Defenders vs. Pillagers: How to Pick the Right Senior Bankers to Work With
What really determines your success on the job?
Is it your technical skills?
Your communication abilities?
Or your attention to detail?
All of those play a role, but if you ask anyone who has worked full-time for a few years, they’ll give you a much different response:
Your senior team members could make your life completely miserable…
…or they could make your job tolerable, keep you sane, and help you get promotions or good exit opportunities.
The good news is that you do have some control over your team and the senior bankers you work with.
So your success will come down to your ability to identify Defenders and Pillagers and then work with them – or avoid them – successfully.
Why Does This Matter? And What Exactly is a “Defender” or a “Pillager”?
This article is a follow-up to the one on STARR vs. TWAT analysts, so you should read that one first to get the proper context.
In short: a STARR (Strategic Try-hard with an Awesome Reputation & Relationships) is outgoing and socially adept, has a positive attitude, is always prepared, and develops relationships with the right people… while being “good enough” at Excel, accounting, and finance.
By contrast, a TWAT (Technical Wizard with Antisocial Tendencies) spends his/her time competing with others, mastering technical minutiae at the expense of administrative and logistical responsibilities, and rarely gets anyone “going to bat” for him/her.
We covered how to change your behavior to become more of a STARR, but to be truly successful you need to pick the right senior bankers to work with in the first place.
For our purposes, there are 2 species of senior bankers: Defenders and Pillagers.
A Defender actively mentors his/her analysts and associates and helps them get ahead, while a Pillager views junior bankers as tools to be used and abused.
What Do Defenders and Pillagers Look Like in Nature?
When encountered in nature, the Defender species of senior banker will display some or all of the following traits:
- Will “Go to Bat” for Analysts and Associates: For example, he/she will push for the junior banker(s) to get better reviews and bonuses and to get promoted more rapidly; he/she will also provide good reference calls for analysts moving to buy-side roles.
- Offers Responsibility and Client Interaction: The Defender will give junior bankers more chances to attend meetings, speak with clients, and do work beyond menial and administrative tasks. The Defender will often be capable of doing much of the Excel work himself.
- Has Good Relationships and Solid Deal Flow: If a banker is bringing in deals and making a lot of money, he/she will not care about punishing junior bankers to boost his/her ego.
- Respects and Forgives Junior Bankers: Defenders will respect vacation time and protected weekends, will not care much about face time, and will forgive an analyst for a typo if that analyst hasn’t slept in 48 hours.
- Mentors and Protects Junior Bankers: The Defender will give junior bankers career advice and tips for succeeding on the job, and will prevent analysts and associates from being staffed on bad deals, especially when those deals involve Pillagers.
By contrast, the “Pillager” species of senior banker looks more like this:
- Will Offer “Constructive Criticism” During Review Time: Instead of pushing for his/her team to receive better reviews and bonuses, the Pillager will instead provide you with “opportunities for improvement.”
- Offers Menial and Time-Wasting Tasks to Analysts: The Pillager will often sacrifice analysts to do anything a client demands, whenever the client demands it. Pillagers make junior bankers work for the sake of appearing busy.
- Has Poor Relationships and Low or No Deal Flow: Bankers who are struggling to win deals or who are new to the office sometimes turn into Pillagers, mistakenly believing that “working the underlings harder” will generate more fees.
- Ignores Junior Bankers’ Personal Lives, Weekends, Vacations, and Other Obligations: A Pillager will often blow up over a single typo in a footnote on page 78 of a 111-page presentation; he/she will also force 35 iterations when 10 is enough, and will often review drafts and ask for revisions at 8 PM on a Friday night.
- Does Not Know the Names of Junior Bankers: Forget about “mentoring” or “protecting” others – the Pillager will rarely know the names of everyone below him/her.
A Subtler Example…
Most bankers are some combination of Defenders and Pillagers; just like there’s no true “good guy” or “bad guy” in Westeros, there’s no pure Defender or Pillager in real life.
So you have to look at the personalities in your office, see which bankers have which Pillager and which Defender elements, and then match them with your own strengths and weaknesses (your real ones, not the crap you recite in interviews).
Example 1: Let’s say you are very detail-oriented, you triple-check your work, and you rarely make mistakes.
In this case, you might be a good fit for a senior banker who blows up over tiny mistakes but who also fights for junior bankers during review time.
Example 2: Let’s say you do not care about your social life, and you just want the best deal experience possible as quickly as possible.
In this case, you might gravitate toward a senior banker who likes face time and Friday night fire drills, as long as he/she also has great deal flow.
The most important factor is whether or not the banker will fight for you during review season.
If not, chances are he/she will also not help with promotions, references, buy-side transitions, or business school recommendations.
