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A couple of weeks back, reader Svetlana posted an extremely important question on my post what is a female-friendly career, and I want to address it at length today, because it is so relevant, especially in this tough economic environment. She asked:

“Not everyone who is smart and ambitious is hired by McKinsey, BCG or IB straight after they gradute from college, leave aside those who graduate in a bad year.

Do you have a word of advice for those who keep receiving rejection letters after putting all efforts imaginable into trying to follow the path you have described above?”

This blog is dedicated to helping young people strive for financial and personal independence, and I wouldn’t be of much help to people if I only addressed it to people who have got McKinsey offers in their pockets. Looking for a job for the first time is incredibly tough, especially in this environment. Even I received lots of rejections from places I was hoping to work for when I was finishing my undergraduate degree. You can be perfectly qualified but somehow not fit the right profile. Before I received my McKinsey offer, I received rejections from P&G, Shell, the World Bank, the IMF – all without even being invited to a phone interview. It is very hard to stand out when you don’t have much real world experience, and at this stage life can seem unfair. So what do you do when you don’t even get a chance to show how good you are? What if you don’t even get interview invites?

My short answer is: you do exactly what your classmates who do get the McKinsey and banking offers will be doing two or three years later. Two years is the average life of a consultant or a banker, upon which they will have to rethink their life and career. They will potentially have some more savings than you do now and two years worth of experience, so they won’t be in the same position as you are now, but they will still have to start out again in two years.

Let me elaborate using two observations from my business school class of 2008: last summer, I went to our three year graduation reunion, which marked the fifth year of us moving to London for the MBA. I was talking to a girl who had just quit the Boston Consulting Group to found her own company in London along with two other of our classmates (one of which previously worked as an investment banker). We started talking about what the other classmates who had gone to BCG were up to, and it turned out that every single one we could think of had already left. Two were working in Venture Capital, two others had founded their own company, and yet two others had returned to their home countries to work for medium-sized businesses. Secondly, a month ago some current MBA students interested in working in Mergers & Acquisitions contacted me for advice on breaking into investment banking. I wanted to redirect them to classmates of mine who were working in M&A in London and tried to think of suitable people they could contact. This was supposed to be easy, since a whopping 25% my classmates had gone into M&A (according to p.12 of the class of 2008 employment report)! The problem was, three years on, almost none of them still was. By the end of the exercise, I could only come up with a total of five names of guys who had started in IBD and were still doing it in London. Many had lost their jobs right after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. Some had quit to move back to their countries. Others had joined asset management companies. Others still got laid off recently and are looking for a new job.

So first of all, if you are feeling bad that your classmates seem to be landing well-paid, prestigious jobs and you are getting sidelined by the top recruiters, don’t feel bad because over a few years, these things will even out. Five years on, chances are nobody will be working at these companies anymore anyway, and you will get a headstart doing something different already. So maybe now you feel a bit better but of course still want to know what to do, because feeling good is great, but you still need to find a job, right? So what can you do when you don’t seem to be getting any love from the top recruiters?

  • Specialize: if all you face is rejection letters so far, chances are your job search is too random. Are you applying to everyone under the sun who has a job opening? What specifically have you got to offer that makes you stand out from other applicants? Try to find a niche that you are passionate about and that you have an edge in based on your profile and become more targeted in your job search. It becomes much easier to convince recruiters you are the right candidate when your CV and experience are visibly suited to the job in question. And you will be much more convincing in the interview when you are actually passionate about the job.
  • Check out local start-ups/SMEs: these generally don’t pay as well as the big name recruiters, which is why competition for these jobs is much less fierce. Don’t worry too much about your starting salary though. What counts is the long term outlook, and if you can get more responsibility and learning opportunities in a small and growing company, don’t dismiss the opportunity. Jobs at these kind of places are much more likely to come up informally and you will need to network rather than wait for them to post job ads with your career service. A good place to start would be a local entrepreneurship conference.
  • Build up skills: while you don’t have an income, your opportunity cost is low, so use the time to build up more skills that could make you stand out in the future – be it learning a programming language, a foreign language, a specific marketing strategy or a course on taxes – make it relevant to your passion and the job you are looking for.
  • Start out on your own: I know this is easier said than done, especially when you have a student loan to pay off, but don’t dismiss the option outright. Consider that when you find a job, you essentially find someone to pay you to carry out specific services for them, and this is the same as finding a customer when you have your own business. If you don’t have any sort of skill that you could sell as a service, finding a job is no easier than starting up your own business. Thinking about what services you could sell will also help you think harder about your strenghts and the skills you need to build up to become more marketable to potential customers and employers

