Advice from an ex-IB MD: Who succeeds on Wall Street

Mod Note (Andy) - as the year comes to an end we're reposting the top discussions from 2015, this one ranks #37 and was originally posted 10/14/2015.

Mod Note #2: Check out Wilowallstreet's Q&A here. The Q&A is still open and he is actively answering any question that you may have.

I spent fifteen years on Wall St, working at bulge bracket banks. I started out as an investment banker putting deals together and then became a quant, and then finally a sales guy. During that time I saw countless successful people. The goal of my blog is to make sure you succeed, to make sure your career on Wall Street is as successful as we can make it. This post is meant to distill the key characteristics of the best people I saw on the Street.

Resilience

Investment banking, sales and trading, research are all hard jobs. The people who succeed are the ones that can persevere in the game. Many times over the 15 years I doubted myself, my abilities, my profession (even today actually). I came close to quitting many times. Each time I talked myself off the edge. You will be punched in the face and stabbed in the back by your colleagues, your clients will slam the phone down on you and pull an order, and your boss will either make you doubt yourself or throw you under the bus. Don't sweat it. Don't be disheartened. This is the nature of the game. There is nothing wrong with you. Learn how to persevere and not break down. The things that made it better for me were: friends, family, exercise, and meditation. Share your problems with other people. Everyone goes through self-doubt, but it's important you recover. I used to remind myself of a quote from an old movie called 'With Honors' - Winners forget they're in a race, they just love to run. That's the mindset you have to take. Don't worry about winning, just be in the game, and enjoy its ups and downs.

Adaptable

The industry changes quickly. No one that started with me in 1999 is still doing the job that they had then. In fact most people aren't even doing the job they were doing in 2010. This industry moves quickly. Markets change, trends change, and opportunities come up. You have to be adaptable and nimble. Remain flexible. If you can keep growing and re-training your self you will rise faster, and you will catch more waves. The trick to do this is: ask lots of questions of your self and others, read a lot, don't psychologically get too attached to anything. Keep your eyes open for opportunities. If you see something interesting going on in another area, go take a look, meet some new people. If it seems interesting and you like it, switch. I saw countless people that couldn't change with the market as they became obsolete, while there were others that kept adapting to the new realities they found themselves in. Adaption means switching from buy side to sell side, from IB to S&T, from sales to trading, from research to technology. Finance is a fairly fungible skill and you'll be surprised how quickly you can learn and adapt. I changed jobs six times in fifteen years, all while still staying inside the banks.

Passionate

Like I said earlier this is a long and hard game. Nothing easy about it. You have to be passionate about finance, about markets and about your clients. If you don't care about this game you may survive it, but you will never be the best at it. Over my fifteen years I saw hundreds of analysts / associates join the rank and quickly realize in 2 years that this wasn't for them. There is nothing wrong with that. You should do what you care about, something you would do even if they weren't paying you. Some days you will be working from 7am to 11pm, maybe longer. If you aren't passionate about the game, you will be unhappy. There is no point spending your time on something that makes you unhappy. The most successful people I saw on Wall St were those that were passionate about what they did. They couldn't wait to get into work and they were always the last ones there. I remember running into work every day, I still do ! More important than anything in life, do what you are passionate about, you will make more money doing that, and even if that's not true, you will definitely be happier.

Curious

Investment banks are filled with very smart people, you will have to compete and win versus these people. You don't have to be born this way. Most of us aren't. The key is that you become intelligent. The way to become intelligent is to be curious. Keep learning. Warren Buffett says he reads 500 pages worth of annual reports every day - and he's a very smart guy. The trick to excelling is to be humble and admit you don't know everything. This way you won't get complacent and you will recognize that there is a sea of things you don't know. If you ever find yourself sitting at your desk with nothing to do, or thinking that you have done your job - you have a problem ! My recommendation to you, regardless what you do in life, every day: a) ask 10 questions b) find 5 new things to read c) call up subject matter experts d) approach random people at the bank and figure out what they do. Remember you are the young kid, they expect little from you, except that you are curious and interested. Sitting at your desk being shy or concerned people will think you are dumb will only not help. If you can keep learning every single day, you can keep growing and getting better. I found finance to be so much fun, because every day I was learning something new. What could be a better job than that?

What to read weekly:

Newspapers: WSJ & FT Magazines: Forbes, Fortune, Wired
Blogs: too many to mention, but definitely Farnam Street

Books that made it easier for me:

How to Win Friends and Influence People (Dale Carnegie)
You, Inc. (Harry Beckwith & Christine Clifford)
Influence (Robert Cialdini)
Never Eat Alone (Keith Ferrazzi)
Throwing the Elephant (Stanley Bing)
The Chimp Paradox (Steve Peters)
The One Thing (Gary Keller)

Comments (27)

7y
AndyLouis, what's your opinion? Comment below:

we have a blogger doing an in-depth review soon of How to Win Friends and Influence People (Dale Carnegie) since it's mentioned so often on the site, looking forward to it

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  • 1
7y
wilowallstreet, what's your opinion? Comment below:

one of the best books of all time !

