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{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

The long game

Weak winter sunlight streamed through the glass atrium ceiling. The couple of hundred suits seated around large tables in the expensive restaurant looked on in horror towards the head table.

It would have been a beautiful setting for a wedding or awards ceremony. Attentive waiting staff silently floated amongst the tables, keeping the audience caffeinated and hydrated, as the self-indulgent speaker held court. What he lacked in oratory skills, he more than made up for with hubris.

Except this was no wedding. It was a corporate away day.

No expense had been spared. A Japanese taiko drum master had been flown in to lead a team-building exercise. The cast of a West End musical performed live. The quantity and expense of the swag handed out to the attendees would have put private equity firms and venture capital backed startups to shame.

Except this was no successful wealth management shop or record label. It was a financial regulator.

A new strategy was being set out.

A new course charted for the organisation.

The days of eye-watering fines and heavy-handed enforcement were over.

The City had paid its pound of flesh after the debacle that was the Global Financial Crisis.

The bankers had served their time on the naughty step.

Now it was time to “let business do business” once more.

The speaker had been talking about how laughably bad the average regulated firm was at risk management. This was an open secret, nobody in the audience had been surprised.

The firms couldn’t externally report risk exposure accurately because internally they didn’t know themselves. They didn’t know because they consciously didn’t want to know. The financial system runs on faith: as long as everyone was making money, it was best not to ask too many questions.

Ever-increasing regulatory reporting requirements had created thousands of new compliance jobs. The reporting regimes were mostly regulatory theatre, but all those new white-collar professionals earned good money and paid taxes, which was good for the economy.

For the speaker, the financial crisis had represented the most exciting time of his professional career.

The more he talked about it, the more animated he had become.

Speech punctuated with exaggerated gestures, facial expressions, and improvised sound effects.

As his talk concluded, he extended one arm high above his head. Using his hand to simulate a swan dive, complete with cartoon whistling sound as it fell, before slapping the table with dramatic finality. An illustration of what might have happened, had the regulators not stepped in to save the day.

Until that point, the audience had watched on in boredom and bemusement.

However, as the speaker’s arm raised above his head, their eyes were drawn through the atrium roof to the sloping glass ceiling of the building next door. Where just days before, an unhappy investment banker had landed after leaping 20 odd floors to his death.

The audience had looked on in stunned silence as the speaker had inadvertently acted out the banker’s tragic final moments. Speech finished, he looked around the room expectantly. Visibly deflating when only the most shameless of brown-nosing sycophants offered token applause.

Faustian bargain

I was reminded of that reaction when I read about the controversy caused by a recent Goldman Sachs working conditions survey.

A group of first-year financial analysts had complained that working 120 hours per week was inhumane. Ruinous on their health and wellbeing. Leaving little time for anything beyond work.

They were right.

As I read the survey findings, I couldn’t help but nod along. Their experiences mirrored my investment banking misadventures decades ago. There were only three things in the report that surprised me.

First, the analysts formally complained on the record. That would have been career-ending at the banks I have worked for. It would be “career limiting” at many client sites I have worked at since.

Second, only 17% of the analysts reported being frequently shouted or sworn at, while 83% did not. On every trading floor I’ve ever visited, those proportions would have certainly been reversed!

Third, that three-quarters of the financial analysts had sought therapy to help them cope. While it was terrible that so many of them needed assistance, it was fantastic they sought it out. This is a huge improvement on the bad old days of “real men don’t cry”, when therapy was found in a bottle, and admitting to any form of coping or mental health issue was career terminal.

However, the main thing I took from the working conditions survey was a sense of puzzlement.

All through their lives, the financial analysts had been indoctrinated into believing this was the pinnacle of achievement. Where the best of the best got rich while doing great works. Attending the right schools to get into the right universities. Studying hard to get good grades. Cramming their CV full of extracurricular activities to create the illusion of being a well-rounded character. Then calling in favours, pulling strings, and working their family’s network to gain admission to the legendary hallowed halls where the masters of the universe shape the world.

