What is corporate "culture"? An insider's take...

KevinNYC's picture
Rank: Orangutan | 277

In Vanity Fair's latest expose on Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein cites Goldman's "culture" as the compass that allowed the firm to navigate the financial storm of 2008. At every i-bank on-campus presentation the firm representative at the front of the room will harp on the incredible "culture" at their firm. At Google, employees get messages on their lunch break. Is this "culture"? This word is flung around without a lot of context or specifics. If you are still in college and haven't spent a ton of time within an organization, the concept of corporate culture may be even more enigmatic to you. To make the concept even more nebulous, the interview process is designed to answer one question: "Does this applicant fit culturally within our organization?" Let's not kid ourselves, the majority of the candidates that make it through the resume screen are competent enough to handle analyst banking work, but the difference between landing the job and treading water in the application pool is your ability to get your hands around this murky concept. Here at Wall Street Insiders, we think a research-based approach is the key to success...

One way to collect data points to help define an organization's culture is to look at who has been promoted and why. This isn't hard information to come by; spend 20 minutes Googling or clicking around LinkedIn or Dealbook and you can get a pretty clear picture of who's climbing the ladder. Does the organization promote from within or tend to bring in outsiders? Does every Vice President have an MBA or does the organization consider it a degree of a bygone era? Does the organization "churn and burn" its Analyst or is it interesting in training them for an Associate role?

While conducting your due diligence on a prospective employer, keep tabs on the profiles of the people you come across. Are they ex-jocks or math geeks? Southern gentlemen, the Vineyard Vines crowd, or are they flush with H-1 visas? Banks tend to be ethnically diverse, but there is some truth to every stereotype.

How does the firm engage the community? Does it sponsor tennis tournaments, host an annual golf invitational, or sponsor the New York City Math Olympiad Competition? Additionally, one of the biggest factors that people fail to consider is whether the organization is public or private. This is a huge factor that I will touch on in a future blog post.

So what does this mean for you, Johnny or Jane Applicant? As any great salesman will tell you, know your audience! If you are interviewing for an organization that expects its analyst to work for two years and move on, don't spend time in your interview articulating your desire to take on Associate responsibilities down the line and move up the chain. Certain banks tend to be highly conservative (as an aside, I am shocked at how many BYU alums/Mormons there are on the Street) and so the fratty, work-hard/play-hard demeanor isn't a good strategy.

The bottom line: be serious about your "culture" research. I know it is a soft and amorphous concept but stay methodical. Keep a log or spreadsheet and think critically about what your research is telling you when preparing for you interview!

www.WallStInsiders.com

Comments (52)

Oct 4, 2010

Great piece!

Oct 4, 2010

Please tell me you're going to be doing this regularly.

Oct 5, 2010

I think some firms like Google make a genuine approach to build a unique culture.

But when Wall Street firms start talking about their culture as their differentiating factor, it reminds me of traders in 'Liar's Poker' attributing market movement to Arabs. In other words, they're bullshitting.

All BBs aspire to basically the same culture; the only thing that makes GS unique is that they were probably the first firm to really find what works, and are therefore the model to emulate. Some firms get smarter people, but that doesn't mean that the competition doesn't try to do the same. All firms have a charitable branch because it's PR suicide not to have one. All firms employ the euphemism of "teamwork" to mask the same old shit-flows-downhill framework.

You hand in your resume, you pass a screen, you're hired. You're then on the same playing field as anyone else regardless of background. If you do your job and make money for the firm, you generally succeed, barring someone else at the firm making a big fuck up.

What drives success at firms isn't culture - it's connections, smarts, and to a greater degree than most would admit, luck.

Oct 17, 2010

Yes and no. One area where I've notcied that firms really differentiate themselves are the efforts they make to make their employees more efficient and comfortable. For example, I know that Bridgewater will buy you an ergonomic chair, a tablet PC, and support the iPhone. At Lazard, if you want a second monitor for your computer, you need to pay out of pocket. Ridic....