The good news for you is that you will be at least two to three years ahead of those who do seem to be landing the better jobs. I am only speaking three years after graduation, but I can already tell you that even now those classmates who started their own small companies (usually one man operations) or who joined start-ups and small sized businesses are probably among the happiest of the graduating class. They are even serving as mentors to those unhappy bankers and consultants who are now looking for the exits, so there may be some late justice being done.

Finding your dream job is not easy, particularly in this climate, so I have only been able to start sharing my thoughts on how to go about it. I hope this gives you some ideas on how to get started. What do you readers think? If you have found a job recently, how did you do it? What have you tried? Please share a comment below.

Kim Winser: serial fashion chief executive

Yesterday, I was on my annual shopping spree in the beloved London post-Christmas sales, where even the loveliest brands slash 50-75% of their prices. London’s got to be the best place in the world for shopping in the sales season! One of my favourite stores that I use for elegant work wear is Pringle on Sloane Street, and I got curious about who owns and runs the business these days. While reading up on Pringle’s history, I came across Kim Winser, who ran Pringle as a chief executive from 2000 – 2006 and is credited with its turnaround from a loss-making Scottish knitwear company to a global fashion brand. I wanted to find out more about her.

Kim Winser started her career as a management trainee with Marks & Spencer straight from school in in 1977, where she became one of the youngest ever divisional directors aged 33, running the womenswear division. At one breakfast board meeting, Sir Richard Greenbury, CEO of M&S at the time, who sat right next to her said: “I’ve got to tell you this joke, especially as there are no women in the room.” When she pointed out she was sitting right next to him, he replied ‘Oh, you’re one of the boys,’ and told the joke! Having been one of only two divisional directors at 33, she is adamant being a woman cannot have been a disadvantage, however.

At 38, Kim Winser had her only son, and splitting from the father (another M&S director), has brought him up as a single mom with one live-in nanny. Live-in nannies seem to be a theme with very successful working mothers, as we can see in the extreme with hedge fund manager Karen Finerman, but I have also observed with all the working mums in my company.

In 2000, Kim missed out on being appointed to M&S’s board and was headhunted to lead the turnaround of Pringle, where she had a new line designed within the first three months, closed small old retail outlets and instead focused on flashy flagship stores in Bond Street and Sloane Street and cooperations with luxury department stores Selfridges and Harvey Nichols.

In 2006, she was appointed president and CEO of another loss-making British luxury brand, Aquascutum. She resigned from the job in 2009 after an unsuccessful management buyout of the company, upon which she became chairman of luxury lingerie brand Agent Provocateur, a position from which she resigned again in early 2011. She now acts as an adviser to French Sole, where she has been tasked with tripling their turnover over the next five years.

For those of you interested in a fashion or retail career, what  a fantastic role model she is! I wish there were more videos or speeches of her online but the only decent thing I have found is a short interview on BBC which you can find here:

Kim Winser on modernising British businesses

If you want to read more about her, two management magazines have excellent in-depth profiles of her career:

Director Magazine on Kim Winser

Management Today Interview with Kim Winser

Preparing for Sales & Trading summer interviews

A couple of weeks back, I conducted first round interviews for Sales & Trading summer internships. It made me remember the time when I was an ambitious yet relatively naive undergraduate trying to break into one of the London investment banks. For one girl I interviewed it seemed to be the first proper job interview in her life, and I felt really sorry for her. It’s so hard to perform well when you are thrown into such a different world, and for those of us whose parents aren’t investment bankers and corporate executives, interview rooms of big corporations and banks are just such an unreal, unwelcoming environment. It can be hard to assess potential when someone is just not ready yet.

