Bank did indeed call me, amazingly with a job offer that was indeed very well paid, especially for a graduate position. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t seriously consider it – but in the end I decided to turn them down and stick with my sponsors and a career (so far) in engineering. I’m not sure if the story has a moral? Probably the most concise summary is:
- As an employer you need to sell yourself to potential recruits, lots of money and a nice shiny office isn’t enough. If they hate your guts by the end of the interview they will probably reject your job offer.
- Beware of other candidates in the recruitment process. Sometimes they are more-or-less along for a joyride, including free interview practice and complimentary beer.
- Teenage children are often better problem solvers and communicators that supposed ‘top flight’ graduates.
- I’m sure that not all banks are like this one, but there are definitely still a few that are very similar.
When thinking about your career choices my best advice is to apply for everything you feasibly can. Should you get the interview/assessment centre make sure you enjoy and learn from the experience.