Feb 1, 2011
KevinNYC:

Yes and no. One area where I've notcied that firms really differentiate themselves are the efforts they make to make their employees more efficient and comfortable. For example, I know that Bridgewater will buy you an ergonomic chair, a tablet PC, and support the iPhone. At Lazard, if you want a second monitor for your computer, you need to pay out of pocket. Ridic....

You're kidding about the Lazard bit, right? That's just insane and counter-productive!

Feb 1, 2011
KevinNYC:

In Vanity Fair's latest expose on Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein cites Goldman's "culture" as the compass that allowed the firm to navigate the financial storm of 2008. At every i-bank on-campus presentation the firm representative at the front of the room will harp on the incredible "culture" at their firm. At Google, employees get messages on their lunch break. Is this "culture"? This word is flung around without a lot of context or specifics. If you are still in college and haven't spent a ton of time within an organization, the concept of corporate culture may be even more enigmatic to you. To make the concept even more nebulous, the interview process is designed to answer one question: "Does this applicant fit culturally within our organization?" Let's not kid ourselves, the majority of the candidates that make it through the resume screen are competent enough to handle analyst banking work, but the difference between landing the job and treading water in the application pool is your ability to get your hands around this murky concept. Here at Wall Street Insiders, we think a research-based approach is the key to success...

One way to collect data points to help define an organization's culture is to look at who has been promoted and why. This isn't hard information to come by; spend 20 minutes Googling or clicking around LinkedIn or Dealbook and you can get a pretty clear picture of who's climbing the ladder. Does the organization promote from within or tend to bring in outsiders? Does every Vice President have an MBA or does the organization consider it a degree of a bygone era? Does the organization "churn and burn" its Analyst or is it interesting in training them for an Associate role?

While conducting your due diligence on a prospective employer, keep tabs on the profiles of the people you come across. Are they ex-jocks or math geeks? Southern gentlemen, the Vineyard Vines crowd, or are they flush with H-1 visas? Banks tend to be ethnically diverse, but there is some truth to every stereotype.

How does the firm engage the community? Does it sponsor tennis tournaments, host an annual golf invitational, or sponsor the New York City Math Olympiad Competition? Additionally, one of the biggest factors that people fail to consider is whether the organization is public or private. This is a huge factor that I will touch on in a future blog post.

So what does this mean for you, Johnny or Jane Applicant? As any great salesman will tell you, know your audience! If you are interviewing for an organization that expects its analyst to work for two years and move on, don't spend time in your interview articulating your desire to take on Associate responsibilities down the line and move up the chain. Certain banks tend to be highly conservative (as an aside, I am shocked at how many BYU alums/Mormons there are on the Street) and so the fratty, work-hard/play-hard demeanor isn't a good strategy.

The bottom line: be serious about your "culture" research. I know it is a soft and amorphous concept but stay methodical. Keep a log or spreadsheet and think critically about what your research is telling you when preparing for you interview!

www.WallStInsiders.com

Google employees get messages at lunch too? Man that sucks... probably would be pretty cool if they got massages...

    • 1
Feb 1, 2011

Thanks for taking the time to write this up. I just started my first post-grad job last month as the only incoming analyst, and finding a way to casually fit in without imposing on the existing culture of the juniors guys is a bit tricky.

Feb 1, 2011

Can you expand on your third bullet point a bit more, specifically: "If you have any people skills at all you will know immediately if your opinion is coming before it has been earned. (This applies even when asked for your opinion. Everyone at your firm is NOT your best friend. Some people have agendas, so don't give them ammo before you know who is who and what is what.)"

"I did it for me...I liked it...I was good at it. And I was really... I was alive."

    • 1
Feb 1, 2011

There's a lot of different elements to this.

One is that sometimes you'll be approached early by people who gripe about office politics. Not infrequently, they perceive politics where there are none, are "losers" in the office culture in some sense (losers as in they can't work out how to succeed, rather than losers in a social sense) and are seeking allies because misery loves company.

