Recruiting in a Down Market, Part 5: How to Avoid Desperation and Shooting Yourself in the Foot, and How to Deliver a Convincing Recruiting Performance

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As part of our “Recruiting in a Down Market” presentations, Kevin and I fielded questions on recruiting topics, including how to network without looking desperate or shooting yourself in the foot, and how to properly make cold-calls, send cold-emails, and set up informational interviews – among other recruiting worries in a downturn.

We can’t replicate that online 100% (unless we implement that live chat room one day) but we can go over the more relevant questions that everyone is wondering about.

How to Avoid Turning Into a “Desperate Networker”

One problem with networking during a poor economy is that you run the risk of appearing desperate – desperate to get a job, internship, or even set up a casual meeting.

Remember, though, a ninja is stealthy and highly efficient – not desperate.

1. What’s the proper level of follow-up with someone I’ve just had an informational interview with? Should I send emails or call him/her every week? How can I make sure he/she remembers me without annoying him/her?

This comes with practice and there’s no “one size fits all” strategy. Emailing or calling every single week is too much unless you know the person very well, have a pressing deadline (e.g. exploding offer), or a good reason to contact him/her.

The more senior someone is, the less frequent your contact should be. An Analyst won’t be as annoyed at multiple emails in a week as an MD would. Once every 2-3 weeks is more appropriate.

The best way to be remembered is to make a great first impression – not through repeated contact.

It helps to stay in touch and develop the relationship, but your first impression is the most important part.

2. Let’s say I’ve been rejected from an interview, but the interviewer and I got along really well – is it worthwhile to stay in touch with him/her?

Sure, just don’t do it too frequently. The best reason to stay in touch is if, for example, you got an offer elsewhere and wanted to run it by him or see what he thought.

You could say something like, “I know we spoke xx months ago – I ended up getting an offer at [Other Firm Name], and since you seemed very knowledgeable about the industry, I wanted to see what you thought about them.”

That way, you establish social proof because you’re indirectly saying, “Hey, someone else thinks I’m worthy of an offer – maybe you guys made a mistake” and you also have a good reason for contacting the interviewer again.

If you don’t have an offer or something positive to report, stay in touch every few months and give him updates to make it sound like your search is going well.

3. You said we should go after alumni and informational interviews aggressively – but these days everyone is doing that, and as an MBA I’m worried that I might look desperate doing so. Should I still be doing this if I’m in business school?

There is some truth to this – you might seem “desperate” because they know you’ve been out in the real world for awhile and understand how things work.

I would be less aggressive with larger firms and do more follow-up and repeated contact with boutiques. Your perceived “desperation factor” comes down to the culture of the firm you’re speaking with, and bulge brackets are more likely to think that you’re flailing around looking for whatever you can get.

Several MBA-level readers got into boutiques through sheer persistence, and even created internships where no formal programs existed before – so persistence definitely works, but it needs to be targeted correctly.

Networking Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot

A ninja only resorts to self-inflicted injury in the worst case scenario. Similarly, in a down market you need to network persistently but also intelligently so that you don’t shoot yourself in the foot.

4. I have an internship lined up this summer, but it’s at one of the most troubled banks and I’m not confident that they’ll give anyone return offers. Should I be worried about speaking with banks during the summer in order to “hedge” my return offer?

You can’t be obvious with what you’re doing – never say anything directly about looking for or needing an internship/job. But even if you’re careful, they always know why you’re contacting them so it’s very difficult to keep your operation “covert.”

If your bank is doing poorly anyway, you don’t have much to lose by speaking with others – especially if it’s an internship. I would start contacting different firms before your internship even starts under the guise of “wanting to find out more about the industry.”

That way you don’t have to tell them, “Actually I’m working right now… at a bank that may collapse tomorrow…” in your first meeting.

There’s always a chance of word getting around since finance is a tiny community, but not hedging the offer carries more risk than “leaks” do.

5. If I have a full-time offer, do you think there’s a chance it could get rescinded? Should I be speaking with other firms just to make sure I don’t get screwed?

These days your offer is likely to be rescinded only if your bank collapses. There are mixed economic signals and some banks seem to be doing well while others are still struggling, but it’s unlikely that the government will let another large institution fail after the Lehman disaster.

It never hurts to network and establish relationships with firms before you need them, but an all-out effort is probably not necessary.

That is one difference between the market now and 2001-2003: back then, plenty of banks and consulting firms simply rescinded offers without explanation – whereas now, they’re just not hiring much to begin with.

