The Low-Effort, High-Impact Way To Do Well At Work

There aren’t many advantages to being an analyst in the investment banking world.

You are at the lowest possible point in the pecking order. Hours are long, stress levels high, and social life is non-existent.

The one advantage, however, is the timing of the pay cycle. For a variety of reasons, investment banking analysts typically get paid in August, while everyone else has to slog at least another six months to get clarity on their bonus.

But it’s not as simple as walking into your group head’s office and walking out with an envelope while dialing 1-800-YACHT-WEEK on your phone.

A long, rigorous, and at times painful process of ranking the analysts precedes – and determines – the pay decisions.

Having sat in (and led) multiple performance ranking committees over the years, I was roped in by HR to do the same this year. Needless to say, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

It may not be a particularly enjoyable process – but it sure is insightful. And as I sat through yet another round of reviews, roundtables, and committees what struck me is just how easy it is to do well at work.

Now, I’ve previously pulled together an entire guide for making more money at work. There are many, many things you can do to move the needle on your pay and promotion decisions.

But if you just cannot be bothered to go the full nine yards, don’t despair.

At the end of the day, it boils down to just two basic principles + one “extracurricular” activity. Anyone working a corporate job would be well served to keep them in mind.

Step 1: Make Good Friends

If there’s one common characteristic that unites everyone who does well at work, it is this:

They have a champion.

That is, there’s someone who will take charge and say: “This person has done a great job for me and they deserve to be recognized for it”. They will then stare down the opposition and bat back any challenges on your behalf.

Without a champion, you are destined to languish.

If you are lucky, you will languish somewhere in the middle. More likely than not, you will end up way down the list as everyone else promotes their favourites.

95% of the time, your boss will be your champion. So when choosing who to work for, you must consider two things:

  • Is this person powerful enough to make a difference?
  • More importantly, will he or she go to bat for you?

There’s an inherent trade-off here. Over the years, I’ve found that powerful, vocal bosses are not the easiest to work for. Far from it.

Equally, you don’t want to work for a wallflower. Pleasant, amiable, and conflict-averse people typically don’t rise very high in the corporate world.

There are other tactical considerations as well. Does your boss already have a favourite? And if you are their favourite, are you communicating the right mix of loyalty and self-interest?

The last thing you want is for your boss to think you are happy as is and there is no need to waste any bullets on your behalf. Make sure to get across the point that if you are unhappy, you will leave.

But the fundamental point is that come year-end, you want a real bulldog in your corner. Choose wisely.

Step 2: Don’t Rock The Boat

You are sitting in a roundtable session, discussing a candidate. Things are going well, the feedback is positive all around, and you can sense a clear consensus forming.

But just when you thought you can move over to the next name on the list, someone says:

“I think John is a solid employee with a great technical skillset. It’s just that this one time on project X…”

Boom! The proverbial kiss of death, a subversive comment couched as positive feedback but really designed to start raising question marks and negate the positive momentum.

Make no mistake – there isn’t much room at the top of the list. By default, getting up there means you’ve kicked someone else off their perch. And if you want to hold on to your slot, you better not give people the ammunition to try and unseat you.

The easiest way to do this? Don’t piss people off.

It doesn’t matter how hard you’ve worked – and how well you’ve performed. And it doesn’t matter if the CEO herself has your back (though it can sure help).

In today’s consensus-driven environment, you simply cannot afford any noise around your name.

At best, you’ll survive – but piss off your supporters who have expended their political capital defending your name.

More likely than not, everyone will agree that the case just “isn’t as clear cut” – and you will drop down the rankings.

Remember – you don’t have to like the people you are working with. But you do have to get along with them.

Anything less will cost you dearly come year-end.

Bonus Points: Keep HR Onside

Take a step back for a moment and ask yourself:

How does a back-office function with zero revenue-generating capability gain power in an organization?

Offshore call centres. Back office accounting functions. Outsourced payroll departments.

None of these strike imagination as desirable, visible, well-paid places to work. Because they aren’t. You will always be far better off in a client-facing, mission-critical role.

Say what you want about HR, but for a back-office function, they buck this trend with a vengeance – or at least the smart ones do.

And the biggest key to their power is being in the driving seat when it comes to performance, pay, and promotion decisions.

Smart employees know that. In other words, show me a successful corporate employee who does not have a good (or at least a cordial) relationship with HR and I will show you a unicorn.

Seen one of these around lately?

By the way, this applies across seniority levels. You simply don’t get to be a big shot without implicit support from HR. At some point, your boss will also get evaluated – and you bet that HR shape that discussion too.

When the performance reviews are completed, promotion committees concluded, and everyone goes back to their day job, HR gets to work.

Their job is to finalize the performance rankings to be presented for review – and signoff – by senior management. And as anyone familiar with choice architecture can tell you, the way those rankings are presented has a massive influence on the ultimate outcome.

First, there’s the “corporate citizenship” angle. Whether you care for it or not, it features in your job description and therefore impacts your ultimate standing.

In other words, participating in recruitment, mentorship, and other internal initiatives is a must (and not just because they tend to be rewarding activities in their own right).

Then, there’s the relationship aspect of it. Human resources are… well, human (pun intended). Therefore, it’s only natural of them to support the success of the people who are more likely to reciprocate in the future.

There are many ways this can be done while remaining “objective”.

There’s the dotted line delineating the pay buckets. Funny how it can be drawn just above or below a specific name…

Or the one determining the list of promotion candidates. Then there’s the group of folks nominated for high-visibility internal initiatives… the list just goes on and on.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to work with some high-quality HR departments. Others might not have been so lucky. But regardless of your situation, make no mistake – being friendly with HR is a pre-requisite.

Back To Basics

The tips above are straightforward enough to be characterized as Corporate Success 101. If you’ve got them internalized to the point of second nature, give yourself a big pat on the back.

And yet, year after year, I see smart, hard-working individuals failing to complete this basic checklist.

Some think hard work on its own will get them there. Good luck.

Others walk around offending the whole world, thinking their boss will ride to the rescue. Not happening.

Even those who clear both hurdles end up shortchanging themselves by not nurturing their relationship with HR.

Make no mistake – there are many other things you can do to supercharge your corporate ascent – and pay.

But if you don’t feel like doing the heavy lifting, don’t despair. Simply tick the three boxes above – and you will find yourself 80% of the way there.

Good luck!

About Banker On FIRE

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Banker On FIRE is a London-based 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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2 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed this article. Always thought throughout my career that there’s a lot of mileage in not being a jackass at work.

    • I never understood people who behave that way at work. What’s the point of making life unpleasant for others?

      Have to say, seeing those people get their due in performance reviews was one of the more enjoyable aspects of it.

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