Another is that you can find people in teams who want to get statements out of you that they can trade in a high school-like office politics game.

It's not like every team/office has these types of characters, but the tip is you should keep your mouth shut at the very least until you work out the lay of the land and what each person's angle is.

That's what @AcctNerd's post made me think about, but there are many other office scenarios his/her advice applies well to.

    • 1
Feb 1, 2011

You have to earn the right to have an opinion at a new office.

I went to Paris in 2004 and was told by our guide that we shouldn't answer if a Parisian asked us if we liked the Pyramid at the Louvre. She explained that if we were to say, "I like the pyramid." The Parisian would become angry and accuse us of having no taste for liking this monstrosity that ruins the majesty of the Louvre. However, if we were to say, "I do not like the pyramid." The Parisian would become angry and accuse us of having no taste for not liking such a beautiful juxtaposition of the modern and the traditional.

You see, we weren't Parisians, our opinion didn't matter either way and was not welcome at all. Your office is the same.

Feb 1, 2011

great stuff as always. I always speak with a bit of restrain around the office, and a good rule of thumb is to never say or write anything you wouldn't want read back to you in a courtroom or printed in WSJ.

surprised you're not doing the 66, the 66 was harder than the 7 for me, but just wait until you take the 3 (if your group does commodities/managed futures). it's not hard, but definitely weird regulations & terminology if you're not familiar.

Feb 1, 2011

I just passed the regulations part by 1 question on the series 3! I got like 95% though on everything else. Seriously, the regulations part is no joke.

Feb 1, 2011

I only take the tests I'm told to take. I don't want to ask them about the 3 or the 66 for fear of having to take them. Kidding. (Sort of.)

Feb 1, 2011

Isn't office culture/dynamics funny?! I completely agree that it depends on your region... Much different in the South from my experience...

Feb 1, 2011

Emotional intelligence is critical. Good post!

"You are neither right nor wrong because the crowd disagrees with you. You are right because your data and reasoning are right."

-Warren Buffett

Feb 1, 2011

"This applies even when asked for your opinion. Everyone at your firm is NOT your best friend. Some people have agendas, so don't give them ammo before you know who is who and what is what."

Great post overall but this is something to truly realize and be warned about. There will be evil people who will try to get you to say something and use it against you at some point in the future. It's best to not be involved in office politics generally but don't screw yourself over by saying or writing something that you don't want everyone to hear (like @"thebrofessor" said) simply because you want to make friends early on and that person is talking to you.

    • 1
Feb 1, 2011

man, this stuff is insanely important. i don't think you need to be overly paranoid about some evil person goading you into saying bad shit, but the rest is just super-important. the nerdy kids can talk shit about frat boys in the business world, but at least they have experienced the process of rushing and pledging. this goes without saying for some, but ingrain the following concept in your brain: just because you landed the job doesn't mean you are "in." you are definitely not.

Feb 1, 2011
prospie:

man, this stuff is insanely important. i don't think you need to be overly paranoid about some evil person goading you into saying bad shit, but the rest is just super-important. the nerdy kids can talk shit about frat boys in the business world, but at least they have experienced the process of rushing and pledging. this goes without saying for some, but ingrain the following concept in your brain: just because you landed the job doesn't mean you are "in." you are definitely not.

I've been involved in multiple companies, and not just in the finance world (think portfolio co's), but there are some evil people out there who are looking to screw people over. And they exist in finance as well. The moral of my story is to just not say things to people that you don't really know because there's a chance they will screw you over.

Feb 1, 2011

It appears you have been lucky. I have seen, more than once, situations where people were thrown under the bus by coworkers they assumed were friends.

Feb 1, 2011

Once again @"ArcherVice" 's advice, transcends into yet another post. "Never miss an opportunity to shut the fuck up."

