Plight of the Polar Bear: How NOT to Find a New Finance Job After You’re Laid Off
A few months ago, I offered to help a friend with his job search strategy.
He was a junior equities trader who was a few years removed from undergrad and had just been laid off from his job at a top investment bank.
Prior to enlisting my help, he had been out of work for almost four months and had submitted more than 300 job applications over that time period.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “There’s no way he submitted that many job applications! There aren’t even 300 groups he could work in, right?”
At the time, I didn’t believe it either.
Then I asked him to prove it to me…
He opened up his personal email account and showed me hundreds of messages sent to internal recruiters, external recruiters, human resources personnel, hiring managers, investment banks, and even a few depression therapists – I was astounded.
So we got to work and exchanged messages via email, phone, and pony express for a week, spending about three to four hours every day retooling his resume, revamping his cover letter, improving his phone interview skills, and even buying a new interview tie to help lift his spirits.
After an exhaustive week, we went out on Friday night to drown our drudgery in a few glasses of wine and more than a few bottles of beers. Somewhere around round six or seven, I asked him, “I know you’ve been an equity trader since you started working, but is that what you want to continue to do?”
“I’m a week late on my rent and I’ve maxed out one credit card already. At this point, I’ll do anything!”
Please Cry In This Glass So That I May Taste Your Misery
As soon as he said that, I realized I needed to do something else to help him: I needed to read some of his emails to recruiters to see what type of picture of himself he was presenting.
And it wasn’t pretty.
“Polar Bear” (our affectionate nickname for him – we’ll get to the explanation in a bit) had sent email after email to a host of people across the industry for jobs that ranged from Senior Institutional Equity Trader to Operations Associate.
With each subsequent email that I read, it seemed like his confidence and desire for the job waned while his sheer desperation to be employed poured through more and more.
There’s a popular commercial by E*Trade that features the trademarked baby making fun of a guy who plans to buy scratch off lottery tickets instead of planning for retirement.
Toward the end of the commercial when the man has not won anything, the baby jokingly tells the man, “I wanna show you something; it’s my shocked face, WHAAAAAAA????”
I had that exact same expression and verbal response after reading Polar Bear’s emails about job opportunities. So when he asked me what the problem was, I was brutally honest:
“Geez man. I don’t know whether to ask you to come in for a job interview, or to send an email to Save the Children asking them to provide you with food, shelter, and ten cents a day. Your emails reek of no true career intent and absolute despair.”
Here are a few lines taken from one of Polar Bear’s emails to a recruiter:
“Please allow me to introduce myself: My name is Polar Bear and I was an equities trader for three years at Coca-Cola Investment bank. I’ve been out of the market for more than four months, but I am still actively trading my own portfolio. My schedule is highly flexible and I would like to speak with you about opportunities in New York or in other parts of the country. I’ve provided my mobile number, home number, email, and LinkedIn profile for you to view. Thank you.
Where do I start?
If you’re going to send an email to a recruiter, you want to be brief, but very informative. The following are staples of email correspondence to recruiters: name, a brief account of your working background, what career opportunities you’re interested in, and how those opportunities correlate to your background.
This is what recruiters saw when they read Polar Bear’s email:
“My name is Polar Bear. I was a trader for three years. I’m unemployed. I’ve got a tremendous amount of time on my hands because I’m unemployed. I want/need work in New York or anywhere in the continental United States. Here is every piece of contact information I have so that you can contact me and help me. Help.”
Are You Going to Do Something, or Just Stand There and Bleed?
Back in the golden age of finance jobs, employers were more lenient in evaluating job applicants.
It was fairly common to see people with non-traditional degrees and even non-traditional work experience walk into finance roles simply because they could market themselves well, demonstrate great aptitude, or display remarkable drive.
A financial crisis or three later, all of that hit the fan, the economy collapsed, and the job market became a labyrinth of strange proportions.
Recruiters seem to ignore potential candidates with greater frequency, financial institutions are noticeably more stringent with job requirements, and online job posting sites are similar to black holes, with perhaps a bit less gravitational pull than usual.
Compounding all of that are the attitudes of people like my friend Polar Bear.
His haste to get his career back on track obscured his ability to make rational, insightful decisions about how to go about his job search, how to present himself when networking and in interviews, and even how to write simple emails.
Here’s everything that Polar Bear did wrong:
- He failed to convey his work experience and how it was relevant for the opportunities he was applying to.
- He had no “elevator pitch” and therefore no way to win recruiters’ attention in 30 seconds.
- The tone of his follow-up emails implied anxiety and distraction.
- He placed all his faith in the Internet and assumed that was the only way to find jobs.
You can’t keep performing the same actions over and over and expect different results – that’s the definition of insanity.
A man of Polar Bear’s size is large and intimidating, but in the face of today’s job market, he might as well be David fighting against Goliath. The task may be daunting, but with the right tools and approach, you can be successful.