That is why I spend a lot of effort on this blog to help people prepare for interviews and internships, because if you are not on the inside, the only way to familiarise yourself with the world is to read about it. I have posted before on interview questions to prepare, my sales and trading interview reading list and published the Sales & Trading career guide. Today I want to share a few more points for those preparing for sell-side interviews with investment banks.

First of all, it’s important to know how investment banks are set up, so that you can give the interviewer an idea of which part you may be interested in. Most investment banks are set up by asset classes (equities, currencies, fixed income, commodities) and by functions (sales, trading, structuring, research). It is important to have an idea of where you might fit and why, while also keeping an open mind. I have met interviewees who were 19, had very little clue how our bank was set up but already claimed to know that they really only wanted to do commodities sales. It is much better to have an awareness of changing business environments and show a willingness to get an overview of the bank. It is impossible to know where you will fit best from the outside.

Second, make sure you practice some very basic quant skills and have them automised to such an extent that you will be able to perform quick calculations even when nervous and under pressure. I could not believe how few candidates were able to quickly tell me what is ten cubed (10 x 10 x 10). 80% of maths students thought it was 100 or 10,000!!! That is unbelievable to me, but it shows how being nervous can have a serious impact on interview performance, so make sure you know your times tables and can perform simple estimates (what is the cubic root of 120? Of 200? What is 1.7 x 1.7 ?).

And lastly, though this is somewhat less important for summer analyst applicants than for more mature MBA candidates, I do also find it important that candidates have some idea of the economic and political environment we are in. What caused the credit crunch? How did it unfold? What does this mean for banks? For economies? I am not saying there is one short and easy answer to these questions, but it helps to have something concise and relatively coherent to say to such a macro type question. If you haven’t watched it yet, I quite liked this interview with Michael Platt on Bloomberg TV, founder of the hedge fund Bluecrest. He gave a very good overview of the current state of European economies and what that means for investors. If you have Sales & Trading interviews coming up, I suggest you watch it:

Lessons learnt from my first week as a working mum

I went back to work full-time mid last week, which is why I haven’t been able to write much recently. My last days of freedom I decided to relax and do all those things I don’t have time for anymore – pedicure, manicure, eyebrow threading, some shopping, hanging out on the playground with my daughter, walking through the parks with her sleeping in the buggy and lovely activities like that. I was really worried about going back and how it would feel to work all day, as I took a whole year off and had really gotten used to my freedom.

The interesting thing is, I am really liking it. Maybe it’s because I expected the worst, but so far it is actually really nice. I wasn’t sure if it would be possible and I thought I would only last a couple of months, but now that I started, I remembered why I used to love my job. I think there are several factors that contribute to my happiness and they might constitute good advice for formerly high flying ladies returning from maternity leave:

Start childcare well in advance: going back to work and settling in your baby at a nursery at the same time is really hard, because your baby will be upset and crying and you won’t want to go to work. I know many mums who only start their babies in childcare a week or two before returning to work and they are making it extra hard for themselves. Start to ease your child in a month or two in advance and just gradually increase the time

Have a supportive partner: This is so important. Many mums think everything is their job – nursery drop-offs and pickups, their job, dinner, housework. It’s impossible. In our case, I do the night shift (settling our baby to sleep whenever she wakes up during the night) and get up with her early because I leave the house shortly after 6am. Then my husband plays with her and brings her to nursery at 8am. We take turns with the pick-ups, although this week we both missed our daughter so much that we often did the pick-up together. We quickly have a very light dinner together – it saves a lot of time and is good for our shapes :-). We also have a cleaner 3h per week so we hardly do any housework ourselves.

– Enjoy going to work: when you have a baby, there is a strong pull factor from your home – you need something appealing at work to make you enjoy going there. It is now more important than ever to maintain friendships at work. A support network and people you can trust when you feel down is extremely important, as many mums returning to work can experience feelings of depression. I am lucky to have many friends at work and spent the first two days stopping by all of them and catching up. It made my return so much more pleasurable. Frankly, work itself is important but at the beginning, when IT is fixing your PC and such moments, use your time to reconnect with all your friends and acquaintances. Catching up with colleagues is one of the things I enjoyed the most during the first days, especially after spending a year talking mostly to other mums, and I enjoyed having professional conversations again.