Great post, definitely figure out the lay of the land. I liked the part about playing the new guy card, very useful.

Feb 1, 2011

Thanks.

Feb 1, 2011

On the last point, I might even argue it is even more important once you are there to abstain from making any bold claims regarding people or culture. Obviously there is a time and place to have an opinion but certainly don't be that person that brings up all the 'gossip' throughout the company of what is going on, what you can't stand, and most important who you can't stand. Best to keep those things to yourself and maybe a close confidant or two in your group (even then, best to stay semi-arm's length about certain things).

Feb 1, 2011

Good point. When people are gossiping at the office and I don't have the opportunity to walk away before they ask for my opinion I usually say, "Maybe it would be best to speak directly to Suzie Q about this?"

It isn't going to win you a best friend, but you will INSTANTLY gain the respect of everyone else that hears about it. That's the kind of gossip I want spread about me.

Feb 1, 2011

Agreed especially with Third Point. But if everyone in your team is older than you and they swear like sailors, it's probably best not to imitate them unless you're the MD's son

Feb 1, 2011

On the second point, I would say it's important to find the right people to imitate. I learned this when I started my current job. There were two other analysts in the group and so I started off trying to follow their leads. On at least one occasion I made the mistake of listening to bad advice. Fortunately, a few of the older guys talked to me about it at lunch one day and suggested that I be careful about emulating those analysts if I wanted to do well in the group. I certainly learned a valuable lesson and have benefited from it ever since.

Feb 1, 2011

Yep. That is exactly how things are supposed to work. Find the people at your level that are respected by their managers/superiors and imitate them. Not the end of the world if you get your wrist slapped, just change direction.

Feb 1, 2011

Learning as fast as you can, and act fast too. People might not be that nice to you at the beginning because you are new, but suck it up, it will get better once they recognize you more.

Feb 1, 2011

Thanks for sharing

Feb 1, 2011

This is good advice. How would you value earning respect vs. making confidante in the office? How do you decide when to be politically correct and when to trust someone else and tell your gut out?

Only occasionally could we tell that the guy listening to you is a complete jerk and would share your secrets to everyone else in the office; most of the time we can't. Or at least I can't unless I've been around that guy for a long time.

I don't want to lose respect from my colleagues but I also need some healthy camaraderie to get it going; and like it or not one often makes his/her best friends by assuring that we are on the same side, we see things the same... any thoughts?

Feb 1, 2011

Ideal culture for me was always a group that consisted of no egos and an inclusive environment where you shouldn't be afraid to ask questions, particular when you are starting out. You'll also have a group that understands how to manage a client and ensure that you aren't tasked with extraneous work that will keep you up doing all nighters when it clearly isn't necessary.

Banking is a very intense 2 year period as an analyst regardless, but I can attest to saying that a good group culture for me personally due to the reasons above have helped make the work enjoyable and even allowed me to have some visibility into my weeks. Other may disagree however :)

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Feb 1, 2011

I am not in banking so talking more so about in general work environments.

Feb 1, 2011

There are no safe spaces in banking.

Feb 1, 2011

So apply for the firm with 0 quality of life 0 quality deals and 0 recognition for its employees. ;)

"The only thing I know is that I know nothing, and i am no quite sure that i know that." Socrates

Feb 1, 2011

I smell insecurity... actually, this entire forum reeks of it.

Feb 1, 2011

nobody cares where you went to school, where you're from, or how you got here. So long as you can do quality work with a good attitude and be part of the team

Feb 1, 2011

As an aside, I appreciate your "It's Always Sunny..." reference.

