How to Break Into Investment Banking as a Career-Changer in a Part-Time, Non-Target MBA Program
No clever introductions for this one because this story already has more twists and turns than 24 or Lost – so let’s get right into it.
Q: Walk us through your resume.
A: I came from a liberal arts background as an undergraduate, and worked in commercial property management after I graduated.
After a few years I got interested in investment banking, but by that point I had already been out of school for awhile and I didn’t have much of a quantitative background, so I decided that going back to business school was my best bet.
I went to a well-known, though not “target,” program – you would know the school if I mentioned it here, but not many large banks actively recruited there.
To make things even worse, I was enrolled in the part-time program there – so I only had access to the career center and its resources in my last few terms.
Q: So I’m guessing you had to do a lot of networking. Can you tell us about what your overall approach was?
A: Sure. Before I even started networking, I wanted to make sure I had my “story” right, so I spent a lot of time on that.
My basic “story”: I came from a background where I had to work with tenants constantly and develop relationships with lots of different people – which is a critical skill if you want to make it to the top in investment banking.
I said that in the long-term, I wanted to be a trusted advisor to CEOs and other executives, and that I saw investment banking as a way to leverage my previous background to get there.
This story worked very well for Associate-level interviews – they want to see more evidence of leadership and client relationship skills because they’re grooming you to make it to the top one day.
In terms of networking, I ignored bulge bracket banks for the most part and focused on middle-market and boutique banks because they were much more receptive to someone like me.
I didn’t focus that much on the “results” per se – I was genuinely interested in getting to know people in the industry and learning more all the time, which made a huge difference.
Too many people go into the process only looking forward to the outcome, which makes it hard to stay motivated and actually make a good impression on everyone you meet.
Q: Ok, so you have your “story” laid out and you’re in the right mindset. How did you decide who to contact each week? What did you say, and to whom did you say it?
A: I focused on 2nd and 3rd year Associates, as well as some 1st Year VPs – I wanted people who had been there long enough to actually have influence over the hiring process.
These types of people were also more likely to be staffers – and to therefore have even more influence on hiring decisions.
I sent around 2-3 emails per day, pretty much every single day – I was pretty direct and told them explicitly I was interested in moving into investment banking or moving to their firm specifically, and that I wanted to get their thoughts on how best to position myself.
I would always request either a call or a meeting in the initial email, and would then spend most of the time asking about the other person’s background.
Q: What kind of resistance did you face because of your background? Was the part-time MBA program an issue, or was your non-finance background a bigger problem?
A: I was always very upfront about attending the part-time MBA program, and it was never an issue. When it came time for full-time recruiting, I already had an internship by then so no one looked at me differently.
My non-finance background was more of a problem – in every meeting I had they always said, “So why do you want to move into finance, and why now?”
By this point I had gotten really, really good at telling my “story” and answering these objections before they even came up, so that wasn’t much trouble after the first few informational interviews.
Q: What tactics were most effective in going from meetings and phone calls to actual interviews? Did you have to do anything differently at the MBA-level?
A: Not really – it was mostly just continuous pressure that led to interviews at most places. I kept emailing people and saying, “Just wanted to reiterate my interest in your firm, and re-visit our conversation.”
You can’t take it personally when you don’t get a response – a lot of people purposely ignore you just to assess how serious you are.
The (Partial) Results
Q: Ok, so you’re networking extensively… how did you end up with an internship?
A: Continuous pressure – I was speaking with a local bank and kept contacting them to say I was interested. I could tell they wanted an intern but weren’t 100% certain they actually wanted to hire one – those types of leads are often better to go after vs. places that have no clue what they want.
Q: And how well did you do in full-time recruiting with this internship under your belt?
A: I mentioned it was a really, really bad year, right? I interviewed with a lot of banks but came away with no full-time offers at well-known banks that year – even though I had done a ton of networking and actually had an investment banking internship.
Q: A lot of people would have probably given up or set their sights on a different field at this point. What did you do?
A: I decided to postpone my official graduation date by a year – just to keep myself “in school” – and I kept networking and ended up with an offer at a local boutique.
But it was quite a bit different from a large bank, and the learning opportunities were uneven – we spent a lot of time chasing after lower-probability deals.
The other problem was that it was unpaid – I received no base salary, and was paid only when deals closed.
That’s fine if you’re an MD with millions of dollars in savings, dozens of different clients, and you expect deals to close – but it was a huge issue when you’re just starting out and need to pay the bills.
M&I Note: One of the advantages of a part-time MBA program is that you can more easily move around your graduation date.
Moving Into Industry?
Q: Ok, so you’re at this small firm where the work you’re doing is not quite what you expected and where you’re not getting paid. What then?
A: I had to leave because of the lack of any base salary. I had worked on several deals and at least had something substantial to talk about in interviews now, so I felt that it had served its purpose.
One of the MDs was from a larger firm, and brought in a lot of deals – I worked with him a few times, so I got decent experience in the time I was there.
After leaving, I went to a local company “in industry” and became Director of Finance there.
Q: Most people would say that going FROM investment banking back TO industry is the kiss of death and that you can’t move back into finance if you’ve done that. What were you thinking?
A: I took the job because it was a management-level role and because it allowed me to interact with the CEO pretty much every day.
I knew I could leverage it for investment banking interviews in the future because now I could say, “I understand both finance AND how company executives in a particular industry think.”
It allowed me to go into investment banking interviews and say 2 things:
- I can get inside the heads of CEOs in this industry because I know exactly how they think.