But How Can You Tell All This in Advance?
It’s quite tough to “know” exactly which category or combination of categories each senior banker falls into initially.
You could always ask 2nd and 3rd years above you, but you won’t learn much until you’ve gotten to know them and they feel comfortable sharing.
So you’ll have to work with a variety of senior bankers in your first 2-3 months, hope you get exposure to at least a few Defenders, and then become their “go-to” analyst or associate.
Three main scenarios are possible within your first few months on the job:
- You work primarily with Defenders (keep dreaming).
- You work with a mix of Defenders and Pillagers.
- You are staffed with primarily Pillagers (representative account).
Scenarios 1 and 2 are somewhat easier to plan for, whereas Scenario 3 gets challenging.
Let’s take a look first at what to do if you work with at least 1 Defender:
Working with Defenders: Making a Wingman Proposal and Barricading Yourself
If you happen to work with a well-known Defender in the office, it will be in one of 3 scenarios:
- A High-Importance Pitch – This will require deliverables, multiple iterations, and team interaction for anywhere from a few days up to 1-2 weeks.
- A Deal – This will require a series of deliverables over time and team interaction for anywhere from months to years.
- Simple Pitch or Data Request – Something like this might require anywhere from a few days up to a week of work.
If you find yourself in the first situation, you’re in a prime position to make a “Wingman proposal” to the senior banker once the pitch is delivered, the meeting is done, and he/she is clearly happy with it.
You can tell this by looking for any of the following:
- The banker directly states that you did a good job.
- The banker later asks you to work on another, unrelated assignment.
- The banker asks you about non-work-related topics or seems more eager to chat with you.
If you’re working on a deal, you’ll most likely have to wait until you’ve had the chance to prove yourself in a substantive way before making a “Wingman proposal.”
That usually means you’ve finished one or more key deliverables, such as a company model, information memorandum, investor presentation, or financial supplement, over a period of 2-3 weeks.
If you’ve just worked on a simple pitch or data request (scenario 3), you’ll need to parlay this interaction into another, more in-depth assignment before making your proposal.
Making the Wingman Proposal
If you’ve worked with a Defender on a longer-term project and made a good impression, you should lock in this relationship by becoming the banker’s “Wingman” (OK, or “Wingwoman,” but that’s annoying to type so I’m not going to repeat it) as soon as possible.
By doing this, you’ll also avoid Pillagers more easily: if you’re working night and day on assignments for the Defenders, you’ll be off-limits to other bankers (this is called “Barricading”).
At the Analyst level, you’ll make this proposal to the Associate or VP (though in smaller offices you might propose it to an SVP / Director or MD); at the Associate level, you’ll do this with the VP, SVP, or potentially even the MD.
Winning this status also has a spillover effect: even the MDs on your deals, with whom you’ll have less interaction, will view you in a more positive light if other people say good things about you.
Once you have the credibility to make this proposal (see above), you might send an email to the Defender after he/she has already left the office or on a weekend.
You don’t want to send weekend or night emails when networking, but in this scenario you want to give the person more time to respond whenever it’s convenient.
You might use an email like this to make the request:
Subject: Additional help on projects?
“[Defender First Name],
I hope all is well. I just wanted to reach out and see if you had any additional projects that require analyst support. I learned a lot from our last project together and felt that we worked well as a team.
In fact, I was hoping that I could become one of your go-to analysts going forward for any new projects. I’m eager to work hard and absorb as much as possible, and you seem to be an ideal person to learn from.
If that’s something that you would be willing to consider, I could email [Staffer’s Name], copy you, and request such an arrangement.
Please let me know your thoughts.
If this works, great; you’re one step closer to becoming a STARR.
If it doesn’t or the banker has hesitations, it may just take more time and projects to get there.
The end goal is to “barricade” yourself against Pillagers by having a consistently high workload from Defenders.
Camouflage Survival Tactics: What to Do When You Get Stuck with Pillagers
Of course, you will almost never work exclusively with Defenders.
You’ll usually work with a mix of Defenders and Pillagers, and in the worst case, you might end up working mostly with Pillagers.
When this happens, you need to use a strategy of Camouflaging to avoid becoming the Wingman for any Pillager.
Let’s say, for example, that you are working with a Defender on an important pitch and then a Pillager comes to you and requests your help on a shorter, less important pitch.
You don’t want to outright refuse the Pillager because that may anger him/her, but you do want to do the following:
- Tell him/her that you would really like to work on whatever project he/she has brought to you, but that you don’t have much bandwidth right now due to an imminent deadline so you’ll have to check with [Defender Name].
- Then, explain to the Defender that the quality of your work for him may suffer if you take on this other project.
