by Brian DeChesare Comments (17)

Focus: The Secret to Getting Anything You Want?

Importance of FocusIs there a secret?

A trick to getting anything you want and beating out the competition?

It’s a common question.

Here’s an example of a message we often receive:

SUBJECT: Extending the advantage

I have been going through your courses and articles and picking up knowledge in my spare time. But at my university, it seems that everyone has done technical training and that they’re constantly networking.

So is there any way to extend the advantage and beat out the competition?

Or do I just have to network more?”

I don’t think “everyone” is that well-prepared, but the general point is true: it is getting harder to stand out.

You might try to stand out by adding to your resume: getting more internships, entering case competitions, picking up a new hobby or activity, or doing a gap year.

And sometimes that works.

But there’s another method that requires less time and effort: do less.

In other words, focus, and cut out most of what you’re pursuing.

Tell Me About Yourself… Three Different Versions of Yourself

Let’s say that you have no idea what you want to do, so you apply for a mix of venture capital, private equity, and investment banking internships.

You want to “keep your options open.”

Then, you memorize 3 different versions of your story, you prepare for 3 different sets of technical questions, and you go in for interviews with 13 different firms…

but you never hear back from 11 of them, and the other 2 respond and say they’ve decided not to move forward with your candidacy.

Does that sound familiar?

It happened because interviewers have very good intuition about your true intentions.

And no one wants to be your Plan B, C, or D.

Think about all the subtle ways a banker could realize that you are not 100% focused on banking roles:

  • You break eye contact for a second when he/she asks about your long-term plans.
  • Your story sounds memorized word-for-word. Why? Oh, that’s right – because you had so many different versions that you had to memorize each one.
  • The banker hears from a friend at a local VC firm that you’re also interviewing for internships there.

I’m not trying to make you paranoid.

My point is that when you are not focused, you always have a “tell” that indicates it.

But a lack of focus doesn’t just hurt you when you apply for so many different industries and roles at once; it drags you down in all other areas as well:

  • Your Story: You will never sound convincing if you talk about every single experience rather than the 2-3 key ones.
  • Your Resume: Wait, so why did you list 12 different work experience/activity entries and use only 1 line for each one?
  • Being Interesting: You’ll get far better results and reactions if you point to one thing that makes you different rather than a list of 5-10.
  • Your Logistics: How will you manage the amount of emails and networking that are required for so many different roles? You won’t.

You might be able to get away with more of a scattershot approach as a university student or recent graduate, but it stops working as soon as you have full-time experience.

At the MBA level and beyond, I’ve never seen anyone recruit for 2-3 industries at the same time and get great results.

In fact, I can recall only one story where someone got any results, and it came down to blind luck and targeting an extremely specific market after a scattershot strategy had failed.

Here’s a direct quote from a reader who went from valuation advisory to investment banking:

“…I pursued almost anything that seemed related to my work experience – corporate finance, investment banking, private equity, and even joining a valuation / business modeling group at a Big 4 firm.

That turned out to be one of my biggest mistakes – if you interview for so many different roles, it is really hard to keep different versions of your story straight and to sound convincing when you go in to speak with each group.”

So Why Are You Not Focused?

The main arguments against focus seem to be:

  1. “You don’t know what you want to do” or “You want to keep your options open.”
  2. You’ll increase your chances if you do more and apply for more roles.

The second point doesn’t hold up because your chances of success are not independent variables for the reasons mentioned above: interviewers can always tell when you’re not focused.

You may think you’re “casting a wider net,” but you’re also making your net flimsier and less likely to hold any fish, even if a few swim in initially.

And while you may not know what you want to do, there’s a much better way to approach this problem: think in series, not in parallel.

focus-01

Going back to that IB vs. PE vs. VC example above, you would be much better off picking just one industry to apply to, completing an internship there, and then, if you don’t like it, doing an internship in a different area.

You might be worried that your story won’t make sense if you jump around like that.

But remember that you should always simplify and consolidate your story.

So you could group together all that experience, minimize most of it on your resume, and say something like:

“I did a few internships, including ones at smaller private equity and venture capital firms. I liked the valuation and analytical work, but I wanted to work on deals most of the time instead of passing on 99% of them, so I was more drawn to the work in my investment banking internship…”

If you get questioned about the logic, just admit that you were trying different areas because you weren’t 100% sure what you wanted to do, and you wanted to narrow your options.

It gets harder to do this at the MBA level or beyond, so your best option there is to get a pre-MBA internship and include it if it helps you, or exclude it if it doesn’t.

