From the Back Office and a Non-Target MBA to Running Deals as an Investment Banking Associate in Canada
Can you get into investment banking from a non-target MBA program?
Most people would say, “No. Keep dreaming.”
But what if you add a few more handicaps?
- Not only is your school a non-target, but it’s also far removed from any major city.
- You’re in Canada, which has far fewer openings each year than the US or the UK – especially at the Associate level.
- You’re up against people with prior finance internships from brand-name schools.
- Oh yeah, and your first internship is in the back office.
The odds would be stacked against you.
But in today’s interview, you’ll hear from a reader who overcame all of these challenges to win an Associate offer in investment banking, including:
- Why cold calling and cold emailing do work even at the Associate level… if you use them correctly.
- Why recruiters can be useful for winning offers… if you approach them in the right way.
- The advantages of going to a boutique firm, including the ability to run deals instead of living in pitch books all day.
Breaking Out of the Back Office
Q: Why don’t you take us back to the beginning of your story?
A: I completed an undergraduate degree in Finance from a non-target school, and I spent each summer there working for an Agribusiness company.
I progressed from “loading fertilizer trucks at the docks” roles up into the corporate office, and eventually got to work alongside the CEO and CFO to develop each division’s business plan and financial projections.
That experience made me interested in investment banking, as I realized I enjoyed fast-paced, corporation-wide transactions involving the top decision-makers.
But to break into IB, I knew I would need an MBA with more impressive-looking work experience – especially since there are so few openings in Canada and the competition can be fierce.
So I applied to a co-op MBA program… at a non-target school.
Q: Why would you ever go to a non-target MBA program if you wanted to get into investment banking?
A: At the time, there were only three schools in Canada that offered co-op placements and I believed that the co-op experience would be more important than the school’s brand name… which is not true.
I also figured I could use the MBA and the co-op experience to get in “through the side door,” start out in any role at a bank, and then move into a client-facing role.
So I did just that and settled for a back-office internship at one of the Big Five Canadian banks during my co-op.
Within the first week, I realized it wasn’t for me.
So I began strategizing for my move into capital markets ASAP.
Q: Moving from the back office to the front office can be challenging, to say the least.
What was your strategy?
A: Once you’re already working at a bank, it’s not that hard to move around – especially if you’re completing a co-op or internship instead of a full-time role.
I spent the first three weeks on the job entrenching myself and proving my work ethic, but then I began contacting all my direct superiors and colleagues and repeatedly asked them about moving into capital markets. I also reached out to contacts I found in the company’s database.
Most managers want to keep you at their firm, even if you end up going to a different team.
So I was very forward about it and said, “I’ve enjoyed my work here so far, but my eventual goal is to work in capital markets. I would appreciate it if you could introduce me to any of your colleagues who work there.”
This effort required hundreds of cold calls and emails.
It worked well at a large firm, but it wouldn’t work as well at a smaller institution because they may not let you move around as easily.
I also contacted external recruiters, who turned out to be one of the best sources because they’re typically working for a client that’s looking to fill a position ASAP.
Q: But aren’t recruiters useless until you have significant full-time work experience?
A: Not necessarily. You’re right that recruiters may not work with you if you’re moving from the back office to the front office, but they do get Analyst and Associate roles a few times per year.
Just like with traditional networking, you must keep following up with them to get noticed.
Since recruiters work for a fee, they’ll help you find opportunities if they think you’re a competitive candidate.
Q: So what was the outcome of your process?
A: They approved the move about 2-3 months into my co-op, and I was able to move into global investment banking as an Analyst.
The interview process was quite standard: I met with two of the MDs multiple times, answered questions on accounting, valuation, and behavioral scenarios, brain teasers, and so on.
I was already working at the firm, so they focused more on my fit with their team than whether or not I could do the job.
Q: Thanks for explaining all that.
Is there anything else that works well when moving into a front-office role?
A: One common mistake is not dealing well with constructive criticism or failure.
Upon hearing something negative, younger students often assume the contact is a “poor lead” and then start reaching out to new contacts.
But you’ve already spent time building the relationship, so why not improve whatever flaws the person pointed out, go back to him/her, and demonstrate your improvement?
You never want to reach out to a contact only once and then simply move on if you don’t have any luck.
Specific Example: I struggled with cold calling quite a bit at first because I was too nervous and tended to start calls by pitching myself… which came across poorly since I was nervous.
A few people mentioned this to me, so I adjusted my approach and said, “Hi [Other Person’s Name], it’s [My Name] calling” and waited for them to respond.
This introduction resulted in questions like, “Do I know you, [Name]?” or “Can I help you, [Name]?” or even “Why the $%#$ are you calling me, [Name]?”
It was effective because it put the listener in a listening position and encouraged him/her to ask questions and listen.
If you start by pitching yourself immediately, it sounds like a “sales call” and the other person often loses interest.
Q: It sounds like your approach worked, since you upgraded your co-op into a capital-markets role.
I’m guessing you then converted that into a full-time Associate offer and…
A: Nope! The market crashed and the bank enacted a hiring freeze for a year, which is when I finished up my MBA.
