Technical Skills Aren’t Going To Get You To Partner, But This Will

Devastated. That's the only word I can use to describe it. I was totally devastated.

I had just gotten off the phone with my VP. It was the summer of 2008, the shit was hitting the fan in the world of finance, and I had just been told I wasn't going to receive a return offer for my summer internship. This was one of the most prestigious boutique banks on Wall Street - the fast lane to wealth and success - and it wasn't going to happen for me. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.

I called one of the Analysts I was close to. He was furious. It was a small firm, only 10 or so people, and he was their golden boy. He'd told me the offer was in the bag...clearly he was mistaken. Now he promised to find out what went wrong.

Here's the short version: I spent the summer working exclusively with VP 1 and Partner A. I worked hard and managed to avoid making any major mistakes. They liked me and treated me well. Well, turns out Partner B and C are the ones that make the hiring decisions.

I could sit here and blame office politics. Working with the wrong people. Bad luck. Injustice. But here's the truth:

It was my fault.

The truth is, Partner B and C made me a little nervous. They were the bigshots. I knew they were the bigshots. They talked like bigshots, moved like bigshots, and laughed like bigshots.

Amongst the other Analysts I felt right at home. I could crack jokes, talk sports, and connect on deeper things. It was like being around my friends. I felt like myself.

Around Partner B and C, I felt off. I was worried about saying something stupid so I opted not to say much. And in trying to avoid making a bad impression, I made no impression.

At a firm where the supply of eager Analyst applicants outweighs the demand by 100x (literally), no impression = a bad impression.

It was a hard pill to swallow, but I learned an incredibly valuable lesson that day. Maybe the most important lesson of my entire career in finance.

Relationships are everything.

Unless you have obvious ownership over a P&L or investment returns, your relationships matter as much as anything else in the corporate world.

You can work your ass off and deliver A+ work product. You will still be out-liked and out-paid compared to the person with the most charisma.

I have seen firsthand an Analyst recruiting for hedge fund jobs make it all the way through the gauntlet of interviews, case studies, and investment presentations, only to get torpedoed when a Partner picks up the phone and rips on him to the portfolio manager at his would-be employer.

I also know Partners that have single-handedly gotten Analysts placed on the buyside with one phone call.

Now don't get me wrong, baseline technical skills matter. You MUST be able to do the job. You have to work hard. But the person who makes Partner isn't going to be the person with the best Excel skills.

No matter how smart you are or how hard you work, what matters most are your relationships with other people.

So with that said, here are five quick things you can do to greatly improve your odds of landing that promotion, raise, or new job.

1.) Make the bigshots look forward to seeing you

Smile. Keep your head up. You can look tired (or pretend to look tired) around mid-level bosses, but around the Partners, be a positive presence. Partners hate people who complain about hours, lifestyle, or working too hard.

2.) Create relationships that aren't entirely about work

Meetings, investment committees, office sitdowns, those are the times to dazzle the bigshots with your unparalleled intellect and financial brilliance.

But when you bump into them in the kitchen or the hallway, just make them smile. Figure out what they like, casually ask about it when you see them, and let them do most of the talking.

Every person you work with has something they love in their life besides work. They probably wish they spent more time doing it. The next best thing for them is talking about it!

Be their outlet for that. They'll enjoy talking about it, and they'll associate that positive feeling with you.

3.) Ask questions that create higher quality conversations

When you hear someone spent the weekend playing golf, don't respond "that's awesome, how'd you play?". Replace that with "that's awesome, are you working on anything in particular with your game?". Now instead of getting a one-word answer, you're hearing about the hitch they're breaking down in their swing. Higher quality conversations create stronger relationships.

(Caveat here: don't be a "try hard". If someone is racing around in the middle of a firedrill, don't stop them to talk about their weekend. Wait for the right opportunity.)

4.) Find people with hobbies that interest you and get involved

Boss likes a certain sport? Start a fantasy league in the office. Join a Chelsea Piers intramural team together.

Office full of runners? Organize an office Tough Mudder.

Someone does Crossfit in the morning? Start working out together.

Partner is a foodie? Take 30 minutes to find new restaurants that are opening up. Ask them for their favorite restaurant recommendation, go to it, and talk about it with them afterwards.

These are all real-life examples. And the time you spend doing these things together is worth more than any amount of small talk.

5.) Work for influencers

You have more sway over who you work with than you may realize, and you will be associated with whomever you work with. Take the time to find out who the most liked and respected VPs and Partners are. Any 2nd year Analyst or Associate will know who they are. Make sure you work with those people. Talk to your staffer or just ask the person directly.