Example: If you’re coming in as a complete career changer (e.g., from engineering or journalism), then a pre-MBA internship at a hedge fund or venture capital firm can only help you, even if you’re recruiting for IB roles.

But if you already have banking/finance experience, and you’re doing that internship so you can eventually move to the buy-side after winning a post-MBA Associate role, it might hurt you in banking interviews if you include it in your story.

And if you’re well beyond the MBA level, there isn’t a great way to “keep your options open” – but at that stage, you should have a wide enough network to ask around, do the legwork, and hone in on what you want.

The Other Argument Against Focus: Exceptions and Special Cases

There are a few cases where focusing too much could hurt your chances.

For example, if you’ve gotten a very late start to recruiting – e.g., you’re about to graduate from university but haven’t done any real internships yet – then you may not want to do this.

A few “last-minute success stories” on this site have come from readers who won offers by casting a wide net.

Another exception is if you’re looking to get into a field like private equity that has a well-defined “pre-requisite” (2-3 years of investment banking), and you don’t fit that profile.

Let’s say you have a background in corporate banking or direct lending and you want to skip banking and still get into PE.

You might want to focus on firms that match your background, such as credit funds, but there may not be enough matching firms for this strategy to work.

And even if you find a few dozen firms that match, they may not want to interview you because you’re so different from traditional candidates.

How to Focus

In short, I would recommend:

  • Industries: Focus on one at a time. Think in series, not in parallel. The older you get, the more you have to do this; an undergrad can apply to “investment banks,” but at the MBA level, you need to focus on a specific industry group.
  • Locations: At any level, you should focus on 1-2 locations at most. So maybe think about a major center like New York or London and then a smaller satellite office.
  • Your Interesting Point: Give one in the beginning, and don’t go beyond that. So you’re a left-handed pitcher, or you studied abroad in Qatar… great! Don’t dilute the impact with 3 additional facts.
  • Your Interest or Growing Interest in Finance: Which one is more memorable: “I won a Credit Suisse M&A case competition by pitching Disney on a divestiture of Lucasfilm” or “I did 3 investment banking competitions, took finance electives, and also completed several M&A models on my own”?

Even if you can concisely give names and specifics for the second one, giving so much information makes it less likely for anything to stand out.

  • Your Networking: Yes, you can and should contact a lot of people in the beginning – but if a few of them turn out to be far more helpful than the rest, focus on them and don’t waste your time writing 5,132 emails to strangers.
  • Exceptions: The main ones come up when you’re making a last-minute, time-pressured recruiting effort or you’re making a career change that’s very difficult because you don’t fit the profile they’re seeking.

Your Secret Weapon

We get tons of questions on how to stand out and beat the competition.

You might think the answer is to do more, network more, pad your resume, and develop more talking points in interviews.

You do need more experience to have a good shot at IB and other finance roles these days, so this answer isn’t exactly “wrong.”

But it’s often misguided, especially when it comes to presenting yourself and targeting the right roles.

With both of those, the real answer is to do less.

It might just be your secret weapon.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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  1. Hi Brian, I found your site recently and am really enjoying the content, thank you. I was wondering if you could give me some advice. I’m not trying to become an investment banker, I am actually a legal and financial translator, and I find your content very useful for understanding bankers’ psychology. I already work for law firms and banks but primarily through agencies (this is how a large portion of the language industry is structured, so the agencies put up big barriers between the end client and the translator, or they would become redundant). I am trying to break away from this agency model and network directly with potential clients. I am also doing an Msc in Finance and Financial Law to try to set myself apart from the average translator. Do you have any tips for someone like me trying to establish a B2B service relationship with people in banking (and law)? My impression so far is that the best results come from meeting in person at networking events but this seems rather random and expensive.

    1. Sorry, but that’s outside the scope of the topics covered here so I cannot advise you. My understanding is that the best legal/translation work comes from in-person networking at events, but this is secondhand information based on lawyers who have done it before.

      1. Thanks Brian for your response. It confirms something at least. I will also follow your general advice about reaching out to alumni, etc.

  2. I am a recently qualified Chartered Accountant (ACCA/CPA) and have a meet and greet with a Structured Finance team for a potential job next year.
    My background is not banking or finance, more operational and accounting.
    Any thoughts on how to prepare or sell myself to stand out for the job?

    1. Think about what skill sets you have that might be relevant… have you done project-level modeling before? Have you worked with the type of assets that they analyze and create securities for in Structured Finance? Have you learned about the sector on your own?

  3. Thanks, this helps a lot.

    It is like you read my mind: it really is getting harder to stand out. Though at the same time I feel it is easy if one is willing to network or shell out some cash.

