And then, there were four.
Four investment bankers, all up for a promotion to the next level. Not quite the coveted managing director title yet, but nonetheless a big step in that direction.
In pre-Covid days, the promotion committee would gather in a conference room on a different floor.
No need to distract the team while their career trajectories are being determined in a glass-walled meeting room.
And for some reason, it was an old-school conference call and not a Zoom, so you couldn’t see the expressions on people’s faces either.
An awkward silence ensued.
“Why don’t we start with Pete?”
A sigh of relief. Pete was a straightforward case.
Highly capable and hard-working.
Pleasant and friendly with everyone, he transferred from another team not too long ago but quickly fell into a natural groove with a couple of big clients and bedded into the respective coverage teams.
We ran through Pete’s promotion submission.
Well-written and articulated. Clear revenue opportunity ahead. No red flags.
Most importantly, a couple of well-recognizable names in the “References” column.
The people whose life was going to get a lot harder if Pete decided to leave the firm.
More importantly, the kind of people whose lives you didn’t want to make harder.
Two senior managing directors. A chief of staff to the country head.
A COO of one of the business units.
They weren’t in attendance, but they made their point to various committee members ahead of time.
Messages received and acknowledged.
Suffice it to say, the decision was unanimous.
We then moved on to Nick. Everyone on the committee liked him.
Pleasant and friendly.
Loyal to the firm, with over a decade of service.
Unfortunately, not nearly as capable. Held back from being promoted in the past – but refusing to give up despite the lack of natural talent.
As a result, Nick has certainly eaten his proverbial share of crap over the past few years.
As not a lot of people were dying to work with him, he ended up being shuffled into a mediocre team to avoid hiring externally.
A hard slog ensued as they chased (and lost) deals other banks were much better placed for.
At some point though, their persistence paid off. Nick’s new boss notched up a couple of impressive victories, with revenue to boot.
He needed people to handle all the new business coming in.
Nick was perfect for the job. He might not have been the top banker, but he was critical to keeping the whole operation afloat.
As it turns out, he was also smart enough to demonstrate that his team would be in a world of pain if he didn’t get promoted.
Nick’s boss made the point of attending the committee and took charge immediately.
“A clear improvement trajectory.”
An “accelerating track record” of client wins.
Involvement in HR initiatives. And money – lots of it.
Tick. Tick. Tick. But none of it mattered.
The key message, well-understood by everyone on that call was that Nick was important.
Not to me, and not to anyone else on that call – other than Nick’s boss.
Having finally righted the ship, he couldn’t afford to lose any sailors. And no one on the committee was about to step in his way.
A perfunctory debate ensued. Soft questions, perfectly placed for satisfyingly strong rebuttals.
Enough to fill out the diligence form. Enough to cover everyone’s backside.
Consensus reached – not on Nick himself, but certainly on the fact that a favour was extended, one that is sure to be called in at the appropriate time.
Having failed in the past, Nick was in the clear.
Wrong Side Of The Tracks
At that point in time, you might as well have sucked the oxygen out of the conversation.
The pyramid is an elegant, yet ruthless shape.
There’s lots of room at the base. Much less so as you move up the ranks.
Certainly not enough for the remaining two candidates.
Were they strong enough to merit a promotion? You could construct an argument either way.
But that really didn’t matter.
What sealed their fate was a failure to grasp the fundamental fact of corporate life:
It doesn’t matter what you do. What matters is WHO you do it for.
One of the candidates spread his bets too wide. Refusing to nail his flag to a single mast.
Diversifying so broadly that he failed to become a critical dependency to anyone.
The other one was probably on par with Nick, performance-wise.
What he failed to achieve is hammer out an understanding with his boss. Signed off on his own dispensability.
Two different missteps. Same unfortunate outcome.
By design, capitalism chases money.
By corollary, corporations reward money makers – or the people who enable the money makers, serving in critical operational or administrative posts.
Now, investment banking is an extreme example of this. You will struggle to find another industry where a star trader or dealmaker can get paid more than the CEO.
But the concept of following the money applies universally across sectors and industries.
Regardless of whether you work in a bank, a corporate, or a non-profit, you still need to figure out where the nexus of power lies – and align yourself appropriately.
Yes, seeking power is a process that’s tiring as hell.
But do you know what’s even more tiring?
Not having any power in the first place. Working as hard as you possibly can – and not being recognized for it.
So as you gear up for the year ahead, it’s worthwhile taking a look around and asking yourself:
Who will look after me at the end of the year?
If the answer isn’t obvious, that’s an answer in itself.
And no matter how foreign the concept of finding your champion may be, you better get on with it.
You won’t regret it.