Trust No One, and Keep Your Dragon Close: The Game of Thrones Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder
About a year ago, I had just finished a long stretch of 80-90 hour workweeks.
No, I hadn’t lost my wits and found myself back in investment banking.
I had just finished up creating and releasing a new modeling course…
…and I was ready to celebrate.
A friend was having a birthday event at the best club in town, and everything you’d want was included: multiple tables, bottle service, and more models than even AJ could conjure up.
As the date approached it started sounding better and better… and I even invited a few other friends along.
But when the day arrived, I had to suddenly cancel my plans and back out at the last minute.
I had something more important to do.
I was 60% of the way through reading A Game of Thrones, and I was physically incapable of putting it down to go do something else.
If you haven’t been hiding under a rock for the past year, you might have heard… a little… about the HBO series and the books.
I read a lot of books each year (100+) and watch a lot of shows (dozens?) but usually I get bored midway through and don’t even finish what I started.
But in this case, I finished the entire series of books up to that point (thousands of pages) in about 2 weeks (yes, I was taking a break and had a lot of free time – not being able to put them down also helped).
The Sopranos Meets Middle Earth?
Before you dismiss the series as “fantasy,” or think that it’s about elves and wizards, understand that it’s almost a complete, 180-degree opposite from Lord of the Rings.
LOTR is more about the standard good vs. evil battle, but Game of Thrones is all about political intrigue, fighting over petty issues and grudges, family feuds, betrayal, and backstabbing people in order to advance.
In other words, exactly what you do in finance all day.
And just like in real life there are no convenient/happy endings, and the story only gets more complicated as you move along.
Read and watch carefully and you might just learn a thing or two about advancing in the world of finance, too.
To eliminate spoilers, I’m going to list only the top 10 quotes from the series that apply to climbing the corporate ladder and playing the political game in finance – and then explain what you can learn from them as you work your way to the top of the hierarchy.
Bonus points if you can name the character who gives us each quote and the book(s) that it’s in (without Googling these, of course).
1. “Take my advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to harm you.”
Think your life is tough if you’re from a non-target school and you have low grades and no finance work experience?
It might be tough to get into investment banking, but your life is a walk in the park next to bastards in the Middle Ages: no matter how hard they worked, they could never even own land or advance into the upper class.
And getting into investment banking? Forget about it – even working at a commercial bank would have been a stretch.
But just like the quote above says, don’t let any of these difficulties stop you: rather than letting your unknown school get you down, use it as your strongest selling point when networking and in interviews.
Show it off as you go to other schools’ information sessions and point out how much extra effort you’re putting in to break in, and what you’ve had to do to get there.
2. “Words are like arrows. Once loosed, you cannot call them back.”
Remember that old saying “There’s no such thing as a stupid question?”
That is 100% false in the world of finance, where you’ll be punished mercilessly for stupid questions and comments.
Screw up enough in the beginning when you first start your internship and full-time job, and everyone will remember it: first impressions count.
So whenever you’re tempted to ask someone more senior your initial questions, resist your temptation to do so and take it to the most junior person you can instead – think “other interns and 1st year analysts.”
Ask a VP a technical question about non-recurring charges in comps that an analyst could have answered, and you won’t be able to call back your words.
Instead, the VP might just pick up those words and stab you with the pointy end when it comes time to award bonuses and full-time offers, too.
3. “Every man should lose a battle in his youth, so he does not lose a war when he is old.”
Seemingly every week (every day?) we get variants of the following question:
“I’m in high school and want to be an investment banker. Help! What’s the right path to follow? I need to know the exact path right now!!!”
First: chill out and enjoy your youth.
Next, there is no “path,” as we’ve established many times, so stop worrying so much about winning every battle when you’re younger.
It’s much better to screw up in your 20s and not have things go your way than to make the same mistakes when you’re 20-30 years older and screwing up means screwing over your family.
Make mistakes early on, experiment as much as possible, and if you don’t land a front-office finance role remember that it’s not the end of the world… plenty of people get into the industry the unconventional way.
Just make sure you fight (and sometimes lose) those battles in your youth, so you don’t lose the war when you’re older.
4. “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”
“That is the only time a man can be brave.”
Until you’ve been through at least a few market cycles, you really don’t know what it takes to succeed and move up the ladder – especially in finance, but even if you work in other industries.
And if you want to start your own hedge fund or other business, you haven’t been through anything until you almost lose it all and survive by the skin of your teeth (or lose it all and have to start over).
