The Insider: Why chameleons will survive

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Bankers best placed to survive a downturn will have worked across businesses during an upturn, says senior banker and author Hugh Karseras.

If you're likely to be a part of a 'restructuring' programme over the next year, now's the time to think long and hard about your situation. If the programme's implemented soon, it may be too late to make a difference. If not, it's a good idea to familiarise yourself with the D-word: Diversify or Die.

Consider the cases of two hypothetical mortgage backed securities (MBS) sales people.

Suppose sales person Number One has focused only on servicing a set of clients on the MBS markets. Because the markets have been booming, this sales person has been making a lot of money for his or her firm and has been paid well and promoted through the ranks as a consequence.

Sales person Number Two, on the other hand, has also focused on the MBS market, but in addition to being a strong performer has been instrumental in developing new investment structures, has expanded the institutional client base through relationship management-type activities, got involved in building the firm's MBS research effort, got involved in a number of different internal projects, and supported cross-selling and cross-asset class trades.

Now let's inject the reality - sub-prime comes along and MBS sales fall through the floor.

What happens to our two sales people? Most likely sales person Number One will be axed.

Why? Because he or she cannot really do anything else and the market isn't there to support his or her job any more.

What happens to sales person Number Two? No guarantee that he/she won't get axed too (this is a tough business after all) but there's a heck of a better chance that he/she will either be one of the lucky few to remain or be able to find a new role internally. Why? Because the decision makers in the firm are more likely to view this sales person as offering a set of capabilities, a skill set, that can be redeployed elsewhere. Number Two has demonstrated both performance and capabilities that transcend an MBS-specific sales role.

Together with performance, diversification of your skill set is therefore key to survival.

There is a virtuous circle here too: the more you demonstrate a broader set of capabilities the more broadly you have to interact internally within your organisation and the more your network, internal reputation and visibility increases; let's not kid ourselves, transferable skills only count if they are recognised.

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