Feb 1, 2011

questions like these are best answered using common sense

Feb 1, 2011

super saturday, my buddy walked into an MD's office. MD didn't even look at him, looked at this resume and asked almost mockingly "I'm sorry, where do you go to school?" My friend said University of Illinois, to which the MD replied "I'm sorry, where?" My friend repeated his answer, and then the MD said that outside his door there's a line with people from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, NYU, etc... so why should he pick him. To which me buddy calmly replied that Harvard, Yale, Stanford etc don't take one business class in undergrad, unless they're part of some exclusive club. He said he had been taking finance since sophomore year. It shouldn't be that hard of a decision. And he was right. It means nothing where you come from, as long as you can get the job done. There were plenty of Harvards And Yales that went home with nothing. He got the job.

Feb 1, 2011

In my personal experience, it really doesn't matter because as long as you have a good attitude, good worth ethic, and some intelligence, you can get the work done. However, it can definitely get a little awkward (socially) and is a touchy subject depending on group. I have definitely heard some off-hand comments by VPs and associates referring to undergrad/mba schooling which can get a little uncomfortable if there's only one person at the table who didn't go to a traditional target/whatever.

The only other instance I've seen a delineation is during recruiting season and intern season where there are events and socials and so forth for the different schools.

Edit: since this thread is called corporate culture, i figure i'd just mention generality (even a word?) of it all. I re-read what I wrote and I realize it looks a bit intimidating. It's really not that big of a deal and I tried to only mention the few instances I've personally seen it.

Feb 1, 2011

There are people in the industry who care about pedigree, and it can become very apparent in social settings.

Feb 1, 2011

My bank really doesn't give a crap about where you were from after you got the offer. I think we had one social setting where they listed where kids went to school. Other than that, nobody really cares. There are a ton of Penn kids at every BB seemingly, as well as HYPS, but other than the first week where you don't know anyone and the Ivy kids know 5-10 other kids because they went to school, there's no difference.

Stop worrying about your insecurities. Yeah, it's kind of intimidating to see kids who graduated in 3 years from Stanford with a double major, fluent in two languages, and has traveled all over the world. But ultimately no matter how prepared and smart you think the other kids are, you're going to get dropped in your work with little/no understanding of what you'll be asked to do and expect to do it flawlessly. That's when you can figure out who can handle the job.

Kids decide to go to 'nontargets' all the time. In my state, all valedictorians and salutatorians are offered full scholarships to the big state school. When you're from a lower-middle class family that makes just enough to get basically no financial aid, many kids realize it's probably better to go to school for free rather than take on $120k+ of debt. This is especially true for kids who don't have any idea if they want to go into finance/law/medicine/nonprofit/etc. Sure, going to a HYPS is awesome...if you can afford it. The reason banks recruit there is because a higher percentage of kids there are capable of doing the job. But I'd say at any solid state school, the top 1-2% (about 50 kids out of a 5000 student class) are MORE than capable of doing banking if they make the right contacts. And 1-2% is being really conservative.

If you did great in high school, and great in college, and great in your internships, don't get some sudden fear that you are going to suck at the next level. There's obviously going to be an adjustment period, as full time banking is more challenging than anything you've likely encountered before, but after the initial steep learning curve, you can set yourself into a groove. It's not like this stuff is rocket science. If you know how to add/subtract/divide/multiply and you have good critical thinking skills, you'll do well.

Feb 1, 2011

I go to a complete non-target, but grew up in the town of a top tier ivy target, and went to a high school that is known for sending an insane number of kids there (and have plenty of friends there).

I have gotten that "where the f** do you go to school" from top tier boutiques to your average MM bank - the important thing to keep in mind is to not get flustered or irritated, and just be calm and smile.

Some guys are actually asking since they really have not heard of your school, some are asking because they want to test you, and some are just straight up douches - end of the day, just show you are confident and proud of your school. If they still judge you based on where you go to college, then it is what it is and you move on.

I think for the most part, people are understanding of non-targets, and if you should have a good work ethic and are motivated, the name of your school should not hold you back. It helps to say, look I grew up here, have friends there, and while their smart kids, I don't really think they are necessarily better than me - as any realistic banker will realize that doing this job is not rocket science by any means, and that being able to have great attention to detail is far more valuable than doing Ph.D level math

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