How to Network Like a Ninja in London and Break Into Finance with Low Grades and a Non-Target School on Your CV
“You’ve written so much about networking, but it doesn’t work outside the US. No one in my country responds to cold calls or emails – what do I do?”
It’s one of the most common objections I get to the networking advice on M&I.
There are dozens of interviews disproving the old complaint that everything here is targeted at Ivy League grads with high grades – so let’s turn our attention to showing that networking does, in fact, “work” in other countries.
In this interview with a UK reader, you’ll learn:
- How he went from low A-levels and a non-target university to over 1,000 finance contacts in the UK and a top Master’s program there
- How he used a non-finance degree to boost his chances of breaking into banking
- Whether or not traditional networking “works” in the UK and how it’s different from the US
- What it’s like to work at a combined M&A and asset management firm
Q: Tell us about yourself.
A: Sure. Growing up my family had a lot of health issues, so my academics back in secondary school suffered quite a bit since I was in the hospital constantly and had to take care of myself. To give you a rough idea:
Although my grades were poor, my family situation forced me to think about how I could survive on my own and so I started investing and building up my savings at a young age (a unique finance “spark”).
Anyway, I had no chance of getting into a top school with that kind of performance, so I ended up going to a non-target university in London. I studied politics there and earned a 2:1 – not spectacular, but at least better than my performance before that.
More importantly, though, I completed a dissertation on an emerging market, which made me more interested in the region and gave me something I could speak to in my “story.”
Q: OK, so did you actually complete any banking or finance internships while at university?
A: No – it was a non-target school so it was completely off the radar of banks. I did a few internships in media, politics, and for non-profits and got exposed to well-known names like that.
You might brush off media internships as “not prestigious,” but I gained access to lots of CEOs, MDs, and other important people since their database had direct lines for everyone.
I figured out midway through university that I wanted to work in finance, but I was going to a non-target school and only had average grades, so I knew that I would need to get out there and pound the pavement.
I’m not sure how it is in the US, but in London if your applications are not perfect you will not get interviews.
Q: Right, so can you walk us through how you went about networking and how you leveraged all those connections from your media and politics internships?
A: Sure. Through those internships I found a few mentors who were not directly in finance, but who were extremely well-connected in the UK – that made it much easier to get past gatekeepers.
I went out to literally every finance-related event in London and met everyone there, asking for referrals and getting introductions along the way. I even cold-called plenty of firms – plenty of places said no, but a few were open to it and told me to come in and talk anyway. I even networked via a part-time retail job I had and managed to meet bankers there.
What drove me was how plenty of people said I wasn’t “good enough” – not all bankers are brutal and malicious, but I met quite a few who were. So I wanted to prove them all wrong.
Q: Yeah, I think Sylvester Stallone was driven by similar forces back before the first Rocky movie was made. What was your strategy in terms of which level of banker to contact, and what was the result of all your networking?
A: I didn’t discriminate much by level – I met lots of VPs and MDs, and found they still made time for me even though I was coming from a lesser-known school. I even had lunch with CEOs of well-known firms in related industries.
I took the usual informational interview approach and pretty much everyone I met said that I’d have to network harder and be fierce about wanting the job more than everyone else. They also helped a lot with rewriting my CV, and through all this networking I was getting lots of interviews.
But this was also at the height of the recession and the interviews weren’t converting well – so I decided to take a different approach and applied to a Master’s program at LSE instead.
Networking at LSE
Q: Quite a step up from the non-target university you attended. What did you do when you got there, and how was the networking environment different?
A: The program helped me re-brand myself, and my networking efforts exploded since I now had much easier access to CEOs, MDs, and Partners.
I’d meet someone who came in to give a talk, get their card, and set up a meeting immediately afterward – I was averaging 4-5 meetings per week and met senior guys at banks, PE firms, and even media companies.
One thing that surprised me was that most LSE students were pathetic at networking.
Even people who had interned at Goldman Sachs and other top banks had no clue how to talk to people at events, request a follow-up meeting, or anything – some of the students were impressive but overall I learned that you really shouldn’t overestimate the competition.
The average student there has attended private schools his/her entire life so he/she is “well-trained” but not necessarily effective in the real world.
LSE also runs the annual LSE Alternative Investments Conference, which costs money to attend but is worth it 10x over if you use it properly and get solid contacts there. The focus is more on hedge funds and private equity, but everyone knows bankers and there’s a lot of overlap.
Even while at LSE, I still got rejected quite a lot but then things turned around after exams and I landed over a dozen interviews right before I accepted my current job at a combined asset management / M&A firm.
By that time I had amassed over 1,000 contacts from the past 2 years of networking.
Q: Wow. Normally I tell readers that once you go beyond 50-100 it’s hard to even keep track of everyone – how did you manage to get that kind of Rolodex?
A: I could go on for hours about networking, but we don’t have that kind of time so I’ll summarize my tips as follows:
Know As Much As Possible About Bankers
I spent a lot of time getting to know people and writing down literally anything important from each meeting and logging it on my computer. Even in my current job I’m still going through these connections, which impresses my bosses quite a bit.
I also created a Google News Alert for every contact I met – that way if someone closed a deal I could send a congratulatory email or phone call. It takes 2 minutes and people really appreciate it.
Be Nice to Assistants
When you’re requesting informational interviews, always email first and then call to follow-up – you will likely speak with their assistant, and she will give you a list of dates they’re available.
If you’re rude to the assistant none of your emails or calls will get through. If you’re extremely nice to them, you will have a much higher hit rate.
Have Interests Outside of Finance
Yes, everyone wants to be the next big rainmaker and make the Financial Times headlines but you better have at least one thing you are passionate about outside of finance when you meet people.
