One of the most important – and commonly overlooked – tips for breaking into finance is to focus on people who are similar to you.
This is especially important when you’re making a career change from an unrelated field – engineering, marketing, public policy… and yes, also the military.
If you think it’s tough breaking into the industry from a “non-target school,” you have no idea of the obstacles that veterans encounter when they go through recruiting:
- Some may not even have 4-year university degrees…
- Others may have literally no internships or previous work experience…
- And still others might have developed great leadership skills, but have nothing that looks finance or business-related on their resumes.
And yet, it can be done.
Our interviewee today will walk you through his entire story, from where he started out and how he got interested in finance to how he leveraged his background to network and break into the industry – and how he overcame the obstacles above to land a sales & trading job at a bulge bracket bank.
And yes, he’ll even tell you the top mistake that veterans make when recruiting – and how to avoid it.
Q: So let’s start with how you got interested in the military, and also in finance. Was this something you “discovered” after you had been serving for a while? Or did your interest extend further back?
A: Sure. I enlisted about 10 years ago, and I had always wanted to serve my country ever since I was young. So that interest was there from the beginning.
I was deployed to the Middle East twice, and also served in a few other regions.
My interest in finance came somewhat later – back in high school, I participated in a trading competition that made me interested in following the markets and in investing in general.
In between my deployments, I also explored jobs in sales, prop trading, and really anything related to business that didn’t require a college degree.
Q: So you didn’t have the typical 4-year university degree this entire time?
A: I didn’t. But I actually just finished up my undergraduate degree at a semi-well-known, but not “top” school, recently.
There was a bit of recruiting on-campus for middle and back office roles, but it was very limited for client-facing roles at banks and other finance firms.
Q: I’m amazed that you pulled off everything you’ve described given your background and how you didn’t go to a top school… but we’ll get to that later.
First, though, what are the key challenges that veterans face in making a transition from the military into finance?
A: I’d say there are 4 main challenges that veterans face:
- Skill Set Applicability – What you do in the military can be quite specialized and doesn’t necessarily have a direct application elsewhere. So you need to spend time understanding the transferable skill sets you have developed – communication, confidence, composure under pressure, and project management – and articulate how those apply elsewhere.
- No College Degree / Alumni Network / Co-Worker Network – Many men and women enlist right after high school, and they lack university alumni networks to tap into. So building relationships and establishing those networks can be very challenging.
- Figuring Out What You Want to Do – Since your work in the military is so specialized, it’s not exactly obvious which industry you should go into, where you’d have the best shot of getting in, and where those intangible skills you’ve developed would be best applied. And there are limited opportunities to learn about any of this.
- Life Experience and Family – Many veterans already have families and kids, especially if they’ve served for 5-10 years – so they face challenges that 22-year olds right out of undergraduate, or even unattached 27-year olds out of business school would not face. It is definitely more difficult to make the case that you can “cut it” and work long hours if this is you.
Q: Wow, that’s incredible. I think I hadn’t really considered the last one there about many veterans having families already. While it might not be a big deal in some industries, it’s not exactly ideal for something like investment banking.
Out of curiosity, what did most of your friends do after finishing their service?
A: Several went into law enforcement, some went into civil service / government-type roles, some tried to stay and move up the ladder, and others went back to normal industries, with a few actually going into financial services.
You’ve pointed out many times here before that finance is a cyclical industry where hiring swings up and down wildly – but the military is even worse in some ways, because troop numbers may have 0 correlation to the economy, and near-100% correlation to geopolitical events instead.
Standing Out and Serving Proudly
Q: So what’s the best way for veterans to stand out and network their way into finance?
A: I don’t think there’s a magical solution to the problems above, but a few points that were very helpful for me:
- Learn What Networking Actually Mean – Too many people have the attitude that networking is “shameless self-promotion” or something like that. The truth that effective networking can be less about self-interest, and more about building and maintaining relationships for mutual benefit, required a mental adjustment. Finding a mentor who was well-versed in it was instrumental in my learning how to do this earnestly and effectively.
- Attend a Good 4-Year University with a Strong Veteran Community – You MUST go to at least a decent 4-year school to have a good shot at front-office roles. I say that humbly, because I know that each situation is different. But at the same time, some veterans choose to attend University of Phoenix or some other online school without realizing the long-term implications of that decision. All degrees aren’t created equal, and I think doing this is a huge mistake. The GI bill in the US actually pays for tuition and covers a significant portion of the costs, so you have no excuse to not take advantage of it. College is the only way you can get access to the all-important alumni network and peer support, and it puts you one step closer to fitting the mold for the banks at which you’d like to work.
- Engage with the Veteran and Academic Communities – Some veterans come back home and have the attitude “My service is behind me, and I just want to move on – I’ll go out on my own and do all this!” But in my humble opinion, that’s exactly the wrong way to think about it. Even if you don’t want to talk about your time in the military, you can still reach out to these communities and get to know mentors who can help you – if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have received my offer.