At that point I found an opportunity with another one of the Big Five Canadian banks, also through networking.
But this was more of a “project role” completing a merger between two banks.
When the merger was complete, I ended up in a similar position: I was in a role that was not for me, although this time it was technically investment banking.
Back to Square One: How to Cold Call and Cold Email Your Way into IB
Q: So what did you do?
A: It was back to the same routine: calling and emailing all the contacts I had spoken with recently and anyone else who might be able to get me an interview.
Q: But many people say that cold calling and cold emailing don’t work for Associate-level candidates. What did you do differently?
A: Well, they’re wrong.
Cold calling tiny boutiques to ask for unpaid internships doesn’t work as well, but you can still use cold calling and cold emailing at the MBA level.
I started by looking up VPs and MDs on boutique banks’ websites, and I almost always began by emailing them because it’s easier to queue up and send out emails during business hours.
Also, if you have prior experience with any finance firm, you often come across as more polished in a well-written email.
So I sent an email, and if I didn’t hear back within a week, I sent another email. If I didn’t hear back a week after that, I started calling, separating each call by a few days.
I often bypassed gatekeepers by calling after 5 PM; if the person weren’t available, I asked for his/her email or asked if it was OK to leave a message.
Q: So what happened when you got a response?
A: I almost always received similar negative responses:
- “We’re not hiring.”
- “We’re not looking for additional candidates.”
- “You don’t match the profile we’re seeking.”
Undergraduates and recent graduates can counter these objections by offering to work for free or by suggesting a “trial internship,” but that doesn’t work as well at the Associate level.
So I usually said, “If you are not hiring for this position, are you looking for someone for a similar role? And if not, when do you expect to be looking for someone?”
Most bankers replied, “Maybe in 3-4 months,” or “6-12 months” for hires that were further away
If they say this, you should NOT wait 3-4 months or 6-12 months to follow-up with the person.
You might forget about it by then, or the role might already be filled.
I did the opposite and followed up in 3-4 weeks if they said they were planning to hire someone in 3-4 months.
I sent short messages saying, “Just wondering how things were going and if you were still seeking someone for this role.”
This strategy worked well because:
- The turnover rate is very high – banks hire a lot of people who “think” they can handle it beforehand, but then quit when they realize they can’t work 12-15 hours per day. So in practice, spots open up unexpectedly all the time.
- Your contact will be impressed by your tenacity and will be more likely to recommend you in the future.
- It’s the same process you use to close deals in investment banking – Persistence, Persistence, Persistence.
The last point is particularly important for Associate-level candidates because bankers are evaluating you to see if you have the qualities needed to reach the top ranks.
Closing a deal requires you to go back to the same buyers and investors over and over again and say, “Did you know that X or Y has changed? What do you think about this company now?”
If you can’t even use this follow-up process network your way in, could you be persistent enough to close a billion-dollar deals as a senior banker?
Q: Thanks for explaining all that. It’s a great response to anyone who thinks the networking process is “silly” or “arbitrary.”
Were there any significant differences in interviews this time around?
A: The questions were similar, but the process was a bit weird this time around: The Founding MD wanted to meet me for breakfast… on Saturday morning at 6 AM.
Since they were considering hundreds of candidates, they wanted to eliminate upfront people who weren’t serious.
I thought I blew that first interview, but I got a call-back for round two and subsequent rounds after that. After each interview, I followed up and politely stated how I could add value to the firm and why they were my first choice.
Four interviews and many follow-ups and phone conversations later, I received an offer.
Q: So now that you’ve been working at this bank for a few years, what’s next?
A: The sky’s the limit. My plan is to target a VP promotion next year, and if things go well, remain here for a while.
One of the perks of a boutique is that you get a lot more responsibility earlier on.
So as an Associate, you often end up pitching and running deals rather than spending all your time in Excel and PowerPoint.
Q: Thanks for sharing your story with us.
Are there any other important takeaways you want to emphasize?
1) Don’t listen to anyone who says a certain path is “impossible” – no, you may not get into Goldman Sachs coming from a back-office co-op, but you can definitely win front-office roles in investment banking.
2) You have the best chance of moving from the back office to the front office if you can prove yourself in a co-op or extended internship first, get your team to support you, and then switch during that internship.
3) Network, network, network, take constructive criticism and feedback seriously, and incorporate it into your networking. Cold emailing and cold calling still work at the Associate level, especially if you’re targeting smaller firms.
4) DON’T GIVE UP! It’s the most common mistake.
Q: Well said. Thanks for your time.
A: My pleasure.
About the Author
Nataliya Yavorska conducted this interview and wrote this article. Nataliya is a co-founder of Thinking North, a platform for connecting entrepreneurs and investors, and she has previously worked in both the corporate world and in academia. Her research in the field of clinical virology was published in peer-reviewed journals, and was included in an award-winning presentation at the international Conference of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. Nataliya was also involved with projects including business development at a personal training company targeting executives, corporate event planning, and volunteer work as a running guide for the visually impaired. You can visit her website at www.thinkingnorth.com.
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