- Then, ideally the Defender will go to the staffer or speak directly with the Pillager to explain why you cannot help with the pitch.
If they both call you into a room and ask you to list everything you’re working on, make sure your list sounds like 80-100 hours of tasks over the next 7 days.
You never want to seem like you’re avoiding the Pillager just for the sake of avoiding him – the reason has to be tied to imminent deadlines and a high workload.
Surviving the Attack of the Pillagers
You won’t always pull this off, so you will end up working with Pillagers occasionally.
So you still have to work reasonably well with them, but you shouldn’t go above and beyond or be overly enthusiastic as you might with a Defender.
Your attitude should be: “I’ll be diligent and accurate and get this work done, but I won’t stay here until 3 AM to ensure everything is perfect; someone else here could easily do my work.”
In other words, you want to avoid becoming the “go-to” person for the Pillager.
Example: Let’s say that you get staffed on a sell-side M&A deal with a Pillager, and you need to create an Executive Summary “teaser” document to start pitching the client to potential buyers.
The Pillager gives you 3 days to draft the document, which might be around 10 pages long.
In this scenario, you should do a good job, but not an outstanding job:
- Individual Sections: Complete all the required sections (Summary, Market, Products, Management Team, Financials, etc.), but leave small parts blank or leave notes asking the senior banker to indicate a preference on certain points.
- Submission Time: Submit the document sometime after the senior banker has left, maybe around 10-11 PM, but avoid a 3 AM submission so you don’t send a “I’m burning the midnight oil” signal.
- Formatting: Use clean formatting for market data and the financials, but don’t go overboard or ask the presentations staff for help: leave out 3D effects, shaded arrows, and so on.
You want the Pillager to think, “OK, this person can get her work done on time, but she’s not the best one here.”
With a Defender, you want to take the opposite approach on most of these points.
For example, instead of leaving certain sub-sections blank, you might find examples of previous Executive Summaries the Defender has used and imitate the language and points there.
What to Do If You Never Work with Defenders in Your First 2-3 Months
If you go a few months and never work with any Defenders, you’re in trouble.
But it’s even worse if you get dragged into a deal with a Pillager and you can’t get out of it because:
- Pillagers tend to work on tougher-to-close deals (AKA worse discussion topics for buy-side recruiting).
- The deeper you get into the deal, the harder it will be to transition away to someone else.
- The Pillager will prevent you from getting much deal experience elsewhere by requiring unnecessary work.
You won’t necessarily be able to withdraw completely from ongoing work with Pillagers, but you can do one of the following to get more Defender exposure:
Option #1: Speak with the Staffer Directly – If the Staffer is not a Pillager and is somewhat open to feedback from junior bankers, you could always approach him/her in-person and ask about working with [Defender Name].
Your request should be something like: “I’m really interested in working on deals such as [Point to ones similar to those that [Defender Name] has worked on lately], and the senior analysts have mentioned he/she is great to work with. So if it’s possible, I would appreciate the opportunity to work with him/her more often.”
Option #2: Approach the Defender Directly – This is riskier, especially if you haven’t had much direct interaction before. But if the Staffer isn’t receptive, this might be your next best bet.
Option #3: Approach One of the Defender’s “Go-To” Junior Bankers – This works well when you’ve gotten to know the junior banker, or if he/she is an analyst and has already won a buy-side role and wants to ride out the year on auto-pilot.
This can be an easier approach, but it’s also tough to execute because it’s a slower, less direct way of getting the Defender to like you.
Option #4: Use the Nuclear Option and Switch Groups / Firms – This is not recommended because it means you’ll suffer even more in the interim, but sometimes your situation really is hopeless.
After 6 months on the job, if you’ve tried everything above but you still keep getting stuck with Pillagers, you should consider one of the following:
- Go to your office head and ask if there’s a way you could transfer to another group or another office (ideally a smaller one where you already know people).
- Interview for buy-side roles earlier than you had planned, and land an offer there. This is tough unless you’ve had a lot of good deal experience early on.
- Start interviewing at other banks.
Are You Being Defended? Or Getting Pillaged?
Everyone “knows” you need to be reasonably good at Excel and PowerPoint and have an accurate idea of the work before you start.
But understanding office dynamics and different personalities is equally important, yet consistently overlooked.
Your top priority, therefore, must be to identify and get close to Defenders, barricade yourself with work from them, and avoid the Pillagers.
If you got surrounded by enemy Pillager units in a real-time strategy game, you could restart and try again.
But real life isn’t so forgiving with extra lives.
So if you constantly get ambushed by Pillagers with no way out, you might have to use the “Restart at different group / firm” option instead.
Just don’t get Pillaged on your way out.
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