Trust No One, and Keep Your Dragon Close: The Game of Thrones Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder

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Game of Thrones Guide to Climbing the Corporate LadderAbout 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.

The Problem?

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.

Sure, some bankers still won’t “get it,” but it works more often than you’d expect.

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?

Nothing.

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.

You can’t predict in advance how helpful or unhelpful someone will be based on their resume and title.

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.

Even the most random of contacts can get you great results.

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.

And finally…

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.

About the Author

is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys learning obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, and traveling so much that he's forced to add additional pages to his passport on a regular basis.

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46 Comments to “Trust No One, and Keep Your Dragon Close: The Game of Thrones Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder”

Comments

  1. says

    Am I eligible for bonus points?

    1 is Tyrion, 4 is Bran talking to his dad, 5 is Ygritte, and I think 9 is Littlefinger.

    How the heck did you pull these quotes out of the books?

  2. Donal says

    Hey Brian, although I’ve never read or seen the Game of Thrones, that article is so true- fair play for writing it! Also, I’m sure you’ve covered it elsewere, but just wondering what months does recruiting start for both full-time and internships? Thanks!

    • says

      Hah, that’s ironic considering you share a name with a character in the books. Anyway, it varies a bit by region but internships are generally December/January (earlier in EMEA) and full-time is usually August/September, at least at banks. For buy-side roles it’s different and happens more throughout the year, big PE firms start early each calendar year and smaller ones start and finish later.

  3. says

    Brian,

    This one is killer! I truly loved the piece. Its very much like our Mahabharata,in India. A valiant piece :)

    And as a true old M n I fan, I am happy to share with you that I finally landed up a front office finance role! Hope you remember, I was with KPMG when I talked to you, in their backoffice, doing audit, albeit the backoffice audit. I networked the M n I way, played every single move according to all I have learned here..and finally got through a front office role at Ernst n Young. Its in Transfer Pricing. The scenario in India has changed, EY I-banking arm is twice ahead than GS, Lazard or any other banks. The Lead Advisory part is the best in banking industry. I work with senior bankers, talk to them, and besides that, convinced that Transfer Pricing is gonna teach me a lot as a pre-MBA thing. Its about working on cross border transactions for big big clients. Though an I-Banking dreamer, in just a month, I have been wondering, if I would really like to move to an I-Bank post an MBA like most of the people are doing in here right now, or stick here, coz I am loving the challenging work I am getting here.

    I will let time, and my experience over the next couple of years decide that one :)

    Thank you for so many things. I am really very grateful to you.

    Cheers
    Akshay

      • Sam says

        EY has an I-Banking arm in India ? EY is probably hired by I Banks as an external consultant on a transaction I believe.

        Congrats on the new job buddy!

        • says

          Hey Sam,

          Yups Man, the scene in India is different, EY does the most number of deals. They have their own M n A. What other people claim as I-Banks in India are not really ‘front-end’. India is full of back-offices, of all the major I-Banks. This year EY did twice the number of deals than ll other banks put together. But then, there is a reason to that. BB Banks, who have very small front end teams, pick up only very large deals, while EY, picks up everything that comes across, no minimum limit. But then, as u might wana say, coz they aren’t BB, their bonuses aren’t huge. It was 40 percent this year.

  4. says

    48 Laws of Power, The Red Queen, The Sperm Wars, The Selfish Gene, Dale Carnigie, The Prince, This book on acting–name is slipping me right now– by Adler (she taught James Dean and a whole bunch of people on how to act. Knowing how to act in front of other people), We, sketches from a hunters album(actually any book by Russians (tolstoy, Zemetyin, Lermontov) and The Game (Neil Strauss–yes it works– but learn to apply it to your life and work vs using it to pick up women). Only books that need to be read give or take a few (a lot actually…)
    – A mindless soph (UG) in college trying to get into IB

    And remember even if it takes you years to read all of this IT IS OKAY–we cant read everything in a day. It is more important to actually UNDERSTAND what you read/have an intuitive understanding of it and apply it vs just reading it.

    Patience my friend– just start early. The early bird gets the worm and remember “Dreams are like rainbows—only fools chase them.

  5. Curious says

    Ok – I have a genuine doubt about my aptitude for investment banking as I’m not a very social person myself (hence I assume that translates into bad networking skills too)!
    Sorry if this sounds like a stupid question, but when you say good bankers have been bad networkers, how is that even possible? (Unless they were born with a silver spoon in their mouth and their entire family is well-connected in other ways.)

    • says

      Senior bankers must be quite good at networking, but I was referring more to “helping people with their own networking efforts.” On your other question, it is possible to get to the mid-level without being that great at networking because you’re just running deals… and that’s even more true in, say, prop trading where you don’t interact with people. But yes, to reach the top on the IB side you do have to be good at networking or at least winning clients.

  6. Jay says

    Great article as always.
    Reminds me of The Prince – Mach; It’s a tough world where sometimes you have to pull the plug before someone else does.

    Thanks for sharing Brian.

  7. Joe says

    These seem like variations on principles from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, which I would also strongly encourage people to read.

    • says

      Yeah, the philosophies are similar in some ways but these come from a fictional story from many different characters. But hey, if Gordon Gekko recommends it you can’t go wrong…

    • says

      Definitely Littlefinger or Tywin, Robert was not savvy enough… he would be like the VP who fails to make MD. Arguably Varys but it depends how the last 2 books play out.

  8. Mike says

    Awesome article, love the books and show.
    This may sound like an odd question, but considering that senior bankers go through an insane amount of emails per day, is there any time of day/day of the week that you think would get the highest response rate/ wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle?

  9. Josh says

    Hey Brian,

    In another post you mentioned the importance of learning “how to sell.” Did you figure this out by trial and error, or did you get some kind of training?

    How should I go about learning?

    • says

      I learned myself by forcing myself to market and sell to customers (and potential employers back when I worked in the industry). I would find someone who’s good at pitching and learn from him/her, read relevant books (Pitch Anything is a good one) and find online courses on the topic.

  10. Leremy Jin says

    A European government always pays its debts…

    Heard a replica of the iron throne is going around certain cities and you can get your picture taken with dany (or khal drogo) on your lap…

  11. DazedAndConfused says

    Your posts on the website made me watch Entourage and West Wing. I need to start watching Game of Thrones too!

  12. ASongofIceandFinance says

    Great post keep up the great work on the website. Just starting to get my first few interviews for IB and I will be sure to use this info once I am in.

    PS

    have you got any advice on how to betrove my sister in exchange for an analyst position? Would this work better at a bulge or boutique? Does she have to be born of a target house or would a liege lord work?

  13. Josh says

    Favourite Quote from season 2 so far:

    Littlefinger: Knowledge is Power
    Cersei: Power is Power

    While the subtle application of soft power may be more effective in everyday use, it helps little if your opponent sees you as enough of a threat that he/she is willing to use “real” power against you.

  14. Mark says

    Game of Thrones is really good one, before this article I have not even heard about ASOIAF.

    But what do you think about other highly political, intriguing, etc.. series, such as Rome, The Tudors, The Borgias?

    • says

      They are good as well but ultimately I think GoT is more intriguing and has better-realized characters. Rome, in particular, suffered from budget cuts and HBO telling them to wrap it up in 2 seasons and forcing them to shorten the story lines.

  15. J says

    You should do one of these with The Wire too…

    “MD Comin'”

    “Money got no owners. Only spenders”

    “You come at the King, you best not miss”

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