Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"What Have You Done for Me Lately?"

Remember days of yore--when an MBA in finance accepted an offer from an investment bank, commercial bank, brokerage house, trading firm or insurance company in the spring of second year and thereafter embarked on a long career with one firm, one employer?  Shortly after arriving at the firm, the MBA started a training program or entry position--with the expectations of earning promotions every few years and with sights on becoming a senior manager (at the same firm) at the apex of a productive, memorable career.

In those days, you had the luxury of failing or slipping up in performance (a few times, not often), as long as you showed drive, loyalty, commitment and some promise. Now and then, you could fail to win a deal, could lose a major client, or could report a decline in revenues. You were reprimanded slightly, gently coached, and learned from experience. You were confident you would get a second chance, and you envisioned a career lasting, oh, 15, 20 or more years.

What happened to those days? Times changed. The environment changed.  Competition among financial institutions grew fierce. Regulation loosened some of the rules and guidelines. Commercial banks infringed on the turfs of investment banks. Insurance companies, boutique firms, and hedge funds butted heads among themselves and with bankers. Shareholders, boards of directors and investors, accustomed to 10-15% returns, suddenly sought 20-25% returns, even with dwindling opportunities. They demanded revenue increases, soaring earnings and steady upticks in share prices.

And they demanded it from quarter to quarter every year. From the chairman of the firm to the sector managing director to the vice president in a client unit or on a trading desk all the way to the newly hired MBA only a few months out of Stern, Darden, Haas, or Tuck, the mantra became:  "What have you done for me lately?"

How can and how do MBAs, including those from Consortium schools, confront such daily pressures? How should they and how can they handle a culture where you are only as good as the last deal you've done, the last client you brought to the firm, the last trade you put on the books or the last investment you analyzed and endorsed?

The topsy-turvy environment of 2011 makes matters worse. While financial institutions of all kinds scramble to win business, keep clients and cut costs to remain profitable, uncertainty about markets, global issues in Europe, and a start-stop recovery in the U.S. heightens the pressure. Banks, in particular, still sit in frustrating meetings brainstorming on how to make money with Dodd-Frank and Basel III regulation whipping them from behind. In the midst of all this uncertainty and week-to-week chaos, somebody is always peering over everybody's shoulder to ask: What have you done lately to justify your existence here?

Will this be the norm going forward?  Will this be common practice to manage professional talent? Will bankers, traders, researchers, salespersons and managers be evaluated from quarter to quarter based on their current contributions to earnings (and not based on a long-term value to the firm)? Will employees at financial institutions approach each work day as one to confront threats, hardships and enormous pressures to perform and achieve?

Or when market stability turns, along with some certainty of a sustained recovery, will financial institutions settle down and nurture long-term career paths for those who truly want to be around for a long time? There is risk in not doing so.

In unsettled markets and high-pressure situations (where compensation is too uncertain to offset daily anxiety and turmoil), talented professionals seek solace elsewhere. If the environment is unsatisfying and too threatening, they move on. They flee to smaller firms or more specialized outfits. They contemplate going on their own, setting up their own shops, boutiques or funds. Many bring their clients, strategies, and colleagues with them.

Others shop around for more comfortable roles or environments. If they go to work plastered with  constant rumors of lay-offs or spin-offs of business units they work in or if they are subject to harsh demands to meet extraordinary business targets, they reach out to peer firms. They go where expectations are reasonable and where pressures are tolerable (or compensated for). They go across the street to the "other bank."

Younger professionals and newly minted MBAs may not have networks or contacts to pursue other opportunities yet. Many also want to stay put, because they want to spend the first few years learning and getting experience--in doing deals, in negotiating with clients, in tackling financial models, in managing people and in making tough business decisions.

Yet in an environment where some will tap them on shoulders and ask what have they done lately, it helps to have a survival plan. What can they do?

1.  Keep, maintain and update a personal scorecard of accomplishments, achievements, deals, business wins, and successful projects. Be ready to present and explain it at any time, because, yes, in these times, your value to the firm is always under review.

As others assess your value (whether formally in appraisal meetings or informally in chatter during a coffee break), you want the review to be fair, objective, and up to date.

2.  Understand what your weaknesses are and how they are perceived by others. Develop a short- and long-term plan to address them, and be ready to share the plan with supervisors and mentors. As others evaluate you, they may overlook what might be regarded as a glaring weakness, if they know you have plan to improve.

3.  Always assess "what you bring to the table."  Make sure to the table, you bring something important, useful, possibly money-generating, or valued highly in the short- and long-term. That may be access to clients, people and contacts. It may be specialized knowledge, new ideas, or an astounding understanding of financial models, markets, products, or regulation. For many recent MBA graduates, it may also be an intense, consistent work ethic, a willingness to get the job done no matter the obstacles (and of course during all hours of the night or weekend).

There is no fail-safe response to the question:  What have you done for me lately? Sometimes a 20% increase in revenues won't do. Or winning the mandate from a new client to do a big, headline-garnering deal won't create a buzz among senior managers. Or creating a new product that clients will swarm toward may still be insufficient for those who ask these types of value questions.

But it still helps to be prepared and be ready to present your case.

Tracy Williams


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