From Sales to Investment Banking at the MBA Level: Glengarry Glen Gekko?
Are investment bankers just highly paid salespeople?
You might even call them “salespeople with a finance problem.”
But despite the skill set overlap, it’s notoriously difficult to break into investment banking from a sales background.
And when you add a non-target part-time MBA program, no previous IB experience, and an attempted West-Coast-to-East-Coast move into the mix, things get even more challenging.
But our interviewee today overcame all those challenges and won a bulge-bracket MBA summer internship offer anyway.
Here’s how he did it, and how you can do the same:
The Beginning: Becoming Glengarry
Q: Take us back to the beginning.
How did you get into sales, and how did you decide to pursue investment banking instead?
A: I went to a “semi-target” undergraduate school, and took a corporate finance role at a Fortune 500 company immediately after graduation.
I liked some of the technical work there, but I wanted more client-facing experience and a faster-paced environment. As you’ve pointed out before, corporate finance at big companies – even at the CFO-level – is closer to support/administrative work.
So about a year into the role, I switched to the sales team instead.
Note that I was working at a technology company selling enterprise software, so this was not exactly door-to-door knife sales.
I liked the client interaction, but I also wanted to advise businesses on higher-level strategic and financial issues: in sales roles, you’re often speaking with middle managers rather than C-level executives.
So I started looking into roles that involved more interaction with the top-level decision makers in organizations.
I knew I would need business school to make this move since I had already been working full-time for several years.
Q: So if you knew you’d need an MBA, why did you choose to complete a part-time / evening program at a non-target school?
A: Two reasons:
- At the time, I wasn’t completely set on investment banking. I was also very interested in real estate, so I picked my MBA program partially because of the strong RE alumni network. Schools that are strong in fields like real estate are not necessarily ideal for IB recruiting.
- The opportunity cost of quitting my job to enroll in a full-time MBA program was quite high. I was well-compensated in sales, so it only made sense to quit if I could win an investment banking role with 100% certainty. And I was not even close to that certain.
As a result of this plan, I had to prepare for the GMAT while I was still working full-time, and I had to skip the pre-MBA internships that many students in full-time programs complete.
But I simply viewed it as a way to mitigate risk: if I managed to win an IB offer, great, and if not, at least I wouldn’t have given up my full-time income for two years.
Part-Time Program to Summer Internship Interviews
Q: But didn’t those draw-backs make it nearly impossible to win interviews and offers?
A: It was definitely more difficult, but I wouldn’t call it “nearly impossible.”
Once I began the part-time / evening program, I applied all the usual networking tactics: LinkedIn, alumni outreach, informational interviews, and even one weekend trip to New York (I was working and studying on the west coast).
The few alumni who were in investment banking were responsive, but they were too few to be useful: if only 3-4 people per class year go into the industry, you don’t exactly have a huge network to draw on.
To give you an idea of the numbers:
- I conducted over 60 informational interviews, both in-person and on the phone.
- From all of those informational interviews, I generated exactly one (1) real interview.
- And then my other two first-round interviews came about randomly: one was from a firm that happened to visit our campus; my follow-up thank you note and interactions during the information session helped me there. And then the other was from a webinar: I attended a session run by a banker and was the only person to contact him afterward.
- So out of the ~15 banks I targeted, I won only 3 first-round interviews.
Q: So why didn’t you get a great response rate from your efforts?
What were bankers’ main objections?
A: I don’t think it had anything to do with the way I conducted this networking effort.
From working in sales, I had a ton of practice interacting with strangers and making them feel comfortable.
Instead, I think the problems were as follows:
- Awkward Timing – Evening MBA programs take three years to complete, so you have to explain to bankers when you’re available for internships and how the program works. This point leads to natural objections because you seem different from other business school students.
- I Wasn’t Going to School on the East Coast – Most IB opportunities in the U.S. are in New York, and so literally everyone I spoke with asked, “Why come to NY if you’re going to school on the west coast?” or “Why didn’t you go to school closer to NY if you wanted to work here?”
- Huge Pool of Qualified Candidates – While I set up a lot of calls with east coast bankers, the feedback always seemed to be: “We have a ton of well-qualified candidates from MBA programs closer to us – why should we pick you?” And the fact that few bankers graduated from my program hurt my case even more.
Q: Right, but you were working in sales and you must have encountered objections from prospects all the time.
Didn’t you have solid responses prepared for these objections?
A: You can prepare the best responses in the world, but if they want only Harvard or Wharton graduates with previous investment banking experience, they’re going to pick only Harvard or Wharton graduates with previous investment banking experience.
I countered these objections by explaining the timing of my program – internships in the second year, followed by graduation after three years – and why I stayed on the west coast for a part-time program: I wanted to stay in the same job in the same location and apply my classroom training immediately in real life.