- Get a Mentor – As you’ve written about before, it’s easy to sit around trolling Monster.com and other websites all day, submitting your applications into a black hole. It’s much harder to get out there and actually meet people and make connections, but that’s what you have to do if you want to meet the mentors who can get you interviews, job offers, and the most relevant advice.
Q: I think those are all good points, and theoretically they make a lot of sense…
But the execution is where many candidates fall short. For example, “Get a mentor” or “Reach out to the veterans’ community” is common advice, but then many people will say, “Well, I don’t know how to do that” or “Where can I find these groups?”
What’s your take on that?
A: My first suggestion would be to find out if anyone you served with works in the field. These are people with whom you share an inimitable bond – people with whom you may not speak for several years, yet due to the hardships you’ve shared, your conversations sound like you’ve been hanging out together every day.
You may not yet realize it but these are your strongest allies, and they can be such for the rest of your life. Provided you have the aptitude, these people will probably be eager to help, and they will go to bat to get you a shot.
Secondly, there are so many bank-sponsored programs for veterans and other communities (you’ve written about diversity recruiting programs before) that you have no excuse not to take advantage of them.
These are opportunities to meet other people who have been in your shoes and have faced the uncertainty and challenges you face now. Here are just a few examples off the top of my head:
- Veterans on Wall Street – A consortium of 5 banks (Citi, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America) that made a commitment to support the veteran community. They hold a conference each year as well as networking events with veterans working in the field. You can also meet mentors through this program that want to help you break in.
- JP Morgan 100,000 Jobs Mission –There is a big push for veteran hiring at J.P. Morgan, and if you qualify for this, you’ll probably at least get a call-back for an interview.
- Other Bank-Specific Programs – For example, GS has a veterans’ internship program with great placement stats. Around 12 people participated last year and 9-10 of them received full-time offers. A 75% full-time offer rate is incredible. Several companies also have corporate veteran networks that are very receptive towards creating opportunities for qualified veteran applicants.
- American Corporate Partners – This is a non-profit run by a former banker who left the industry after September 11th to help recently returned veterans develop mentoring relationships. They pair you with someone in your field of interest and help you develop a year-long relationship with that person. You meet up each month, and they introduce you to contacts in the field and advise you.
So there’s no excuse not to take advantage of these programs – they’re out there, but you have to reach out and ask for what you want. You could read about all this stuff online endlessly, but unless you get out there and talk to real people, I don’t think you’re making the best use of your time.
Q: So then why do you think so many veterans, and candidates in general, fail to use these programs properly?
A: A few reasons come to mind, beyond the obvious “Everyone likes to read and absorb information, but few people take action” point.
First off, some of the mentors in these programs work outside of banking or outside of the finance industry. But you shouldn’t discount them because of that – my mentor was not in banking, but he provided a lot of guidance and gave me a balanced perspective.
Another factor is that banks may not want to vividly highlight their inroads and go around telling everyone about them. If you look at most banks’ sites, they often make their diversity programs very easy to find, and may even put them on their homepages. But given the evolving nature of our segment, that might not be the case for veteran hiring initiatives.
Banks may know that the best candidates will also be the most passionate, and the most passionate will do the research to find every opportunity that could help them. If you want to connect with military networks, you’ll have to do some hunting on your own, then get out there and meet people.
Leveraging the Skill Set
Q: We’ve discussed some of the groups that might be helpful for veterans now, but do you think they should be targeting any particular areas or sub-industries within finance to maximize their chances of getting hired?
A: I’m not sure about certain groups or desks at a bank, but there are a few small banks or boutiques that are 100% veteran-owned or partially veteran-owned. I contacted a few of those places before and traded emails, but ended up accepting an offer from a bulge bracket bank instead.
Q: You mentioned before that many veterans find it difficult to make their skill set sound relevant to finance. Any tips on how to do that, and what to avoid?
A: Definitely… let me start with what to avoid.
Many veterans are tempted to explore back and middle office roles because they don’t have 4-year degrees and are just looking for any job that happens to be open at the moment.
There can also be confusion over how those roles differ from front office roles, so many veteran hires end up there.
But as you’ve pointed out many times before, that can be a huge mistake – assuming you want to move up and advance quickly and earn a lot one day, you want to do everything humanly possible to start in the front office.
You need to look back at your experience and figure out exactly what will translate over to finance:
- Leadership – Definitely… and highlight any conflict resolution you helped with.
- Bearing– More applicable to S&T, but arguably useful everywhere. Talk about how you had to make important decisions under stress all the time, and how you’re trained to remain calm and collected even when your emotions or external factors are dragging you toward chaos.
- Teamwork – Since you’re always working in a team, this goes hand-in-hand with the first one – no missions get accomplished solo, and the same is true in finance.
Q: Right, those points make sense… but what about the objection that many veterans have no finance experience or knowledge of accounting / valuation / finance? Did you get that one, and if so, how did you address it?