– Be efficient: because I aim to get home early, I am extremely efficient now. My aim about anything I do is to improve all processes that waste time to minimise interference with my aim. I am rigorously minimising checking emails, shifting f9 spreadsheets (other bankers will know what I’m talking about!!), reading superficial news headlines and so on. Instead, I am very focused on the few things that really matter. A lot of business at work is really a lack of focus. Stop checking emails and reading news constantly and invest time in improving processes and the few things that really create value.

– Manage expectations: I explained to everyone on the first day that my aim is to leave between 5pm and 5.30pm at the latest every day. Since I come in at 7am I think that is not a crazy thing to do. Sure, I may usually be the first to leave, but it is doable. I may even miss some important conversations that take place after. But you have to make trade-offs once you are a working parent, and most colleagues with children understand that. It is also about managing your own expectations. Before I had a baby, I was very diligent and conscientious, so for me to just leave at 5pm is something very new. I have had to tone down my ambition a little bit, but in return I can at least spend an hour or two with my daughter every evening, and that way I can be happy overall. Which leads me to my last point…

Think long term: If you’re an ambitious woman, it is hard to tone down your ambition and accept that your career might move a bit more slowly now. I have certainly found it hard to accept after a relatively fast progression in the early years of my career. But I have realised now that it just wouldn’t work in the long term if I stressed myself out. By working harder and trying to progress fast now, I would actually make myself so miserable that I wouldn’t be able to take it and might quit, ending my career completely. Instead, I have decided that I will take it a bit easier, so that my career might progress more slowly, but at least I will have one! I’ve realised I have to make it work, and the only thing working full-time is going to work is if I am still happy with the amount of quality time I can still spend with my daughter. An hour or two per day is not great, but it is okay. 10 minutes per day would not be okay, I wouldn’t be able to do it for long. So take it easy and think long term. Depending on your job, even going part time is fine. At least you are in the work force and can slowly increase your time when you’re ready.

So I am happy to report that so far so good, the first week of working 10 hour days, commuting and having a 1 year old baby has gone surprisingly well. The mood in the banking industry is not great of course. People look quite tired, pale and stressed out. After a summer spent on playgrounds, in coffee shops and parks, I must say I feel like a bit of an alien walking in. People have had a rough year and are generally pretty downbeat. Everybody seems to be waiting for the year to end. Hopefully I can stay in good spirits for a while!

Doing good by getting rich: the 80,000 hours society

This morning, there was a very interesting discussion on doing good on BBC radio. The provocative claim of one Oxford based community is that you can do more good by becoming a banker than by becoming an aid worker. They very short summary is that by becoming rich, you can easily fund several aid workers’ salaries, so clearly you are doing more good than one aid worker possibly can. Check out their website 80,000 hours – high impact ethical careers for more background.

The question of what is an ethical career choice is important for high flying ladies because I have found that being ethical and doing good is a primary concern for talented women. It is what draws many women into areas such as psychology, teaching, charity, while their male peers strive for better paid careers in business and finance. What if women could be convinced that becoming rich and using their wealth to support good causes and change society was a choice that is morally equal, if not even better?

One way to look at it is that money is only generated in the private sector, and that all publicly funded professions (teaching, nursing…) are funded by taxes raised from the private sector. As such, publicly funded ethical careers cannot be morally superior to private sector careers because they exist only as a result of private funding. When it comes to privately funded charity work, I would argue that you need to maximise your impact, depending on your talents. And the answer could be that you will be better off becoming rich and giving money to charity, or that you could do most good by doing charity directly. From an economist’s standpoint, I would think that if you live in a society that provides large rewards for private sector work, you should pursue that and pass on a part of your wealth to aid workers in countries with fewer opportunities. These local aid workers will likely do a better job in their own community than you would, and if you can fund many of them due to the difference in price level, you can have a large positive impact, far beyond what you could have on your own. It may not feel as rewarding to you, but it might be the choice with a more positive outcome.

It is a very provocative topic and I would love to hear what others think about it! Do you agree? What do you think is a morally good career choice? And if you want to do good already, please support my Christmas appeal in support of CAMFED, a charity dedicated to educating girls in Africa.