The analysts had then worked there for long enough to see through the myths told in the graduate recruitment seminars and glossy career office brochures. To witness the world as it really was.

Experience the harsh realities of life as an investment banker. Understand that the opportunity came with a high toll.

All reported living a miserable existence. Performing a job that was actively doing them harm.

Each and every one of them had the option to quit. None of those surveyed had chosen to take it. Yet.

No matter how bad it got, they desperately clung to the illusion. It couldn’t possibly have all been lies, could it?

I found that bewildering. The opportunity cost was clear. If the financial analysts wanted the money, they would have to suck it up and endure the lifestyle that came with it. They were all free to leave.

Yet this group of financial analysts objected to that Faustian bargain.

Refusing to accept the world as it was. Complaining that the world was not as they wished it to be.

I couldn’t decide whether this was brave or simply naïve.

When I cast my eye up the greasy pole, I see the graduate classes from a decade or two earlier. Their ranks greatly reduced, as the gruelling pace and relentless demands took their toll and thinned the herd. The survivors who remained on “the fast track” were Managing Directors. Partners at Magic Circle law firms or Big 4 consultancies. A select few occupied the C-suite in listed companies.

To a person, they still worked long hours. Got by on not much sleep. Prioritised work over all else.

Clawing their way up the career ladder. Claiming credit. Shifting blame. Sabotaging rivals. Throwing elbows.

Relentlessly seeking “more”. More influence. More money. More power. More status.

Which is what those financial analysts had sought all along. After all, isn’t that how the game is won?

Collect now, pay later

A few weeks ago I read an interesting observation that Amazon applies the same approach to paying staff that it uses for paying suppliers.

When a customer hits the “Buy Now” button, they pay for their items immediately and in full.

Meanwhile, a supply agreement typically contains delayed payment terms, allowing a period ranging between 30 and 180 days for the retailer to pay their supplier. This means for the duration of the payment term period, the retailer enjoys the full usage of the sale proceeds before eventually paying the supplier. A scaled-down version of Warren Buffett’s famed insurance premium free cashflow float.

That is standard retail practice, nothing particularly new or interesting there.

Where things did get interesting was applying the same lens to employee remuneration packages. Specifically, those heavily featuring stock options or restricted stock units.

The employer pays wages to receive the labour immediately and in full.

Meanwhile, a typical option vesting schedule spans a period of up to 5 years. This means for the duration of the vesting period, the employer gets to fully exploit the employee’s labour, while the employee only receives the full extent of their remuneration package via a drip-fed trickle up to five years later. A great deal for the employer, with the employee carrying the investment risk that the company succeeds and the options will be worth the wait.

Arrangements vary, but vesting schedules are often back-ended. This means the employee has to go the distance to receive the bulk of their remuneration package, wearing the proverbial “golden handcuffs”. Depart earlier, and a big chunk of that remuneration package gets left behind.

This observation was obvious in hindsight, an employee is simply a supplier of commodity labour. Little different to a wholesale supplier of widgets for resale or a utility provider.

Opportunity cost

This brings me back to the opportunity cost being paid by those financial analysts.

The pursuit of those potential future riches has high opportunity costs indeed.

Sleep.

Social life.

Family time.

Healthy diet.

Physical fitness.

Sunshine and fresh air.

Happiness and well-being.

Things those ambitious souls consciously and voluntarily sacrifice. Trading the best years of their lives in terms of athleticism, attractiveness, fertility, and flexibility in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

An always-on existence. Full of busywork. Cancelled plans. Fluorescent light tans. Stress.

This is sporadically true of many professions. The business end of a project. Financial year-end. Peak periods at the local Accident and Emergency room. Exceptions rather than the norm.

Are the sacrifices worth it? This is something that can only be determined by the individual.