Be nice to everyone. Be liked by everyone. But spend at least 50% of your time working for the right people. If they like you and support you, you are set.

Bring out your charisma, nail your relationships, and you'll be well on your way to that promotion or recommendation that you deserve.

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Comments (46)

Jan 28, 2014

I feel the same way about my education. My lackluster results being my fault. Only now, a few years after I have already graduated, do I finally have the time to stop and try and put the pieces back together. You just feel broken!

Jan 28, 2014

Awesome advice, thanks. How did you manage to bounce back with a full-time offer from Blackstone?

Jan 28, 2014

I think it was a combination of good GPA, being the only candidate with that boutique on my resume, and really good recommendations from the team I worked with. I got asked about it in every interview and I'm sure every potential firm called for a recommendation, so I think the latter was probably a really important part of it. I also worked a LOT on my interviewing and got it down to a really tight science, which I think also helped a lot.

Jan 28, 2014

Another great post, really enjoy your writing style. There are some truly useful tips in here, and the key message is absolutely spot on: it is all about the relationships you build. +1

Jan 28, 2014

Thanks! Really appreciate the kind words :-)

Jan 28, 2014

+1 Awesome post and advice.

"Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly"

Jan 28, 2014

+1 for da truth!!! A classic example is the show "Suits." Harvey's promotion is directly related to his charisma, and charm with clients; while Louis's 100+ work weeks keep him at Junior Partner for a long time.

I think- therefore I fuck

Jan 28, 2014

exactly what came into my mind as well

Feb 3, 2014

100% true

Feb 4, 2014

The girl is so hot in that show

Jan 28, 2014

Nice post, I can definitely relate to most of this

Jan 28, 2014

Great post. How do you think this relates with consulting? I am sure relationships are important (with your team and the clients), but are they as important as in banking?

Jan 28, 2014

I've never worked in consulting, so others would know better than I, but I think any position in any business where you don't have a direct P&L, your internal relationships are huge. And once you're a partner in a consulting firm and you do have your own P&L, your ability to generate revenue is directly tied to your relationships. So I'd say it's as important as in banking.

Jan 30, 2014

Great post! It really hits the mark. This is a lesson I struggle to learn everyday.


Great post. How do you think this relates with consulting? I am sure relationships are important (with your team and the clients), but are they as important as in banking?

Trust me, it matters! It matters a heckuva lot! If you don't get on well with your managers and they do not notice you, guess what? You'll either be stuck on crappy projects nobody cares about, or you'll get no projects at all! Then when its time to review everyone's schedule, they're like "What the heck is wrong with this guy? Why hasn't he got anything to work on? Maybe nobody wants to work with him, so I won't either."

I learned this lesson the very hard way. I went into Big 4 consulting right after college. Prior to that, my internships were all at think tanks and NGOs where everyone just cared about your programming or math skills and were not that interested in bonding or the like. Heck, even interns got their own office and most doors were shut.

So, coming from this environment to a huge corporate consulting firm was a huge leap for me, culture-wise. I didn't understand that you couldn't just stick to your desk and HOPE for work to come your way. You had to reach out to managers and partners so you'd get noticed and get good projects. I learned it too late. While others were getting projects and getting lots of billable hours, I was struggling to fill my time. Some weeks, I'd literally have nothing to do the entire week. It was very depressing and demoralizing.

So, yeah, in consulting, relationships matter a whole lot!


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Jan 30, 2014

This is awesome advice for anyone starting at a consulting firm. Thanks for sharing! And it sounds like you've got it figured out now, which I'm sure has helped a ton wherever you're at now.

Jan 28, 2014

Another good post, keep them coming!

Jan 28, 2014

Great post. Thanks for sharing!

Jan 28, 2014

Good post... love the focus on relationships, because technical skills only go so far. Along the same line - I would suggest reading: "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. It's a great book, with a very similar focus on building relationships.

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Jan 28, 2014

1000% agree, Dale Carnegie's books are incredible. I had so many palm-to-face moments while reading it. A lot of it is "common sense", but once I read it I noticed that people constantly don't do the common sense stuff correctly - including myself!

Jan 28, 2014

Great post. Thank you.

Jan 28, 2014

Excellent post, good advice going into SA

"I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's." William Blake

Jan 28, 2014

Great stuff. Thanks for sharing

Jan 28, 2014

+1 SB!

Jan 28, 2014

Great stuff! I'll definitely try to follow this advice.. doesn't hurt to try.

