From the monthly archives:

November 2013

Has anyone actually gotten fired in the past 40 years? Sure, you may have been laid off, let go, reduced in force, been impacted by a resource action, made redundant or – and this is our favorite – demised, but fired? That’s such an antiquated term.

Whatever the euphemism and whatever sociopathy engendered it, odds are good that it has happened, or will happen, to you at some point in your career. If you’re eyeballing a site dedicated to helping people find investment banking jobs (like you’re doing now), then chances are you either just got out of school or you may have just been laid off.

If you’ve been laid off, it doesn’t have to happen again. If you’re new to the work force, it’s likely to happen to you at least once. Still, there are ways to minimize the likelihood of it happening twice.

According to the Harvard Business Review blog site, there are six reasons people find their names on the list and cardboard crates on their desks. All 150 rightsized (ooh, we forgot about that one earlier!) employees surveyed shared at least two of these traits:

  1. They were not viewed as strategic.
  2. They failed to consistently deliver results.
  3. Their ethics or integrity had been called into question.
  4. They had (very) poor interpersonal skills.
  5. They were resistant to change, both personally and organizationally.
  6. They had lost sponsors or support.

Notice what’s not on the list? Performance.

No matter how good you are at your job, a good review from the previous cycle – or the previous 20 cycles – means little. Even promotions “can bring a false sense of security,” according to the article. So if you were blindsided by a layoff because of a history of favorable assessments, then you’re not alone.

Even so, each of the proximate causes above could have been identified and, if you knew that more than one applied to your own situation, then the day you figured it out should’ve been the day you polished up the resume and started making discreet calls. The last one in particular is entirely out of your span of control but, if one of the first five fits you, then it could be the coup de grace.

“That last factor is clearly political, and its pervasiveness suggests that everyone should be a little bit paranoid when layoffs are in the offing,” authors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman explain. “But none of the unfortunate 150 were laid off for that reason only. Everyone was let go for at least one, and generally more than one, justifiable reason.”

To be clear, this HBR survey didn’t focus on investment banking jobs. But it did limit the field to the Fortune 100 – which is well-represented by financial, insurance and holding companies – so it’s not unlikely that some of the larger investment banks were among the former employers.

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This might be as obvious as “buy low, sell high” or “always pack a jacket” or “don’t date anyone crazier than yourself” but a lot of job hunting, including the quest for investment banking jobs, boils down to “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” and “being in the right place at the right time”.

The problem is, according to author Gordon S. Curtis, due to today’s diffuse social media, “the art of building authentic, mutually beneficial relationships is dwindling.” His book, Well Connected: An Unconventional Approach to Building Genuine, Effective Business Relationships is designed to help you recover these skills. Taking a case study approach, Curtis introduces an approach called “Right Person-Right Approach,” which he sees as an antidote for the attitude, cited in the book trailer: “Whoever dies with the most social network connections wins”. “Most people waste energy increasing the number of their LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter connections,” Curtis says. “Such undirected expansion does not produce measurable results. Instead, find the one person who can enable you to achieve a specific objective.”

That doesn’t mean the path to this one person, your “critical enabler” in Curtis’s parlance, is a straight one. He describes it as “circuitous, yet focused.” You need “trusted advisers” to point you toward your critical enabler, people who can help you formulate your “macro objective” comprised of at least five “micro objectives”.

Once you get past the buzzword bingo, Curtis’s method is counter-intuitive but all the more sensible for being so. Go through the process, he advises, and don’t try to rush straight to the decision maker who is going to hand you the keys to the executive washroom. Wait until you’ve done all your research and laid all your groundwork. Understand the difference between the referral and a reference and don’t rely on anyone but yourself to reach out to your second-level contacts.

With specific reference to Wall Street jobs, Curtis and co-author Greg Lewis offer this case:

“Tony wanted to join a hedge fund after earning his master’s degree in finance. His professor, a perfect critical enabler, had a reputation for being reluctant to give students entree to his business contacts. Tony asked his adviser if he could use her name in an email asking the professor for a meeting. At that meeting, Tony described a spreadsheet he developed to help hedge funds conduct quantitative analysis. This impressed the professor, who offered to introduce Tony to his hedge fund contacts. Tony asked if he could use the professor’s name in a letter instead, retaining control of whom to approach and when to approach them.”

At first glance, it looks like maybe Tony took some points off the board, but think about it. Which is better for the interviewee: the professor calling the hedge fund manager, or the hedge fund manager calling the professor?

Take a step back and look at how you have traditionally networked – and consider making some changes to incorporate these methods. It could mean the difference between being just another resume passing through the hiring manager’s office or making contact with that critical enabler who can open the door for you.

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You might not have heard the name Martin John Yate before, but it’s not because he’s not trying. He has written at least 14 books on career advancement, and is considered an authority on getting your name out there. Among Yate’s works is Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions, much of which has little to do with the title but has great thoughts for job writing resumes, generating and developing job leads, developing questions for you to ask the interviewer, exuding professional gloss and other basic prep work. Still, enough of the book is focused on the gotcha questions to make it worth reading just for that.

Yate identifies at least six interview “trap” questions:

  1. What are your least favorite chores?
  2. How did you choose your university?
  3. How did you pay for tuition?
  4. What were the highlights and lowlights of your last job?
  5. What was the least relevant position you have had?
  6. At your age, why are you earning so little?

Let’s answer each in turn:

As for least favorite chores, avoid the negative. Consider this as a response: “Every position has ups and downs, but I have acquired valuable skills even from routine tasks.”

You picked your university “based on my own analysis of programs that could prepare me for future employment.” In other words, “My dad went there and I was a legacy” is the wrong answer.

“My parents paid my tuition,” though, is fine to admit if it’s the truth, but be sure to also highlight your self-reliance by describing any jobs you held while attending school.

Any question involving “lowlights” is not an invitation to trash your current or past employers. Leave it at “I really valued my last position, but your company provides a new opportunity.”

When asked about your least relevant position, don’t go off-script. If you need to be reminded, your script is your resume. If you worked one summer waiting tables in Sag Harbor, either put it on your resume or don’t but, if you choose not to, don’t mention it in the interview.

And although that last question isn’t specific to seekers of investment banking jobs, it might as well be. If you’re underpaid compared to your peers, take it as a compliment — that you’re glad someone noticed that you’re worth more. Turn it around and ask the interviewer what he or she thinks you should be pulling down.

Remember, how you respond to these types of questions could decide whether you advance to the next stage in the interview process – or not. Yate does offer this overarching advice: “Re-spin each question in a positive manner that highlights your past achievements, current abilities, and future goals,” he says. “Don’t get angry. The stress interview is just a test.”

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