Are You a Bull or a Bear?
Polar Bear got his nickname because he’s incredibly tall and wide, he played football in college, and he enjoys eating at Chinese buffets (for obvious reasons).
But despite his imposing size, he has the face of a harmless stuffed animal (hence the nickname).
Seeing someone like that on the brink of swan-diving off his apartment building in despair was enough to make me rush to his rescue.
Polar Bear needed to refine his career direction, focus his efforts on the type of job that he actually wanted, and think of job search methods beyond responding to online job postings.
Whether you’re under-employed or totally unemployed, you shouldn’t get distressed – or at the very least, you should never show that distress.
Here’s what I’d recommend doing if, like Polar Bear, you’re flailing about with no clear direction:
1) Figure Out Specifically What You Want to Do
The absolute worst attitude to have: “At this point, I’ll do anything!”
You might think that you limit yourself if you focus on applying for 1 or 2 specific roles, but the opposite is actually true: by focusing and making your profile match those roles as closely as possible, you improve your chances of landing offers.
Polar Bear had been an equities trader for three years and he should have been applying for equities trading roles. If he had experience in trading other assets, then he could have also applied for those opportunities.
Because his desperation was a distraction, it impaired his ability to stay committed to the jobs that he was best suited for when applying.
I helped him to focus all of his efforts on trading opportunities and connected his equities trading background to other trading roles he was interested in that were not equities-centered.
2) Spin Your Experience Into Sounding Relevant
Before you even begin contacting recruiters and pitching yourself, figure out how you can make your experience sound relevant.
So if you’ve worked in equity research but want to move into private equity or do something else that’s deal-related, don’t just sit there and talk about the stocks you’ve followed: pick a merger, acquisition, or other deal that one of your coverage companies was involved with and talk about your experience analyzing that transaction.
For roles that Polar Bear was interested in but not relevant to his background, this was a matter of familiarizing himself with the asset that he was interested in trading, and then relating the research process in his equities trading strategy to a similar research process for that asset class.
3) Develop Your Elevator Pitch
This is important because you’re going to re-use this time and time again on the phone, in person, and via email when you introduce yourself to recruiters.
Your pitch should be no more than a few sentences and it should explain what you’ve done, what you want to do next, and how your experience will get you there.
Here’s a condensed version of Polar Bear’s revised pitch:
“Good afternoon, my name is Polar Bear and I’m a mid/large cap equities trader. My most recent role required me to focus on a host of sectors including but not limited to financials, technology, and health care. I have over three years of corporate trading experience, and I’m actively looking for a new career opportunity. Attached you will find my resume and a cover letter that will highlight my qualifications in greater detail. My contact information has been provided below. Thank you for your time.”
4) Sit Down and Craft Recruiting Emails and Practice Your Pitch on the Phone
The best way to avoid the desperate tone Polar Bear used is simple: prepare beforehand. If you don’t have to write every email from scratch and you re-use most of your pitch each time, the chances of screwing up decrease substantially.
You will also sound far more confident if you do what I suggested above and focus on the roles you could actually see yourself doing, rather than sending dozens of emails per day about positions that you don’t care about at all.
If you prepare beforehand, it also helps to keep a clear and confident mind as you work to see results.
Although the recruiter email replies and phone calls didn’t suddenly come non-stop for Polar Bear, the immediate replies he did receive had a noticeable effect on his demeanor and his overall presentation.
5) Go Beyond the Internet
Occasionally when I ask people how they would go about finding a job if there were no Internet, many say that they would focus on recruiters.
My response is usually, “So if there were no Internet, you would leave the fate of your career to recruiters?”
Recruiters can be helpful, but they shouldn’t be your only source for new opportunities – they tend to focus on high-probability candidates and that means that you’re rarely at the top of their lists if you’re currently unemployed or not in a relevant position.
The Internet is great for finding contacts, but you should take the relationship offline via the phone and in-person meetings as quickly as possible.
I told Polar Bear that he should always want to talk or meet with the person that was in the position to hire him or refer him to someone who could hire him.
Whether it is via telephone or in person, conversations rarely have the ability to end by not replying or closing the door of opportunity completely.
Plight of the Polar Bear
It’s easy to become desperate if you’ve been doing something you don’t want for a long time, or if you’ve been unemployed for months at a time.
If it’s to the point where you can’t sustain yourself financially, then sure, do what you have to do in order to pay the bills in the short-term – but you should still remain committed to your long-term goals.
Thinking creatively about your job search, focusing on what you really want to do, and making yourself as attractive a candidate as possible for those opportunities will allow you to take your career by the horns.
Or you could choose to be a Polar Bear.
Exeter Jones is a philosopher trapped inside the body of a writer, trapped inside the body of an alternative investment analyst. He’s worked in investment banking and alternative investments and his favorite breakfast food is ESPN.
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