Jan 29, 2014

I've been on the sort of opposite end of this. Joined a new team which already had someone like this in my role, she had made friends with all the right people and made the right impression on them. Problem was she was terrible at her job, a complete moron. Didn't matter though because the partners and seniors loved her and helped her out, gave her all the best opportunities and reviews. Infuriated me to no end that someone so useless was pulling the wool over their eyes and getting all the best work. She only wooed the seniors, juniors in the team knew she was incompetent and came to me to fix her mistakes. I was fed up of the politics eventually and left the team, there wasn't really anything I could do to change the partners' impressions.

Jan 29, 2014

Great post, thanks!

Jan 29, 2014

Great post, thanks for sharing! +1 to Dale Carnegie

Jan 30, 2014

Hey Ben, really great post. One thing I wanted to add to this discussion is the following article that could explain why some people make this mistake and others don't:

Basically, what this guy says is that the analysts from rich backgrounds grew up with these successful partner types and know how to charm them, while those from middle class backgrounds are intimidated / afraid because of how hard they've worked to get there / are not used to dealing with these type of people in such high stakes situations. Do you think this is the case, and if so how should people get over this fear?

Jan 30, 2014

I think there's probably some merit to this. Having not grown up in a super wealthy area of CT, I don't know much of anything about golf or squash, two things that definitely get talked about a lot in certain groups.

That being said, I don't think this will hold anyone back if they're smart about building relationships and they work at it.

At the end of the day, Partners are just people. They don't come from a different planet, they have the same biology and psychology as anyone else. Anyone can learn to be really good with people.

Feb 4, 2014

I think it all boils down to confidence. Treat people like you're good enough to be peers with them because you truly do believe you can compete with them/play with the big boys. There is obviously a fine line between confidence vs unfounded arrogance, but this is all it is.

Feb 4, 2014

I totally agree, I think we're in agreement here - as a senior person (VP, Partner, etc.) it's still your relationships that matter, but now that includes relationships outside the firm. 100% with you on that.

Feb 2, 2014

I know this is really good and useful advice and something I would do as well...but it also points out the fundamental flaw in the system that you have to suck up to the hot shots to get somewhere...its not that i dont know how to turn on my "charming self" before the right people and talk confidently, memorize those football scores and be in awe as they talk about their BMW and merc...while you ask about its torque, maintence and choice of color...all good and it has done me good in past...better than my colleagues who suddenly put on a " if i breathe, he will kill me" looks

But honestly I hate it....and I hate not being myself...and its just sad that I will continue to do it...and when im a hot shot im gonna be good to the young analyst who is in awe as I talk about my threesome and how i made a fortune trading snapchat with coke and weed inside my system.....!

"A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it." ~George Moore

Feb 3, 2014

welcome to the real world.

Feb 3, 2014

I wd personally put a million dollars to some wiz kid who can come up with suck up detector...cos as a 21 yr old in consulting when i started it was just unbelievable to see how suddenly my team lead becomes a wagging dog to his reporting manager and laughs at all his jokes, ask about his wife, his kids, and their scores in exams! i!!! and good at this...silver bananas to OP i guess..#!

"A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it." ~George Moore

Feb 3, 2014

Well-written post, amigo. I have to remind myself to talk to people during work - oftentimes, I zone into the spreadsheet and just forget that other people are in the same room. I'm not antisocial, I just need to learn to transition from work to conversation better. Thanks.

Feb 3, 2014

I have to remind myself to talk to people

LOL do you have to remind yourself to breathe too?

Feb 8, 2014

Feels that way sometimes.

Feb 3, 2014

Awesome post. Silver banana for you :)

Feb 3, 2014

"Truer words were never spoken" +1

Feb 3, 2014

1. Getting that job in the finance industry isn't easy... you MUST know how to perform.
2. Don't be a tool or a d-bag with people below you..
3. Golden rule - cheesy but true - treat people the way you want to be treated.. no matter how annoying the first year analyst is....

Feb 4, 2014

I agree with the original statement. I look at it from a different angle. In a boutique, one has to take initiative. By initiative, I don't mean asking everyone around you if you can help with their work. But do something big and important, source new clients. Find new buyers. Give them a better angle of projects that seem to going nowhere - there are deals that sit on the book for a while. In a big firm, analysts/associates are supposed to do what they are supposed to do and shine when they are given opportunities.

Feb 5, 2014

excellent read!

Feb 6, 2014

solid as usual, ben

Feb 9, 2014

"It is our fate to be tormented with large and small dilemmas as we daily wind our way through the risky, fractious world that gave us birth" Edward O. Wilson.

Jun 18, 2014