You never know when the guy you’re meeting might be a keen deep sea diver outside his day job – so pay attention to “throwaway comments” that bankers make and latch onto them.
I would even ask CEOs if they were married or had kids and how they balanced work and family time.
I was passionate about non-profit and charity work so I always brought that one up when I met with bankers and used it as my “interesting fact.”
Ask for Referrals / Find People You Know
After every meeting I would always ask if there’s anyone else the person thought I should speak with – and before I got official interviews, I combed through the entire firm site and looked for anyone I knew personally, and then found out who interviewed people there and so on.
I also used websites such as www.investegate.co.uk that covered financial services companies – sometimes they had the details of brokers there and I would call directly to see if I could speak with them.
1,000 contacts is a lot, but I always thought of it as networking for the long-term and not just to get a job. It does get very difficult to maintain relationships with that many people, so they’ll definitely be less personal if you want that many contacts.
The most connected woman in the UK has 40,000+ contacts and is doing well, although she also has a team of 8 managing her network.
Q: A lot of readers believe that networking “doesn’t work” in the UK or in other regions outside the US because the recruiting process is more formal elsewhere. Your story disproves this one, but I’m guessing there are still some differences when networking in the UK – what are they?
A: The tactics are not much different – just follow everything I described above.
This is purely anecdotal, but I think the main differences were what they looked for in candidates – they wanted someone who had:
- Completed A-Level Mathematics.
- Studied something other than economics or finance.
- Outside interests and solid work experience.
#2 surprised me but a lot of bankers mentioned that they preferred to look at people with different academic backgrounds; in the UK A-Levels are huge so I definitely found #1 to be true.
Overall I just treated networking like socializing and talked about as much non-finance-related stuff as possible – these guys work so hard that they’re happy to shoot the breeze about the latest football game or go for a drink.
I also avoided pissing people off – if someone said no, I left. I didn’t go back to leads who were not going to help because there were plenty of others who would. Finding one person to be your “mentor” is also a great idea because then his/her entire address book is open to you.
Q: You mentioned that you completed a Master’s program focused on an emerging market rather than the usual choice of finance, accounting, or economics. How much did that help, and was it effective even though you didn’t study abroad there?
A: It made me stand out a lot because it was an interesting degree and people always asked, “Why?” Plus, I could talk all about that region in-depth and that was way more interesting than being just another MSc Finance guy.
There’s a lot of academic snobbery over what you study, but if you go to a place like LSE and want to do banking, it doesn’t matter much – as long as you don’t pick gender studies.
Studying abroad would have been cool, but as you’ve written before, you can’t just waltz in and start working in a country, and you need to be a native speaker in most cases to use a language for business.
Asset Management Meets M&A
Q: Can you tell us about your new role at the asset management / M&A firm? I’ve gotten tons of questions on asset management but haven’t been able to give solid answers about the work itself and day-in-the-life accounts. What do you do each day?
A: My role is much closer to M&A than it is to asset management – we work with a lot of asset and investment management firms, though, so I do get to spend time talking to fund managers at those places.
I spent time on the usual tasks you do in M&A: pitch books, writing monthly fact sheets and investor reports, cold-calling / sourcing deals, financial modeling, and so on. I go to around 3-4 client meetings per day with our sales guy.
In addition to this we’re building a giant database in order to comb the city for future investment. I’ve already at this stage worked on raising several million pounds for the firm and I’ve only been here a few months.
I also do some investor relations work and build up the image of the firm, and go along with the CEO when he speaks with Bloomberg or FT.
Next year I may go abroad for the roadshows since we’re thinking of expanding in places like HK, Zurich, and NYC.
Q: What about the perpetual questions of pay and exit opportunities?
A: Without giving specifics, pay is slightly less than what the usual banking graduate schemes offer due to the nature of the firm and the specific deal I have set up – it will change in the future, but that’s where I’m at right now.
Other people who have worked here have gone onto:
- Other finance companies – equity research, private wealth management, hedge funds.
- INSEAD, LBS, or Barcelona for business school.
- Other industries altogether.
Q: You mentioned that your firm does both asset management and M&A work – how does that impact the work environment and the pay/advancement opportunities? Did you aim for this type of firm for a specific reason?
A: The work environment is nice and there’s plenty of room for advancement since it’s a relatively small firm – AUM under £1bn, with a goal to expand upwards of 10x.
I didn’t pick a combined asset management / M&A firm for a specific reason, but I wanted more of a “family”-style office because I wanted a life outside of work. I knew that at a bulge bracket bank or a mega-fund like KKR or Blackstone I would never get that.
The CEO here plays tennis all the time and everyone does something outside work, so it’s easy to hear about interesting stories from everyone here. They also acknowledged in interviews that they respected personal ambitions even if they’re unrelated to finance.
So I didn’t really “aim” for this type of firm, but it turned out to be the perfect fit for me.
Q: What are your future plans now that you’ve defied the odds to break into finance? Are you planning to stay there for a few years or move to another industry?
A: I’m planning to stay at my current firm for the long-term – my colleagues are great and I have no reason to leave since the working conditions and hours are quite good.
I will probably stay here for 3-4 years, and then maybe move somewhere else in finance such as a middle-market bank in an Associate role. At that point I might move up the ladder or go to something else like VC until I reach the MD-level. Then I’d want to set up a charity such as ARK (Absolute Returns for Kids) and focus on solving social problems and improving social mobility in the UK.
Of course, I also want to do a lot of traveling as well and see the world.
Q: Great. Thanks for your time – learned a lot about networking and how the London scene is different from other countries.
A: No problem.
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