A: Actually, that one didn’t come up for me, but I do think that a genuine, demonstrable interest in finance would mitigate this concern. A relevant degree program will also help close any knowledge gaps that may exist.
You can’t fake the funk. They can tell pretty quickly if you’re going to be a “fish out of water” – and these objections are most likely to come up if you’re in that position.
The best ways to prepare for this objection:
- Ask Your Mentor for Hands-On Exposure – See if you can actually visit the trading floor, meet other people at his office, or get introduced to co-workers. That way you can at least learn something about how business is done and what the corporate environment is like, which may help you avoid this type of probing in the first place.
- Actually Learn About Finance – This is more important on the investment banking side, where certain questions and topics are guaranteed to come up in interviews. But it still happens in sales & trading, just with different topics… and there’s no substitute for actual knowledge.
- Explain How Your Interest is Longstanding – If you walk in there and say that you only recently “discovered” your passion for the markets, you’re in trouble. In my case, I was able to link my interest back to high school and show how it had developed over the years… so if you don’t have something like that, put on your “spin” cap and think of an experience earlier in your life that made you interested in business or finance, and reference that.
Q: Great points. That one about showing how you had an interest from early on is particularly important, and a lot of people miss it when walking through their resumes. You don’t sound credible unless you can point to experiences years or decades ago that led you in this direction.
What about tips on finance resumes for veterans?
A: Sure. I, and many other veterans, have a difficult task with resumes because our experience has lots of “gaps” in it.
So you have to decide upfront: do you list it all together and pretend that it’s one work experience entry, or do you list each billet separately to be more “accurate”?
I decided to lump it altogether and put it upfront as the first thing on my resume, even though I had completed a few business-related jobs in between… because my service was my main differentiating factor.
No, it’s not 100% directly relevant to finance, but many of the skills do translate and I felt the need to articulate the responsibility I had.
Other key points with your resume:
- Avoid Acronyms and Jargon – Just like engineers, veterans also have a tendency to assume that everyone else knows military jargon – but they don’t. So keep acronyms to a minimum.
- Articulate Results – When I first wrote my resume, I had lines like “Led 40 patrols” or “Supervised a platoon.” Those are not very effective because you need to convey how your actions accomplished missions and saved lives and how you made decisions under pressure and managed risk – the same skills you need in trading, for example.
And yes, I’d definitely recommend including anything finance or business-related, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to “hide” your military experience. If you served admirably then your record is an asset, and your resume is the place to show it.
Q: Great tips all around – I think a lot of veterans may assume that just because they served their countries, automatically bankers / traders will assume they can “cut it” – which is not the case.
Any tips for interviews?
One of the most powerful things I learned: don’t try to BS the interviewer, especially when there’s a clear “right” answer. Say what you do know, have the courage to admit what you don’t, and offer to try to figure it out if he can point you in the right direction.
Going into interviews you have a distinct advantage over other candidates, because you didn’t just blindly follow some Top High School to Ivy League University to Bulge Bracket Bank “path.”
So point out how making different decisions from others has also made you more mature and given you better insight into what you’re committed to doing for the rest of your life.
Q: Great. What about telling your story as a veteran?
A: You can still use the structure you’ve outlined before – here’s what I would recommend:
- The Beginning: Educational Background
- Finance “Spark”: A Mentor or Previous Project or Work Experience (This is better to discuss before you talk about your Military Background)
- Growing Interest: Conversations with Bankers and Classes… and Your Time in the Military
- Why You’re Here: Your Background + Finance = Long-Term Success
- The Future: Become an Advisor (or Investor)
So you may not use exact chronological order here, but that’s OK – it’s all about what’s most effective, and with a background like this, it’s better to talk about your military experience in the context of how it also made you more interested in finance.
Q: Yup, agree completely. Thanks for everything – any final thoughts?
A: There’s lots of goodwill (no, not the accounting kind) out there, so don’t squander it by failing to prepare. People will listen and help you, but you need to be at the top of your game to pull it off.
The world will not change for you, so don’t expect to walk by a bank and have their doors swing open just because you qualify for one of their hiring programs. A ton of transition work is required, and if you don’t take the process seriously you won’t get anywhere.
Also, recognize that there’s a wide variance in the type of veterans re-entering the workforce. Not all veterans were top performers when they served, and not all veterans will be amazing at their new jobs… but if you do find a top performer, chances are that they’ll be a top performer in other settings as well.
Make it your goal to disarm your interviewer and show them your pattern of success in everything you do.
Finally, I need to go back to one of your favorite points: do not overestimate the competition, and don’t assume that you “can’t” accomplish your dream just because someone else said so.
Look at me: I was far older than the typical S&T recruit, but I still broke in. And I intend to be there for the long-term, which is one of the reasons why my recruiting process worked out as well as it did.
Q: I think we should always have a “Moment of Zen” like this at the end of interviews. Thanks for everything, really enjoyed the interview!
A: My pleasure! I know I’m only just getting started in my career, but I hope reading about how I got to this point is helpful to some of your visitors.