Career Thoughts – part two: There are no journeymen (or journeywomen) on Wall Street

A common issue on Wall Street is that many MBA’s find themselves displaced around 10 years after graduating. They are shocked and they “don’t know how this happened to me”. This is very common on Wall Street. They think, “I did everything right, how could I have ended up in this miserable situation?”

Side note: this article mainly applies to people who went the investment banking or consulting route post-MBA and stuck with it. I’ll hit research and investing careers at a later date. Also, as explained in my part one Career Thoughts, it does not apply well to Wall Street analysts, except those who chose to stay on the sell-side investment banking or consulting route.

When graduating from an MBA program, most people join a Wall Street client-facing firm as part of a class. The class as a whole is then subdivided into smaller classes assigned to different groups. Most often, this is the same group a person interned in. The “group class” and your positioning within it is very important to understand.

A typical group class size is three or four people. Within months of beginning post-MBA, the senior professionals in the group have already formed opinions about you. This is an opinion based culture, meaning, you do only as good as the lowest common denominator opinion from the head decision makers. In no way is it a true meritocracy. If you believe that it is, you are only fooling yourself.

The top peoples’ general opinion about you can usually be bucketed into the following. They believe you are: (1) a “superstar“, (2) a “rising star“, (3) an “underperformer” or (4) what I’ll refer to as a “patsy“. Some firms, like the investment bank I worked at post-MBA, actually have formal designations of superstar and underperformer. I know because I accidentally found the memo designating people in my group in these categories (traumatic but important).

THE SUPERSTAR

Obviously, you want to be a superstar. The superstar is in the inner circle. He or she has olive branches thrown at them and are given lots of compliments. They quickly “have the top guys around their fingers”.  They get the sought-after deals, the best clients and the top compensation. They know they are doing well. They’re ultra confident. In their year-end review, most the discussion is about them “staying happy”. The top peoples’ goal is to just keep them. When peers are toiling over financial models at 8pm on a Thursday night, they are out having a drink with a senior partner talking Hamptons and private planes. As they progress, they get groomed more and more for a top spot. The heads of the group see them as the future of the practice.

THE RISING STAR

Under the superstar, there is usually a rising star. This person holds power as well, but just not as much power as the superstar. There is some key element the superstar possesses that this person just doesn’t demonstrate. Most often, it is charisma and/or bravado. But, it could also be pedigree, looks, smarts, network, etc. The rising star feels secure about their positioning but soon understands they live in the shadow of the superstar. They need to work a bit harder and need to always be a bit more political. Unlike the superstar, they can’t waltz into the group head’s office, throw their feet up on the desk and just shoot the shit.

A competition develops between the rising star and the superstar. The superstar knows they need to stay on their toes because if they fuck up, the rising star will begin pulling ahead. All in all, they make each other better. Combined, they begin to pull away from the pack.

Many times, the superstar leaves to go on to the buyside or to even more prestigious client-facing firms for more money. The loyal rising star then pulls up into the superstar’s empty spot. If there is no rising star, the spot may get filled by an outside superstar from a lesser firm. Over time, rising stars and superstars converge into a league of their own. They are structurally safe from humiliation. They eventually get crowned as head people — Managing Directors, Group Heads, etc. They bring in clients and they live a good life. These are the people, books and movies about Wall Street usually focus on. From the outside looking in, their careers seem to always be on a linear upward trajectory. Recessions knock a few out of the game but, overall, their careers tend to always remain in good shape.

THE UNDERPERFORMER

Far below the superstar and rising star is the underperformer. From day one, this person just didn’t stand much of a chance. They kind of dropped like a rock to the bottom. Often times they are just in over their heads. Many of these people are career switchers who got through the internship alright but now feel thrown into the deep-end of the pool. On Wall Street, they get pushed out really quickly. There is just no room for error and these people make lot of errors. I’ve even seen one particularly bad person get let go during Associate training. They never even got a desk! Incredible but true. Wall Street can be harsh in that way.

The ironic twist though is that the underperformer is really not in that bad of a spot. They usually get displaced quickly. They know that they made a bad error going to Wall Street and they have plenty of time to re-invent themselves. Many times, they find themselves back on a better track pretty soon where they are more of a superstar. They tend to end up much better off than the patsy.

In my own experience, I noticed that the MBAs who quickly lost jobs on Wall Street often ended up going to corporate, especially business development. About ten years later, many of these people are now CFO and COO level employees at smaller corporations or within smaller divisions of large corporations. In some cases, they are hiring the bankers!

THE PATSY

Then there is the patsy. Why do I call it the patsy? Its based on the following Warren Buffett quote: “If you’ve been playing poker for half an hour and you still don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.” Problem is, on Wall Street, that half of an hour can be more like eight, nine, ten years. All the while, the patsy thinks they are performing well and they just keep toiling away, oblivious to the fact that they are setting themselves up for an eventual career disaster.

