Finding Your Champion

Finding your champion

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.

Not anymore.

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.

Air Cover

“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.

Scarcity Value

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.

Ruthless Realities

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.

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Banker On FIRE is an M&A (mergers and acquisitions) investment banker. I am passionate about capital markets, behavioural economics, financial independence, and living the best life possible.

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14 thoughts on “Finding Your Champion”

  1. Ha – such a familiar tale….recognised this so much. Both funny & depressingly true.

    I suspect it’s not as bad outside the city bubble world but defn where I worked you this was common behaviour. You could spot a mile off who had aligned with who and would be going places and who would have a fight to get anywhere. I didn’t like the game and I often chose not to play it – both in the room deciding the fate of others and on my own part. But I understood it for sure and agree if you don’t, you’re at a disadvantage.

    One interesting aspect people forget though is how quickly the chosen ones can change. A champion leaves, falls out of favour. It’s not just them that’s impacted but their whole ‘following’ for lack of a better word. Personally I used to really dislike those who jumped ship callously when they could see the winds changing.

    It may be best behaviour for your career & pay prospects but it wasn’t something I believed in or did as the kind of person I was/am. Yeah, it may have cost me at times but I was ok with that – different end goal in sight anyway!

    1. The best champions are the ones that take their team along when they pack up.

      Have seen plenty of examples in IB where entire teams would jump ship to follow the leader, often as part of a pre-negotiated package.

      I actually think it may be even more prevalent outside the City. At least the large organizations have a proper HR function, which (sometimes) manages to keep the process on track and with a semblance of fairness.

      I have friends working in smaller / family-run businesses and it can be an absolute free-for-all out there.

        1. … entirely a coincidence I am sure.

          I’ve seen cease and desist letters being sent as a result but the reality is that there’s very little that can be done.

  2. Well this brings back memories! Bonus, advancement, and retention decisions dominated by tribal loyalties and institutional politics rather than employee performance.

    Advance our gang.

    Block or cripple theirs.

    All tied back to what would fatten the wallets most of those seated at the table making the decision. Which was sometimes, but not often, the same thing as what would be the best outcome for the applicant, institution, or shareholders.

    The secretive coffee dates and late night drinks in the lead up, courting patronage to sponsor their progress across the game board. Peons attempting to attach their lips to the backside of the rising star, or grab the coattails of the team with momentum. Trading horses and favours, throwing others under the bus to get ahead.

    Climbing the financial services greasy pole is a dirty business. Not the sort of thing that gets spoken of in polite company or proudly described to children on careers day at school. A bit like what they say about how sausages or new laws are made. Best not to ask.

    1. It never ends.

      Interestingly enough, I happen to be a part of one of such “rising” teams now. Partially as a function of luck, partially of fantastic leadership, and partially due to some good old fashioned elbow grease from everyone involved.

      It’s a fascinating experience. Plenty of organizational power, making it much easier to get things done. A lot of flattery. And a lot of obstacles from people who are viewing it as a zero-sum game, or simply think “too much, too soon”.

  3. Yep as a key decision-maker and pretty much everyone’s promotions or raises every year, it’s always the people who provide the most value to their boss, the team, the org who consistently get the promotions.

    And they usually have a champion within the org,

    If you do your job, but don’t have that person, it’s near impossible to get that big raise or promotion.

    You need that key person at a bare minimum.

    1. It never ceases to surprise me how many people think that just doing a good job will get them places.

      Obviously doing a good job is a critical aspect of sustainable success. But if there’s no one who appreciates and promotes your work, you simply won’t move up.

  4. I can clearly remember when the owner/president of our billion dollar company sat me and my frenemy rival down and told us that the business was going to be run by one of us, and that the decision was a year in the future. I had no doubts that I’d have the job in a year, and I was right. The reason was pretty simple, we were both frighteningly good at what we did, but I was nicer. I went out of my way to serve all the other departments in the company like it was a true privilege, which it was. He preferred to argue with the other departments and focus on our department’s work. He might have even been better at parts of the job but when the president polled the department heads regarding their opinions on the two of us, all those times I had gone the extra mile to help solve their problems came to light. Having a lot of important friends is a super power.

    1. Spot on.

      At the end of the year, you want to have two things:

      1. As many people saying “yes” to you getting promoted as possible
      2. Very few – ideally zero – people saying “no” on the basis of personality / conflicts / perceived shortfalls.

      I’ve seen excellent candidates who basically sunk themselves by making an enemy of one important person.

      Love the story, great to see you coming out up front on the back of that year!

  5. Very nice article! Having or not having a champion can transform your career, despite having the same skills, productivity or success you bring to the business. I’ve been in both situations, and have experienced the stark difference first hand.

    1. Indeed. I’ve always gone to pains to make sure I’ve got the right senior support at work.

      However, on one occasion in my career, my “air cover” disappeared overnight for reasons outside of my control. My biggest “champion” had to move abroad for family reasons.

      To say the next year or so was unpleasant would be an understatement.

  6. “It never ceases to surprise me how many people think that just doing a good job will get them places.”

    This was me, for a huge part of my career. Was very good at my job, worked damn hard but nobody who mattered knew about it.

    I finally realised that I needed to blow my own trumpet a little, something I really dislike doing and things improved for my career but by then, my youthful energy for climbing the greasy promotion pole was pretty much spent, so these days, I’m just happy to be a cog in the wheel.

    1. Banker On FIRE

      I’ve got to say, my enthusiasm for playing the “office politics game” has been declining over the years.

      That being said, I literally force myself to do it as I realize it’s a far bigger determinant of my pay than the efforts I put in otherwise.

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