    Network, pretty straightforward: it can get you some key exposure to stand out. Maybe you get lucky and meet someone who can get you said exposure. But compared to what people say about the past and what this site said years ago, it feels like it is harder to rely on this.
    Especially since these days no network will risk their name for you if you lack one thing like core technical skills, prestige etc… however you have to be exceptional for them to consider. Or your network would have to be your father, uncle etc.

    Cash, I found that this talks more to get you to stand out. Excel wizardry, the newfound programming requirements which are emerging for some departments, even finance topics like trading, technical and fundamental analysis… even courses on this site: there seems to be a course for each thing and it can help you stand out more. Since it seems more people would rather try and network rather than invest in themselves, those willing to do the latter seem to come out on top because they can walk into networking situations or interviews with these skills ready to draw on.

    Of course with the case point, I notice that there are firms who guarantee some form of experience on the job (pretty much those paid internship points you mentioned in this site some time ago) which will doubtlessly get you said experience to stand out. Even if you had to pay for it.

    In my opinion since regulators started getting tough since the 08 crisis, that’s why the scale moved from who you know (networking) to having the relevant skills plus knowing someone (networking while having the prerequisite knowledge to a decent standard).

    My 2 cents on the topic.

    1. Maybe… but cash has always helped you to stand out, it’s just that it was less direct before (nepotism).

      Having conducted mock interviews from all the way back in 2008 through 2016, I’m a little skeptical that it’s actually harder and harder to stand out. I’ve seen a ton of unprepared candidates who can’t answer even the most basic questions recently. There are probably more people “in the middle,” but I’ve rarely seen someone who had very good technical skills and a great pitch not receive any offers.

  4. I have been gathering projects/deals together but not sure if they are good deals. I am also busy assisting entrepreneurs independently as an Intermediary raise funds for their projects by offering business loans. I have a BCom Accounting degree and worked as an Assistant internal auditor and accountant for a few months and also worked for KPMG as a consultant for a few months. I have genuine interest for business and investment and I would like to setup my own Private Equity/Hedge Fund Business. I have been trying to get a position as a Fund Manager or Deal Maker here in South Africa and I am not winning. I need advice as to whether I should focus on setting my own Fund and how to go on about it as I do not have the track record and whether I should look for these Investment Banking Training Institutes whereby they provide practical Financial Modelling or Valuations exposure and then look for a position in PE or Hedge Fund firm or if I had to do a postgrad qualification, what type of qualification should i do or should i just focus on setting up my own Fund Company and how to proceed on doing that and getting the right business model, etc?

    1. I would not set up your own fund at this stage, and I would not consider any training institutes. To set up your own fund, you need a track record of years of experience first. That almost always means working in PE/HF first, developing an investment track record, and being able to point to that when you pitch investors on your new fund.

  5. Hi Brian,

    Can you write something about what internationals can do if no luck getting a H1B and don’t want to return home country? Do you have any readers have the same issue?

    Thanks!
    Tim

    1. Unfortunately, you can’t do much in that scenario. Staying in school longer or applying for a Master’s degree would be the main options. You could also try going to a country where it’s easier to get a work visa. I don’t think we’ve had anyone with that exact situation before, but maybe we can cover it in the future.

  6. Hi Brian,

    Do you have any tips on how to become “best friends” with your staffer?

    Thanks,
    Sara

    1. Not sure why you’d want to do that at all… it just means you’re more likely to get silly tasks.

  7. Totally agree. I did an internship in PE/VC and didn’t like the passing 99% of the deals part, but I like the strategic analysis part, so now I want to move to strategy consulting. Then anther thought came out and now I have this “focus” problem. Another story is in PE/VC is you can’t tell whether you’re right or wrong until 3 to 5 years after the investment, so now I want to move to secondary market investment analyst/ portfolio manager, since the feedback / right or wrong is more instant. Which one of these makes more sense? Really want to just focus on one of them.

    1. If the main reason you didn’t like PE/VC is because you didn’t get instant feedback there, it makes a lot more sense to move to secondary market investment analysis / portfolio management. You won’t get instant feedback in strategy consulting, either, so I’m not sure how that fits your story.

  8. You focus a lot on building a “story”…how exactly is this managed when you’re a college junior with no study abroad or gap years or any really interesting internships to talk about?

    1. Get something! Join a new student club and act like you’ve been doing it for a long time. You don’t need a crazy trip or other adventure to stand out… just do something that not everyone else will have.

      You could literally go to the school’s student club directory (example for Georgetown: https://hoyalink.georgetown.edu/organizations), randomly pick something there, start showing up to meetings, and then use that as your “interesting point” in your story.

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