- Other people are coming in from the Ivory Tower, but I have real-world experience related to investment banking.
Q: Right, but did banks actually take you seriously? Most people in finance view “industry” in a very negative way.
A: You need to get creative. Any experience is better than sitting on your butt doing nothing.
Believe it or not, this industry experience actually helped me more than my investment banking internships because I applied to matching industry groups, and it helped me stand out vs. everyone else.
Sure, in a perfect world we’d all work at Goldman Sachs – but things rarely go as planned, and you need to improvise and spin what you have into sounding relevant when that happens.
Back Into Banking?
Q: Ok, so you’re at this local company as Director of Finance for a few months now. How did you move back into banking after you had already left for industry?
A: It’s not as difficult as you might think, at least if you do it the right way. Here’s what I did:
- I considered A LOT of other options, like startup banks, public finance firms, and more – if nothing worked out in banking, I wanted a Plan B, C, and D.
- I never stopped networking – I continued talking to everyone and browsing my business school’s job board even after I had been through 2 other jobs by this point.
- I focused on highly relevant groups – investment banking industry groups that matched my background when I was Director of Finance at the local company. I made sure I wasn’t just applying for the sake of applying – I knew that I’d have to be more targeted given my history.
Q: How did you change around your resume in light of everything you had done – and how did you get it in the hands of bankers?
A: I re-wrote my entire resume to “bankify” it and to add more meaty material, focusing on what I had done at the boutique and also as Director of Finance at the local firm. It looked significantly better than when I had only had the internship from the year before.
I got interviews at a bulge bracket bank and at a well-known middle-market / boutique firm by applying to off-campus postings on my school’s job board.
I also noticed that I had spoken with a guy at the middle market / boutique firm a year ago when he was at a different bank, so I called him up again, told him I was interested in interviewing there, and got his thoughts on the company.
Q: Had you had any contact with him since you spoke with him a year ago?
A: Nope. I contacted lots of others I had last spoken with 2-3 years ago as well – obviously after that length of time you can’t go and request an in-depth conversation, but if you’re friendly and casually reach out to people, good things will happen.
A lot of people think you need to stay in touch with 500 industry contacts 24/7 and that the sky will fall if you don’t – but so few people ever bother networking that simply by reaching out at all you put yourself in an elite group.
Don’t obsess over details and individual words in emails… as long as you’re networking at all, you’re well ahead of most people.
Q: Ok, so you have 2 solid leads and interviews lined up at both the bulge bracket and the boutique / middle-market bank. What were interviews like, and how were they different from what an Analyst might face?
A: The interviews themselves were not dramatically different – it was the usual set of phone interviews, followed by in-person rounds later on, with technical and “fit” questions similar to what you normally see.
The bulge bracket featured a case study in their interview process, where I had to talk about how to analyze a company in a dying industry and how to establish what kind of cash flows they might achieve should they expand into more lucrative markets.
Overall the interviews were no more technical than what anyone else interviewing for entry-level positions might get, but they do expect you to be more polished at the MBA-level.
There was also more thought required – a lot of the questions were not standard “Walk me through a DCF”-type questions, but were about specific companies or more unusual scenarios.
Q: So how did the interviews go?
A: With the well-known boutique / middle-market bank, everything just clicked and I fit in with the team from the start, so I got an offer there. I came very close at the bulge bracket bank, but lost out to other candidates in the final round.
Q: Did you try to negotiate your salary or bonus at all?
A: No, because I felt the offer they gave me was in-line with the market as a whole, and that negotiating it might have damaged some of the goodwill – the relationship kind, not the accounting kind – that I had built up throughout the interview process.
I’m not even sure that it’s possible to negotiate much with well-established banks, at least for Analyst or Associate positions.
Future Plans & Final Thoughts
Q: You went through quite an ordeal to get into a well-known investment bank. Are you planning to stay there, or will you try to hop into PE as soon as you can?
A: At this point, I’m planning to stay here – for two reasons:
- My whole pitch was that I wanted to be a trusted advisor to companies and executives. I had to believe that for it to be believable, and I still do want to do that.
- Getting into PE is a fairly well-defined path, and it’s hard for anyone who hasn’t been an investment banking analyst.
If I got tired of banking at some point, I would probably look at opportunities within industry instead – I already have the experience and could easily go back to that.
While the life of an MD may not be all peachy, it would also be hard to leave if I got there one day.
For Associate-level interviews, you need to show that you’re committed to the industry for the long-term or else no one will take you seriously.
Q: You were very successful breaking into investment banking, even though your story had more than its fair share of twists and turns. Looking back on it, is there anything you would have done differently? Any advice for readers?
A: I made two main mistakes with networking:
- My tracking tool was very poor. I should have tracked the “temperature” of each lead to see whether each person was “warm” and to properly prioritize my efforts. I also should have included an agenda for each person with an idea of how he/she could be helpful – Referrals? Advice? Interviews?
- I failed to explore all avenues for networking – I completely neglected undergraduate alumni, professors, and people at my church, for example. While you could argue those are lower probability to begin with, all it takes is one.
My only other advice is to enjoy the networking process itself. If you don’t like talking to people, you’re never going to make it in the industry – as an investment banker you spend a lot of time emailing and calling people, even as an Analyst.
Have fun with it, and keep in mind that no matter how screwed you seem or how many “fatal” moves you make, you never lose unless you give up – just re-read my own story if you want a reminder of that.
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