Attracting Those That Kill It: One More Nail in the Coffin for Investment Banking’s Image

You know you are in trouble when it is fashionable for bankers to hate bankers. Today, Greg Smith, the head of Goldman Sachs’ equity derivatives business in the U.S., published an exposé on the moral culture at Goldman Sachs. He discusses the corporate culture focused on the competitive nature of investment banking that has turned employees into money-driven narcissists as opposed to pragmatic businessmen concerned with the long-term growth of their clients’ assets.

The current investment banking culture attracts the wrong type of employee. It demands two traits for success: at all costs commitment to the job and a single-minded money-driven vision. Unfortunately the latter drives hardworking, moral individuals out of the field. On a day-to-day basis, some of the most intelligent and interesting people I meet fringe investment banking, usually based on a couple of years of success in the industry followed by the realization that they are becoming someone they do not respect. An ex-banker now Brooklyn entrepreneur explained to me how banking was part of the family trade. He was a trader and although his firm would calculate the value he was creating, he realized he was not adding any value to the world and that his “mentor” was actually killing him, based on the fast life he was expected to live. I have been to many New York summer rooftop parties in which the investment banking crowd enters and the discussion immediately turns to salaries in order to evaluate the “worth” of everyone there.

Goldman Sachs has built its empire on the fact that it employs the best and the brightest, but few would accredit these values to the overall dogmatic image and dialogue associated with the bank today. There are countless online sites mocking the investment banking “dream team” and their distance from reality and nearsighted focus on overabundance.

What does this mean for the industry’s image? Based on the financial crisis, most governments and media outlets are looking for a scapegoat, as is evident with the Occupy Wall Street movement and much of today’s political leaders’ rhetoric, pushing blame (not to say it is not deserved) out of the public sector and into the banking sector’s hands. Unintentionally, the banking sector is welcoming it with open arms, flaunting their culture of disinterest in the 99% as a badge of pride. As more become unemployed and populist sentiment grows, the financial sector will take the blunt of political reform.The sector is no longer able to survive on its former short-term, money-driven priorities.

What can be done? The sector needs to develop a twofold strategy: in the short-term developing campaigns to prove the positive aspects of banking followed by actually becoming more socially concerned. Goldman Sachs has already taken on this strategy since the financial crisis, but time and time again is receiving press that hacks away at its credibility, exposing the lack of actual concern for its clients, the law, and the world today. Many growing banking sectors, such as sustainability and microfinance can produce high ROI while bettering the world we live in. Many government and global organizations inefficiently stumble to aid these global issues, while the smart, hardworking bankers of tomorrow could be frontrunners in pushing for highly profitable change. The true winners in the field will be the small players who find niches and develop focused messaging around these initiatives.

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