How to Deliver a Convincing Recruiting Performance

Another problem comes up when going for positions for which you are “over-qualified.” If you’ve already had a front office role, it can be difficult to pretend that you’re excited about doing something that’s more back/middle office-related.

And if you get stuck with a non-front-office role, it’s difficult (to say the least) to make the transition.

6. I worked in private equity before, and now I’m applying mostly to funds of funds because… they’re actually hiring. I don’t want to do that, but PE is too tough for someone with my background to get into right now – how can I convince them I actually want the job?

If you can pull it off, you can try to come up with a “good” reason why you’re going for FoF rather than PE but you need to be a great actor and have a specific anecdote to make this work.

Another approach may be to tell them a variant of the truth and acknowledge that it is much different than PE, but that you’re interested in learning more about a related field and that there’s still actual demand there compared to other fields.

Whether or not “honesty” works depends on your interviewer – you need to get a read on him/her and discern how down to earth he/she is.

7. I’m working in the back/middle office as an intern this year. How do I make the transition to front office by the time full-time recruiting comes around?

You’ll need to have someone – ideally, a group of people – pulling for you in front office roles. You need to be very proactive with meeting those outside your group and establishing your credibility. If they have inter-company functions, events, parties, etc. you need to go to all of them and spend your time making friends with those in the front office.

Also, consider moving to a different bank. It’s easier to make this transition if you’re moving between companies because they will be more open to you changing roles – mostly if it’s a move from larger bank to smaller bank.

Finally, keep in mind that making this move tends to be easier on the sales & trading side rather than the corporate finance / investment banking side, because the work is more similar and there are many more examples of those who have made the transition there.

Just Networking

Then there are those basic questions on networking that are applicable no matter what the economy is like.

8. I’ll be working in Hong Kong this summer, but I don’t really know anyone there. If I’m starting from nothing, how can I properly network and set myself up for future internships and jobs?

Read this interview we did with a banker from Italy – he had some great thoughts on networking internationally.

You have a big advantage because you’ll be there in-person, which is essential if you want to work elsewhere.

Start with Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn searches for professional associations and networking groups in your new location – in a place like Hong Kong there are bound to be tons of ex-pats, and they’ll be open to meeting you.

Also, if you’re set to work there you will soon know people – your co-workers – even if you don’t know anyone right now. Ask for innocuous introductions and always tag along to events they take you to and meet as many people as you can through them.

9. What’s the right way to conduct an informational interview? I feel like I’m scaring off alumni that I speak with!

Start out by asking for a quick 10-minute chat via email (and keep it SHORT) – if he doesn’t respond after a couple tries, go to the phone if you have his/her number.

For the actual conversation, keep it casual and focus on asking him/her questions about his/her background. Make sure you do your research beforehand so you can actually ask good questions – look on Google, LinkedIn, and Facebook, and find everything you can first.

Don’t jump in by saying, “By the way, I was just stalking you on the Internet and saw that you worked at [Company Name] before!” but instead use your research to ask questions like “I saw in our database that you worked in consulting first… how did you make the transition?” and don’t say that you went through extra effort / stalked the person first to find answers.

When the conversation is drawing to a close, ask for referrals as well as permission to follow-up with additional questions.

If it’s the 11th hour and you really need a job/internship, you can say, “And if there are any opportunities you know of that might be a good fit for me, I would appreciate if you could let me know” so that you’re not directly asking for a job and allowing him the option of a “comfortable decline.”

Show Me the Money!

Another consideration when recruiting in a recession is the pay. Let’s face it, we won’t get 2006-2007 bonuses anytime soon – but just how low will they go?

10. Last year, you did an analysis of 2008 bonuses and you came very close to the real numbers. What do you think 2009 Analyst bonuses will be like?

I like your style, that’s the most direct question I’ve heard all day!

I haven’t done the analysis yet (that’s coming up in June) but I think bonuses will be down around 50%, putting them at 2002-2003 levels this year ($20-30K range for 1st Year Analysts).

Whether or not they’ll improve in 2010 and beyond is anyone’s guess.

11. Is there anything in finance where pay has not been severely impacted by the crisis?

Yes – any hedge funds that bet against the subprime fiasco have profited handsomely (like this guy) over the past year. Also, any hedge funds that trade based on the volatility index (VIX) or similar metrics have done well in spite of (or because of) the downturn.

Firms focused on restructuring / turnaround situations have also done well, but bonuses still won’t be even close to 2006-2007 levels.

More Recruiting Questions?

Ask away.