What I Learnt on Wall Street
7y
wilowallstreet, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Thank you QGKZ, I appreciate it. Just trying to give back for all the advice I received along the way.

What I Learnt on Wall Street
7y
wilowallstreet, what's your opinion? Comment below:

I was a Comp Sci / Econ double major. My last job on the sell side was cross asset sales. Now I manage money. Moving internally inside a bank isn't too difficult. All the jobs are pretty similar, and as long as you are interested and can learn fast, people will give you a shot.

What I Learnt on Wall Street
  • 1
7y
Bumble273, what's your opinion? Comment below:
CuriousCharacter:

How did you go from IB to quant to sales? Math major? What are you selling now?

I wanted to ask the same. Would you mind elaborating on how you switched roles? Is it not progressively difficult to go into an entirely new role as you develop credibility in one role? In other words, let's say you do IB for 2 years, then switch to trading for three, then switch to something else. How are you then able to develop a strong background in a particular field with relatively limited exposure (as far as years in that role)?

7y
wilowallstreet, what's your opinion? Comment below:

I think thats a fair concern. It does get harder as you get older. My tactic to be able to switch roles was: a) keep an eye out for where the opportunities were, see where the needs are b) have skills that are broad enough and in demand that you can make that switch c) build enough knowledge of the area you want to go into the transition isn't too tough

In finance the broad skills are the same, but you just change the relative focuses around, let me illustrate, for example, to go from IB to quant is actually easy. Lets look at what they have in common: a) building models, being comfortable with numbers and using simple models / rules to guide business decisions b) being able to use numbers to explain things to people and putting materials together that allow you to do that c) working with other people to bring different skills together

So the switch is easy. Now going from quant to sales, is in some ways easier: a) a sales guy who has been a quant has the advantage of knowing the numbers, the models, better b) clients may see that you have more depth and financial background than a sales guy c) the quant is going to a differentiated sales guy, he will have different insights and connectively inside the bank, so clients will get different market color / ideas than from their typical coverage

Hope that helps

What I Learnt on Wall Street
  • 3
7y
Milhouse Van Houten, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Great read, appreciate the tips! To not succeed we can easily say it's the opposite of the qualities you mentioned, but I am interested to know:

what were some of the things you thought you were doing right at the start of our career but actually didn't help you?

“Everything's coming up Milhouse!”
  • 2
7y
wilowallstreet, what's your opinion? Comment below:

thats a great question. I'll write about that this weekend.

What I Learnt on Wall Street
7y
bule, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Yea, it's a kinda odd omission from weekly reads esp. given the adaptable and curious paragraphs. wilowallstreet ?

Tbh if you read the FT weekdays, the Economist weekly and a few sector / interest blogs or podcasts I feel like you're getting a decent commentary (& Private Eye in the UK). Shame Foreign Policy slid the way it has, used to have great articles that balanced the Economist.

7y
LeveragedTiger, what's your opinion? Comment below:

I get Warren Buffett reads a lot, but I'd wager 500 pages of annual reports a day is impossible unless you literally do nothing else.

"The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it." - George Bernard Shaw
  • 1
7y
wilowallstreet, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Hey LeveragedTiger, I think that is the point. WB has structured his life to be a 'learning machine', even as successful as he is already, he is still out there learning every day, staying curious, and therefore getting better.

What I Learnt on Wall Street
7y
wilowallstreet, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Sure, but lets make it more helpful for you: How far along are you ? What skills have you acquired in PB ? What specific part of S&T ? What are your reasons for moving ?

What I Learnt on Wall Street
  • 1
7y
Alibabes56, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Did you start as an analyst straight out of undergrad?

It ain't what you know, it's who you know
6y
MBA_Junkie, what's your opinion? Comment below:
wilowallstreet:

I changed jobs six times in fifteen years, all while still staying inside the banks.

wilowallstreet .. Could you please throw some light on how you actually go about changing jobs at the same bank? I mean, your existing manager would not be too excited about an existing team member leaving.

Also, I am guessing one might NOT be able to get that other job and would then decide to continue with their existing role. How do you placate your supervisor's fear of the fact that you are looking at greener pastures? Does that affect further advancement in your existing job?

Thanks!

Best Response
6y
wilowallstreet, what's your opinion? Comment below:

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What I Learnt on Wall Street
6y
MBA_Junkie, what's your opinion? Comment below:

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