I have met plenty of CxOs who own beautiful homes in South Kensington or Virginia Water, with price tags in the mid-seven figures. Driving around town in a shiny new Tesla or upmarket Range Rover. Flying to Zermatt for a weekend’s skiing or a summer vacation at Lake Como.

I have met very few people who led a similar lifestyle, without having put in that kind of monumental effort (or having a spouse/parent who did). These folks got lucky. Performance artists who were “discovered” or had a creation go viral. Not something planned for or repeatable.

I know far more people who pursued a similar path to those financial analysts. Making it onto the bottom rung of the professional services career ladder. Possessing stars in their eyes and unshakable faith that successful advancement was theirs by right. Inevitable. Preordained.

Ground down. Chewed up. Spat out by the relentless demands of the corporate machine.

Some decided for themselves that the prize wasn’t worth the price.

Others found themselves eased (or shoved) out the door, after being passed over for promotion or receiving a suboptimal performance review.   

Some, like the unfortunate investment banker at the beginning of our story, couldn’t see any other way out. Success impossible. Failure unconscionable. Status quo untenable. The pressure too much to bare.

The employer cares little about the departures, not really. It is a simple numbers game, with a queue of ambitious rivals more than willing to take their place. The temporary friction of change partially mitigated by foregone bonuses and abandoned employee stock options.

The long game

Next time you find yourself listening enviously to the achievements and successes of others, take a moment to ask yourself what they had to give up to make those achievements possible?

Then ask yourself whether the sacrifices required to play the long game had been worth it?

Finally, ask yourself for every winner, how many also-rans there were? People who had made the same sacrifices, yet fallen short of achieving their goal. Real life doesn’t award consolation prizes or participation trophies.

Many of those prizes lose their lustre once the opportunity cost is factored into the equation.

We are told to shoot for the stars. Invest in our careers. Work hard. Be patient. The rewards will come.

Yet vanishingly few of us are destined to join the C-suite or become high flying masters of the universe.

Fewer still would be happy making the sacrifices required to do so.

There is nothing wrong with having more modest ambitions. Consciously making more balanced lifestyle choices. Leaving the office by 18:00 each evening. Raising children who are not strangers.

Some may say that enjoying the journey feels like winning.

It certainly provides a more certain outcome!


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18 Comments

  1. Mr. Fate 5 April 2021

    Excellent read as always. I tend to agree that the level of financial and material success defined here and exemplified by the investment bankers almost always comes at the expense of tremendous personal sacrifice. The answer to the question of it “being worth it” lies with the individual.

    While I’ve never had a mid-7 figure home or international weekend getaways per se, the success I did have in my career came with many of the price tags you reference – long hours, perennial stress, suboptimal health, no spouse, no pets, etc. Was it all worth it? In retrospect, yes it was, but largely because I always knew there was a definitive and early end to it all. And it got progressively easier to tolerate as I came closer to the goal. However, while not a regret, there were very clearly things I volitionally abandoned as an opportunity cost. I can and do acknowledge that. In my experience, the easier things look from the outside, they are likely equally or more difficult on the inside.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 5 April 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Mr Fate. Well done for having a plan and then being able to successfully execute it to achieve your goals. That is an admirable outcome indeed!

      It’s not just the bankers of the world.

      I remember admiring my home town professional footballers as a kid. Paid a fortune (relative to what I was earning), on the road all the time during the season, seemingly on top of the world. It is disheartening seeing those same guys now, working as security guards or behind a bar, bodies run to fat and moving like men twice their age as the accumulated injuries over their career now catch up with them. Most of them are broke, few of their relationships survived (basking in the wealth and reflected glory of a celebrity is a very different commercial proposition to being married to a brickie’s labourer or delivery driver). All they have left is war stories about past glories.

      Was it worth it? Those I’ve spoken to who were smart enough to get into coaching or articulate enough to become commentators say yes, the experiences of a lifetime. A common lament amongst those who weren’t is they wish they’d stayed in school or learned a trade while they had been playing, because you never knew how long the journey would last, but in the scheme of things few professional careers are long.