The patsy is pretty good. They usually check off a lot of the right check marks in terms of schools, grades, smarts, etc. However, they are just missing one or two key elements that the superstars and the rising stars possess. Most importantly, for whatever reason, they do not instill confidence that they will ever be able to eventually originate new business. Let’s focus on this concept of origination for a moment because it is very important.

‘New work’ is what makes investment banks, consulting firms, etc. go round.  Many people make a bad mistake in thinking that good execution will get you everywhere at these firms. NO! At some point, good execution is an assumed skill. Origination is what truly matters. If you don’t have great origination skills, you’ll never survive long-term in client-facing firms (nor, will you ever make any real money)  I’ve known some lousy executors who have done quite well for many many years on Wall Street. However, I have never known a good executor who can’t originate who lasted for the long haul. The elements of a superstar that make that person “super” in the eyes of the higher up’s is simply that they can easily be envisioned as future rain makers.

As stated in the title to this article, there are no journeymen / journeywomen on Wall Street. In law, you have “of counsel”. In corporations, you have tons of VP’s sitting around playing patty cake all day. There is a general tolerance to retain good executors who just can’t bring in new business. On Wall Street – this  level of employee simply does not exist. Patsies eventually just flame out.

The Wall Street life-span of a patsy usually goes something like this. They coast through Associate and begin hitting turbulence during their Vice President years. They get known to be the “hardest workers” and they get just enough pay and accolades to continue doing what they are doing without quitting. They are never happy though. They feel they work too hard for the little recognition they receive.

Patsies continuously look for reasons why they are getting overlooked. It bothers the hell out of them. They try impressing through dress or they self-promote themselves. Nothing ever seems to consistently work well though. They just can never maintain anywhere near the admiration from the top guys the superstar easily receives. Eventually, they work crazy hours. Their lives get off balance. They complain about receiving unfair treatment but no one really listens.

The cruel reality of the patsy is that they are simply kept around because they do a lot of the work. Their execution eventually gets really good. They are proud of it but they live in constant annoyance that no one seems to care. They just refuse to believe that the role of a banker or consultant eventually pivots away from pure execution and into origination. While the superstar is focused on bringing in new work, the pastie is lost in their world of crossing t’s and dotting i’s. They just fall further and further behind.

Despite all the fine execution (and there is A LOT OF IT), there eventually comes a day when the group leaders must make a decision about what to do with the patsy. Everyone knows the ultimate answer, yet people do feel pretty shitty about whacking a guy that spent 8 – 10 years, seven days a week subsidizing them. I’m sure the discussion is a lot like the scene in the movie Casino when they decide to whack poor Andy Stone:

Vinny Forlano: He won’t talk. Stone is a good kid. Stand-up guy, just like his old man. That’s the way I see it.

Vincent Borelli: I agree. He’s solid. A fuckin’ Marine.

Americo Capelli: He’s okay. He always was. Remo, what do you think?

Remo Gaggi: Look… why take a chance? At least, that’s the way I feel about it.

Whacker

So, the patsy gets whacked. What happens to them from there? Its usually not good.

The first thing the patsy thinks is … I need to continue making the same pay at an equally respectable firm.  How could I possible settle for anything less? There is a general glimmering hope in their mind that they’ll find a deep pocket equivalent reputation employer who will finally appreciate their execution abilities. And… after months of looking … they don’t find such this mecca. Months of unemployment after that … they come to an awful realization that pretty much no one on Wall Street wants them. They’re washed up, expensive and they don’t have a sheet of originated deals (executed deals don’t matter).

I’ve found that many of these people end up going through really long job searches. They fall into deep depression because  work represented such an outsized portion of their life. They can’t understand why former co-workers don’t help them get a good job. They sit around thinking their old employer will need them to come back. The phone never rings.

Eventually, some decrease their asking price to find the market. They drop their “needs” only to find no ask for the bid. As money and self-esteem begin running low, they keep dropping the bid and widening the search. Still no ask. Eventually, the realize, there is no market for what they have to offer. They realize, they need to just go after anything and everything.

When people first begin on Wall Street, they often look at certain “bucket shops” or small unknown regional shops and ask, “who would ever work there?”. The reason these firms are full of older talent with top caliber names on their resumes is because the patsy eventually realizes that these are the only places they stand a chance to get hired, that is, if they are lucky! Its a very steep fall down the slippery Wall Street slope.

To make matters worse for a patsy, the better the firm they sat out, the worse it may be. There is a double edge sword to being a patsy at a great firm. (1) Other firms think you’re expectations may be too large and (2) the successful superstars from the all star firm you were at will always haunt you. On the first point, other firms are usually right. The patsy usually thinks they deserve a lot more than they really do. Additionally, it usually takes the patsy so long to come around to the lower tier firms that there is an additional blemish of a big gap on the resume. Its a viscous cycle at its finest. On the second point, the superstars, especially the analysts that worked under the patsy, become depressing to watch. The gap between the patsy and these people just keeps widening over time.