Finance classes give you a different language and can make you sound more credible when speaking with prospects, and I legitimately benefited from that.
If someone really pressed me, I would sometimes admit the opportunity cost and explain that I couldn’t take a chance by quitting and not getting the job I was after.
And I said that I wanted to be in New York because it was the place to do investment banking, so I felt that I had to start out working there.
Interview Obstacle Courses
Q: You mentioned that despite these challenges, you did win three first-round interviews.
What were the biggest challenges in those interviews?
A: The top three issues that came up repeatedly were:
- Mastering the Technical Questions – Although I had some finance exposure in undergrad and right after graduating, the way you use accounting/valuation in IB is completely different and I had very little time to get up to speed on the fundamentals.
- Narrowing in on a Group – Everyone says, “You need an industry at the MBA level.” That is true for many candidates, but as a career changer from a non-target school I didn’t want to narrow in on a specific group too early. I had to roll the dice and see what stuck before focusing on an industry or product team.
- Proving I Had the Commitment and Drive – While sales and investment banking are similar in many ways, bankers still perceived sales roles to be “easier” and less demanding than finance jobs.
Q: And so how did you tackle these challenges?
A: For the technical questions, I relied on your interview guide as well as the Pearlman book and materials from my MBA classes.
I think your guide is almost enough as long as you understand the concepts and have had some previous exposure; the Excel models helped ensure I was learning the underlying concepts as well.
On the second point – picking a group – I kept my outreach broad and contacted anyone I could find because of my non-target status.
I took your advice and often emailed associates first, established rapport with them, and then “moved up” to senior bankers. Once I got traction with a specific group, I kept at it with that group.
The third challenge – proving my commitment and drive – came down to providing specific examples of burning the midnight oil and working under intense deadlines in my sales role: I brought up times when we had to meet end-of-quarter quotas and cajole clients into signing up or renewing contracts.
Finally, as other MBA-level readers on your site have done, I spent a lot of time reading up on deals different groups had advised on.
I knew I’d need to weave the group’s deals into my story and my answer to the “Why our bank?” question, so I researched all the details of 1-2 deals for each group I spoke with.
For example, I learned the rationale for each transaction, the approximate multiples, the process from beginning to end, and any special considerations related to the terms of the definitive agreement, taxes, legal matters, and so on.
Q: So what did the interview process look like for you?
A: It was short!
One bank had an early first-round interview, and I completed second-round interviews there – and won an offer – before even getting to my two other first rounds.
The first bank gave me only a few days to make a decision, and it made more sense to accept that offer rather than rolling the dice for a marginally better offer and possibly ending up with nothing.
The interviews followed what you’ve described before: each interviewer started with my story, but some focused more on my career transition, while others asked about my story for 90 seconds and then asked rapid-fire technical questions for 28.5 minutes.
Q: But you must have done quite well since you won an offer at the first bank quickly!
A: Like I said, a lot of it comes down to traction and which group you get along with the best.
It’s impossible to know this upfront, so you have to spread a wide net, see what turns up in that net, and then hone in on your best prospects.
Reflections on the Process
Q: Looking back on it, would you recommend an MBA to anyone in a sales role who wants to move into investment banking?
A: Yes – but go to a target school!
In theory, enterprise-software sales and investment banking are similar because you’re selling high-priced, sophisticated products and services in both fields.
But in practice, bankers tend to look down on salespeople and often view them as “uneducated” since some top performers don’t even have university degrees.
So if you’ve been working full-time for a few years, an MBA is definitely your best bet for getting into banking.
Q: And what are your own plans?
A: I’m somewhat unusual in that I actually want a long-term career in investment banking.
I like the client interaction, the fast-paced nature of deals, and the complexity of selling entire companies.
So I plan to stay in the field for the foreseeable future and move up the ranks.
If I get burned out, it’s possible that I could go into corporate development careers or something else with better hours.
But I’m not too interested in buy-side roles such as private equity because there’s more “reviewing and analyzing” and less “driving the deal forward to execution.”
Q: Is there anything else you want to mention that we haven’t already discussed?
A: Yes. You really cannot underestimate the “people” side of this business.
These days, people rehearse so much and memorize so many answers that they often seem like robots in interviews.
They forget that they’re talking to other people, and it sounds like they’re reading off a script instead.
Plenty of other candidates had better technical skills than me, but I won the summer offer (and full-time return offer) over them because of the social skills I gained in sales.
In particular, I focused a lot on the balance between being professional and being friendly – which tends to trip up a lot of candidates.
So if you want to break in, you do need to know the technical side quite well. But your social skills need to be equally polished – particularly at the MBA level, where you interact with clients more frequently.
Q: Great! Thanks for your time.
A: My pleasure.
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