Similarly, it’s easy to sit and claim that you can work 80-90 hours per week without issue, but let’s be real: until you’ve done it yourself for months at a time, you really don’t know whether you can maintain your sanity in the process.
So before jumping into a full-time job with those hours, always test the waters with an internship first… whether it’s official and paid, or you’re an unpaid monkey.
These days it’s almost impossible to even get a full-time offer without an internship first, so you have no choice but to wade in the shallow end of the pool first before diving into the deep end.
5. “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
Pop quiz: you’ve enrolled in and completed over a dozen financial modeling courses, you’ve networked with hundreds of bankers, and you’ve read every article on this site 5 times over.
How much do you know about the world of finance?
And if you walk into work the first day with an attitude that says otherwise, you’ll be kicked out and thrown into a pack of wolves, or maybe a pile of corpses that crows are feeding on.
Come in with specific requests, like “working on cross-border China M&A deals” and you’ll be out even faster.
Study as much as possible and learn all you can in advance, but never act like you “deserve” more than grunt work when you first start out.
Even if you do have a front office role, you’re not generating any revenue until you actually bring in clients or make profitable trades and investments – which won’t happen for years.
Forget that, and you really will know nothing.
6. “Prophecy is like a half-trained mule. It looks as though it might be useful, but the moment you trust in it, it kicks you in the head.”
So, what are your chances of breaking into investment banking / private equity / hedge funds if you have a GPA of X, you went to such-and-such school, and you have work experience of Y?
I actually thought about writing an article pointing out how silly those questions are, but why not just use a Game of Thrones quote to demonstrate the same thing instead?
You can read endless discussions online from people asking the same thing: what are my chances?
But the truth is that no one can give you a perfect answer, partially because passion and hustle can matter more than your resume – especially with certain roles on the buy-side.
Yes, obviously your chances are better if you’ve attended a top school and have great work experience, but nothing is certain…
So don’t let yourself believe that you’re guaranteed or not guaranteed anything – or you might as well let a mule kick you in the head.
7. “Many good men have been bad kings, and some bad men have been good kings.”
“Help! Who should I contact when networking, the analyst or the VP or the MD? Will this hedge fund Partner even respond to me when I send over my questions?”
The shocking answer: there’s no way to tell.
Sure, generally senior people are busier with clients and travel and don’t have as much time to chat, but you never know…
Some analysts and associates are also bitter and will think that you’re silly for even wanting to get into the industry.
So keep your options open and don’t rule out anyone when you’re networking.
Many good bankers have been bad networkers, and some bad bankers have been good networkers.
8. “Always keep your foes confused. If they are never certain who you are or what you want, they cannot know what you are like to do next.”
While this certainly applies to your “foes” (AKA the competition) in the world of finance, it also applies to your friends and co-workers.
Sure, you should reach out to them and ask for advice when it’s helpful… but you never want anyone to know too much about your future plans or exactly what you’re doing next.
Finance is a very small world, and there’s so much downtime (in non-markets-roles) that everyone spends a lot of time gossiping.
Tell one person in your office where you’re going to interview or that you don’t actually have a “dentist appointment” in the morning, and everyone else will know about it within hours.
If you really need advice from people on sensitive situations, it’s best to avoid your office altogether and talk to friends elsewhere, or even better yet, friends who are in business school or in different industries.
Otherwise, your co-workers will know what you are like to do next – and they won’t let you forget about it.
9. “Everyone wants something. And when you know what a man wants you know who he is, and how to move him.”
The easiest way to get ahead when networking?
Easy: give other people what they want. Resist the urge to “take” constantly.
Sure, when you’re first starting out you may not have many connections or much advice to give… but some financiers actually enjoy speaking with students and younger candidates and sharing their knowledge.
So that alone might be what they’re looking for – a break from work, or a chance to help out someone more junior. And it may lead to them helping you in other ways in the future, or vice versa.
And once you really know what a person enjoys talking about, your networking efforts will truly take off as you understand how to move others.
10. “Trust no one. And keep your dragon close.”
“Wait! Doesn’t this contradict some of the other quotes above?!”
Nope, not at all.
It’s great to prepare as much as possible for your internship or full-time offer: read books, learn financial modeling, talk to everyone in the industry, network, network, network… and even get the right attire before you start.
Go to conferences, learn about how your office works, and find out who has the real power there.
Just don’t get too carried away.
If you want to succeed, prep beforehand is good…
But your own dragon is even better.
Game of Thrones Season 2 begins on Sunday, April 1 at 9 PM on HBO. Be there, and make sure you take notes on the lessons you can apply to climbing the corporate ladder.
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