A disillusioned syndicate banker writes
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People and MarketsCraig CobenNew Issues

A disillusioned syndicate banker writes

scientist with coverall protection clothing and full face protec

Be the change you want to see on the desk, but manage your expectations as to who will follow


Dear Disillusioned

In season four of Mad Men, Peggy complains when Don wins an industry award for an idea that she had initially developed. It’s a telling exchange:

Don: That’s the way it works. There are no credits on commercials.
Peggy: But you got the CLIO [industry award for advertising]!
Don: It’s your job! I give you money, you give me ideas.
Peggy: And you never say thank you.
Don: That’s what the money's for!

I don’t endorse a toxic culture for a second, but the fact is, you’re being paid handsomely to do a job. If you don’t like it, then move on and look elsewhere; there are plenty of people eager to take your place. But note that the grass isn’t always greener.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne: former president of Stanford University

I’m sorry to say this, but office politics are universal. People play games, exaggerate their contributions, claim credit for others’ work, and get up to all sorts of shenanigans.

Think of the virulent mix of intellectual dishonesty and internecine faculty warfare that has disfigured the most prestigious universities in the world. The presidents of Stanford and Harvard both had to resign over issues of academic integrity. Plagiarism, the epitome of taking credit for other people’s work, is rampantly rife at the highest echelons of academia.

Meanwhile, friends of mine across various fields — including purportedly noble professions in NGOs and in the public sector — complain about backstabbing and cronyism (and much worse) at their jobs, and the financial stakes are much lower than they are in investment banking. And do you think widget makers and other non-financial corporations are any different?

You work on the fixed income syndicate desk. As I’m sure you know, debt capital markets is a highly competitive — and highly commoditised — business in investment banking. The margins are slim, and the margins for victory are even slimmer. That’s not an environment conducive to camaraderie, bonhomie and backslapping teamwork. It’s grimly cut-throat, and people act and react accordingly. You need assiduously attentive leadership, especially in straitened times, to stop the internal politicking and boot licking and to ensure that everyone is working towards a common goal.

That’s easier said than done. It is a continuous challenge to stamp out selfish behaviour and promote best practices. I’d like to think we got it more or less right when I was running teams, for example by making clear that lobbying for a higher bonus would be counterproductive. But it’s not easy. So much is outside your control, and you’re dealing with Type A personalities who are as driven as they are insecure, in an industry buffeted by volatile markets and the pressure to generate revenue and cut costs.

Some banks will have a better office environment than yours, but a bad workplace vibe is not unique to your bank just as it’s not unique to investment banking.

So your workplace falls short of your ideals. It’s unfortunate, and it is not to be condoned. But it isn’t all that surprising either. Some banks will have a better office environment than yours, but a bad workplace vibe is not unique to your bank just as it’s not unique to investment banking.

Based on your letter, I see deeply unpleasant behaviour but nothing illegal or actionable. You’re not alleging bullying, discrimination, harassment or overwork. The rotten culture you describe is neither productive nor constructive, and companies should address it. It’s shocking that any company should tolerate this sort of atmosphere when it runs contrary to their commercial goals and stated values.

I sympathise with you because you must be a talented employee to have been recruited out of a back office position to the syndicate desk. You deserve better.

But that’s not the same thing as saying you have grounds for making a formal grievance. Nor do you seem to have a sufficiently concrete basis for approaching HR. If you escalate your complaints, I predict it will backfire (important note: I’m explaining what I expect will happen, not what I think should happen.)

At least you’re well paid; analysts and associates (aka “A&As”) are really the only cohort in investment banking whose pay has risen since the financial crisis. Is your comp (which I assume is six figures base plus a bonus) commensurate with your revenue contribution or client value-add? Debatable.

The money compensates you for the pain and suffering you might experience in working in a less-than-ideal set-up. “That’s what the money's for,” as Don Draper would say.

And that’s a lot better than the many other aggrieved office workers who earn much less.

Esprit de corps can take many forms

Anyhow, is there something you can do to improve the office atmosphere? You say “the last thing” you want to do is “to go for a beer with colleagues at the end of the day.”

When I was running teams, the juniors used to organise cheap-and-especially-cheerful social gatherings on their own initiative. These unofficial, unsanctioned events were key to our positive team culture. The fun was contagious and softened the hard edges of work. They also worked with the internal philanthropy teams to organise volunteering events. This was a great way to combine team building with good deeds.

You often hear that the tone is set from the top, but I think the mantra overstates matters: you don’t need anyone’s permission to foster an esprit de corps.

So you have two choices: suck it up or move on. You’re the author of your own destiny. It’s disingenuously cakeist to stay at your high paying job and complain about the office. And if you stay, try to think about what you can do to make office life better.


Welcome to GlobalCapital's new agony aunt column, called New Issues.

Each week, capital markets veteran and now GC columnist, Craig Coben, will bring his decades of experience at the highest levels of the industry to bear on your professional problems.

Passed over for promotion? Toxic client? Stuck in a dead end job, or been out of the market for so long you'd bite someone's hand off for one?

If you have a dilemma you would like Craig to tackle, please write in complete confidentiality to agony@globalcapital.com


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