Back in 1997 I had just completed an MSc in Finance in the UK and was in London looking for a banking job. I couldn’t find any work for six months, despite applying for more than 30 positions. A few banks granted me interviews but they all rejected me.
Then I ran out of money, having burned through all I had saved up before my Masters. With no chance of getting a job in London, I returned to Singapore. Soon after I got back, however, the Asian financial crisis hit! The job market suddenly changed for the worse, and my hopes of landing a role as a derivatives structurer disappeared.
So I changed tack and decided to apply for risk management vacancies instead. Before too long Standard Chartered offered me a risk control position, which wasn’t my ideal job but came as a great relief after several months of searching. My boss then, Prasanna Thombre, always believed in me. He even seconded me to London and Hong Kong so that I could develop myself further. He was the reason I went on to build a successful front-office banking career and eventually became an MD.
The point of this story is that it’s possible, with the right approach, for junior banking professionals to adjust their career strategies and successfully navigate the tough times. Here are some lessons I learned during the Asian crisis (and throughout the ups and downs of my career) that are just as relevant to young people today during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Work for bosses who believe in you
When I got the job offer from Stan Chart back in 1997, I also received a similar offer from a much bigger European bank. I chose SCB because I believed my manager there would be great for my personal development. If you cannot get your ideal job in your desired bank, try to work for a boss who believes in you. During this current period of uncertainty, the last thing you need is a boss micromanaging you and asking you to submit your activities report on a daily basis.
Be adaptable in your choice of job
There are many loan and bond defaults in the current market, so credit structuring and credit risk management roles at banks will be in demand during the Covid-19 outbreak. But hiring in some parts of front-office investment banking has slowed down because capital market investors are now more selective when it comes to investing in IPOs and new bond issuance. If you cannot join an investment bank as a junior, perhaps consider joining a corporate in the TMT or real estate space to build up your knowledge in order to become an investment banker specialising in that sector later on.
Build your personal brand
With a personal brand, you can win trust, attract opportunities and charge a premium. When you go to the supermarket to buy a carton of milk, it is very unlikely that you will choose one that has no brand. When there is no brand, there is no trust. And trust is most important for our careers because nobody is going to hire us until they can trust us.
In psychology, there is a well-known cognitive bias called availability heuristic, a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a person’s mind when making a decision. If a fellow MD asks me to recommend a junior banker, for example, I will most likely recommend someone I know and have seen on LinkedIn recently. A strong personal brand attracts opportunities.
If you look at the big brands around us – say, Apple, Audi, or Grand Hyatt – they all have one thing in common: they charge a premium and yet customers still willingly pay for their products and services. When you have a personal brand, you can also command a premium. Build your brand on social media, especially on LinkedIn.
Make high quality connections
During this time when hiring is slow, banks may not advertise as much to get the candidates they want. So it is crucial to build relationships with people who can refer jobs to you. There are three types of relationships: friends, acquaintances and high-quality connections (HQC).
Friends can be high maintenance – if you don’t invite them to your parties, they get upset. Although acquaintances are low maintenance, they don’t add much value to your career. But HQC are like-minded people who shared common values, so they are low maintenance and add a lot of value. They can initially be found on LinkedIn, but you then need to offer them something in return, so spend time engaging with them before you actually need a job.
Be ready for the most frequently asked question
“Tell me about yourself” will soon be taken over by “What did you do during the lockdown/circuit breaker?” as the most frequently asked interview question in banking. Interviewers want to see how you dealt with uncertainty and made use of the downtime. “Spending time with family” and “taking the opportunity to slow down to reflect about life” are good answers, but are unlikely to get you the job. You have a higher chance to ace the interview if you say you picked up a new skill – for example, you did a video editing course or became a Zoom master.
With 2 million followers on Linkedin, Eric Sim, CFA, PRM, is one of the most followed finance professionals globally. A successful career coach, Eric is the founder of Institute of Life (IOL), whose mission is to help young professionals be more successful at work and in life. He currently guest lectures at the National University of Singapore and Queen’s University (Canada). Previously Eric was a managing director at UBS Investment Bank based out of Hong Kong.
Photo by Drew Graham on Unsplash