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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18 Comments to “Recruiting in a Down Market, Part 5: How to Avoid Desperation and Shooting Yourself in the Foot, and How to Deliver a Convincing Recruiting Performance”

Comments

  1. Scandibanker says

    At company events I find it easy to connect with alumni from my school, analysts and maybe associates, but when it comes to the senior people I usually don’t know what to say. How do I impress like an MD? What is your view on this?

    • says

      It’s not that much different – just make it casual and don’t try too hard to impress. Keep the questions focused on him/her and try to reference things that he is likely to enjoy/know about.

      For example, all senior bankers travel a lot… so if you’ve been interesting places, try to get a conversation going about that topic. That should be especially easy if you’re based in Europe where extensive travel is more common.

      But in all cases, you should never try too hard to “impress” – you should be yourself and focus your energy on asking him/her questions about his/her background. People are much more interested in talking about themselves than they are in hearing about you!

  2. PJ says

    anyone spending the summer in HK, google: geoexpat. I was there last summer and met people through the site.

  3. Emil says

    After time for the phone call with alumni/etc. is established, is it a good idea to send my resume just so alumni knows where I am coming from (not interested in SA, already have something lined up)?

    • says

      Hmm I’d probably send the resume after you speak on the phone first because they won’t have time to look at it prior to the call… just mention something in passing at the end about it and send it along.

  4. Steve says

    As an upcoming grad, how concerned should one be with compensation? For instance, is a front office position with a mid-sized comp package better than a middle/back office position with a larger comp package?

    Should new grads focus primarily on the experience they will receive rather than what they will be paid?

  5. Anonymous says

    Just a quick question on reneging. Is it actually illegal in any capacity ? (I’m from Australia) I currently have an exploding FT offer for TAS at a big4 but am still interviewing around with boutiques.

    • says

      I don’t think it’s actually illegal… it would be frowned upon, but you’re not going to get thrown in jail or anything, that would be ridiculous.

  6. Confused says

    Hi,

    You mentioned about networking for MBAs.

    I am confused. I read somewhere else that at MBA level, it’s important to do informational interviews even before you start classes. But here you are saying it might come of as desperate. So what should I do?

  7. Ray says

    Hi Brian,

    I recently completed an IBD summer internship at a bulge bracket in New York. I am going to hear from them next week about an offer. In my final review I could gauge that I was right on the border as far as getting a full time offer is concerned. In the scenario that I don’t get an offer how would you suggest I go about spinning it to get a full time gig elsewhere. specifically, I am trying to use the current market situation and my non-target school background to my advantage. Any and all pointers are much appreciated.

  8. Godwin says

    Hi Brian,

    Thanks for your warmhearted help for us?I read lots of useful articles posted on this website, my thoughts for breaking into investment banks have changed a lot, I really appreciate this. However, I have some questions, and I am wondering whether you could give me some advises to deal with them.

    1, I realized the social networking is so important if I wanna break into the investment bank. But I have the thorny situation related to the alumni. I graduated from the target school (based in UK) which one you mentioned in other article. But now I am living in china, I am afraid it may not be possible to do this powerful strategy. Does this mean that I have little chance to get the interview?

    2, I wish there would not have financial crisis in 2008, so I could get a job from investment bank. During the process of interview, the job position was cancelled. Then, I went back to china to work in a smaller security company. After 3 years, I realized what I still concern, so I resigned the job. Now, I am preparing for the CAIA (Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst). Here are my bullets to shot the investment bank: 3-year experience on Chinese stock market, including trading skills, a few financial modeling knowledge, accounting knowledge, public speech experience and so on. Do I have chances? Do investment banks need these? And how can I shine myself?

    3, As said above, I resigned the job, in order to take the exam of CAIA, and I do not have a job for several months. It seems I have no choice in this bad economic status, when I reached the job bottleneck, and can not get a bigger platform for my career. Does investment bank care about the career gap? Besides, I did a deal with mortgaged loan for a company based on my own social networking, do I need to put this into my resume when I apply investment bank?

    4, If I have to work in a small and growing investment fund or PE company, is this benefit to get into investment banks in future?

    5, If I prefer the resume service from your website, could I enhance my probability to break into?

    Thanks for your time and your sincere helps.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      1. Perhaps you can contact the alum office in China and chances are they may have alums in the industry there
      2. I think you have higher chance with a local brokerage firms or even local IBs. If you want to get into a BB I’d suggest you to get an MBA at a target
      3. Yes you’ll need to explain your career gap. Yes you can put that on
      4. Yes this can potentially help you, especially if you gain contacts in IB through the role. There are quite a few small local fund houses emerging so I think if you market yourself well this path could work.
      5. We can potentially help you. I’d suggest you to check out http://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/investment-banking-resume-review/ for more details.

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