So, in the end, they must end up somewhere right? If you go onto Linkedin and chose the option for former employers, you can actually track to see where patsies end up. Hopefully, they are really lucky to be young enough to re-invent themselves through school or finding a complete different type of position at a more stable employer. Unfortunately, however, many are in their mid-thirties or older.

I’ve noticed quite of a few patsies eventually go to small investment banks that have unrecognizable names. Many of these are outside of New York. The clients are tiny. The fee structures are a $100k or $150k base, sometimes draw, and a commission based structure on whatever fees they can generate. Since many patsies are just not rainmakers, they struggle to bring in work. So, they get let go again. Their resumes get cluttered with unheard of names until it just flatlines out. Others may end up at accounting firms consulting units. For some reason, this doesn’t seem to work out well either. All in all, a great career turns into a nightmare. I see it all the time.

On a personal note, I found out I was the patsy of my group pretty quickly. Only four months into my Associate role, I thought things were going fine. I was working hard and obvious to everything else. Blinders were definitely on. Then came the group head’s annual Christmas party.

I arrived as the party was beginning and stood in a long line in the hallway. The group head was greeting people one-by-one at the door. When I finally approached, he shook my hand, simply said “Happy Holidays”, and quickly looked to see who is next.  I shrugged, thought “nice of him to do that”, and went on to survey the room. I noticed a group of older mid-tier guys studying each person as they approached the group head at the door. I thought, “why are they so focused on this”? Well, these guys had been around the block and they knew how this game worked. I didn’t. They knew about positioning and limiting associations to only the winners. I was about to get a key lesson in this myself.

An Associate, one level ahead of me, walked in. He was a sharp dressed boarding school guy who attended Columbia. He was confident, sharp and he always looked crisp. The group head gave him a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. A long discussion between the two followed. I foolishly wondered whether they were related or something. How could the group head be so close with an Associate? Then, out of nowhere, an Associate in my same class came waltzing in wearing an ear-to-ear smile.  The group head acted as if his long lost son had returned. He loudly proclaimed, “There he is!” and pulled him in with a big hug and another kiss to the cheek. I thought, “what the fuck?” I glanced over at the V.P. standing next to me. He gave me a look that clearly read, “you’re in for a rough ride brother”. How do I remember all of this. Trust me, these events get burnt into your psyche. I quickly learned that I was not in the inner circle, but these guys were. 

From that day on, I pretty much “got it”. However, I still believed that I could just work harder and eventually I’ll receive the recognition that I deserve. So I put in 90 hour week after 90 hour week. I did everything I could to outperform. The day finally came when as a Vice President, I thought, “Damn… look at that, I’m a superstar now. Then, one late night, I walked into a partners office to put a deck on his chair.

Sitting on the partners’ chair I noticed the aforementioned “superstar” and “underachiever” memo. I noticed, despite all the hard work and sacrifice, my name was not on it. I was, in fact, the patsy. My heart sunk. Fuck!

After finding the memo, a few weeks later, I had my annual performance review. It was going worse than I had expected. Any negatives that happened through the year were highlighted and any and all the positives were set aside. So, I cut off the partner giving the review and said “If you want to give me candid feedback, let’s cut the bullshit and get to the brass tacks. Will I ever be a partner in this group?”.  He just stared at me. It was awkward but it was the right question. He stumbled around and tried to sidetrack the discussion. I pulled it right back to the same question, asking it a second time. When he couldn’t give me a straight answer, I knew for 100% sure that my instincts were right and that I had to immediately get out.

I’ve noticed a lot of patsies are afraid to get confrontational like this. They live everyday seeking approval from the higher up’s. This is a big mistake. They end up sitting around way too long waiting for that validation that never comes. When they get fired, it is a huge shock. It leads to depression, confusion and a lot of other bad things.

*** Bottom line: (1) figure out as soon as possible if you are the patsy and, if you are, (2) GET THE FUCK OUT. RE-INVENT YOURSELF IN SUCH A WAY THAT YOU CAN BECOME A SUPERSTAR IN SOME OTHER PURSUIT. ***

Lastly, a word of advice. If you are not a Wall Street superstar, live modestly. I have personally seen situations where patsies tried to signal that they were doing well and tried keeping up with superstars. They lived an outsized lifestyle. They bought homes that left little margin of safety in case of bad times. They bought expensive clothes and cars. They put their kids in expensive schools. The fixed costs of their lifestyle continued to climb while, unbeknownst to them, their earning prospects were deteriorating. When surprise, they got displaced and could no longer fine equivalent work, they found themselves in a really rough spot financially. Sometimes these tales end very grimly.

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