The Outsider: The best advice is to be nice

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Banking isn't just about being decisive and imposing. Try to be pleasant in the process, says David Charters.

During my career as an investment banker, a few people (very few, actually) gave me genuinely good, disinterested advice that has stayed with me down the years.

Some saved me money, like the head trader who was firmly of the view that "The first cut is the least painful." When I had a position that was going wrong, I thought of his advice and did not hesitate to sell it and take the pain, where otherwise I might have stayed like a rabbit caught in the headlights, hoping it would turn itself around, searching vainly for the flaw in the logic that had made it seem a sure-fire bet.

One of my bosses taught me, "Always have a view." He was American, very decisive, and had little time for the "on the one hand, on the other hand" politicians and prevaricators in commitment committees where we were contemplating bidding on large risk transactions. He was not always right, but he did not mess around, and he commanded respect. Today he is one of the top people at one of the largest banks in the world.

Another neatly burst my bubble when I got a bit too excited about a meeting with one of the legends of the hedge fund world: "Don't confuse brains with a bull market." This man had made huge returns, and had become so well known that getting him and his ego in the room at the same time was quite a challenge. The meeting was indeed disappointing, and I sat with the half-naked emperor with growing dismay.

Afterwards my boss put the message even more bluntly: "In a hurricane even a turkey can fly." Luck - being in the right place at the right time - can have awesome consequences for those fortunate enough to work in the financial services industry. But it should go hand in hand with humility, and rarely does.

Perhaps the best advice was given to me by an investment banker with a reputation for being super effective yet surprisingly well liked, not least among the junior team members who worked on his deals: "Be nice, it costs nothing."

When I first heard it, it sounded trite. But as I saw the contrast between the way he dealt with people - especially junior people - and the way some of his colleagues treated the cannon fodder going through boot camp, I realised that by standing out from the macho crowd, listening to people, taking a moment to thank them, not indulging his ego just because he could, he was better served and more effective than pretty much anyone else in the firm.

In a business as pressurised and all-consuming as investment banking, with constant high risk and high reward, not to mention sudden death around the corner, it is easy to forget the human dimension. And the higher you go up the greasy pole, the easier it becomes.

David Charters' latest book, The Ego Has Landed, is published by Elliott and Thompson, price 9.99.

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