  2. Steveark 5 April 2021

    I think the sweet spot is not the C suite spot. It’s one level down as a VP or senior VP. You can still make $500k and the company doesn’t own you. The hours aren’t as extreme because nobody is tracking them. You have so many bosses you can play one against the other, there isn’t much accountability. Making multiple six figures without being owned, that was a good life for me.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 5 April 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Steveark.

      I agree that a better enjoyment versus reward outcome can often be found slightly down the food chain. For me it was working with medium tier clients, enough money to pay the bills and want to do interesting projects, but without many of the cultural ills that plague megacorps.

      Whatever the level, your observations about autonomy and accountability are both very true.

  3. weenie 6 April 2021

    The word ‘snowflake’ did spring to mind when I read about those ‘poor downtrodden’ financial analysts complaining about their dreadful working hours, whilst still wanting to renumerated handsomely.

    There’s a reason why those jobs command such high salaries and bonuses and it’s because of those working hours – not everyone can do it but for every analyst who burns out, there’s another bright-eyed youngster waiting to step into their shoes to earn those wages.

    Those who don’t/can’t cut it can always do something with standard 9-5 hours but should expect a massive drop in salary.

    One reason why I’ve never earned bigger bucks was because I valued work/life balance far more than money.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 6 April 2021 — Post author

      Thank weenie.

      Their complaint does pose an interesting question about an employer’s duty of care. Are the expectations reasonable and the staff “soft“. Or were the demands inhumane, as claimed?

      To put that more simply, is it the employer’s problem, or that of the suffering employee?

      Exploitative child labour during the industrial revolution was legal at the time. Today it is frowned upon, illegal in some places, but we happily import clothing and electronic goods manufactured abroad, choosing to turn a blind eye to the working conditions in which they were made.

      Brain injuries related to a professional sportsperson heading a football or playing a contact sport is another example. Once these were viewed as something to be toughed out. Now representing a potential employer legal liability that risks bankrupting numerous sporting codes.

      So were the analysts really snowflakes? Or were they just ahead of their time? Brave voices standing up against unreasonable working conditions, like those before them who demanded protective equipment and safety guards in the factories and workshops of old?

      I don’t have the answers. We would have sucked it up without complaint or voted with our feet, but then as my kids regularly point out, it is a very different world to the one we grew up in.

      • dearieme 10 April 2021

        I’ve never understood why the clients of Management Consultants, for instance, should happily pay exorbitant sums to be advised by exhausted youngsters.

        The kids can get so tired that they sob at their desks, and still their output is paid for. It seems irrational to me.

        There ought to be a market niche for a consulting firm that says “all our people are over thirty and are under strict instructions to leave the office by 19:00.”

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 10 April 2021 — Post author

          Thanks dearieme.

          I’ve never understood why clients happily pay exorbitant sums to be advised by inexperienced kiddies who have never done in anger (or even seen work) what they are advising the client to do. It is no different to the broke financial advisor, divorced marriage counsellor, or overweight personal trainer analogies.

          Buying deniability and the ability to blame shift is an expensive business it would seem!

          I suspect if the consultants weren’t being seen to be working hard (i.e. presenteeism and busywork) the clients wouldn’t feel quite as happy to pay the high day rates.

  4. weenie 7 April 2021

    Meh, I still think they’re snowflakes – they’re not children being forced to sweep chimneys, they’re intelligent adults who have gone willingly into jobs in an industry notorious/famed for the incredibly long hours worked but which pays incredibly high salaries. That said, I do think an employer does have duty of care and should provide advice/assistance to those who are struggling mentally to cope with their jobs, but there are always other jobs they can choose to take up.

    And yes, it’s a very different world to the one we grew up in – better or worse is just a matter of opinion!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 7 April 2021 — Post author

      That poses another interesting question. Where does the line get drawn between helping somebody manage in a role and managing them out of one?

      Providing additional assistance or making allowances might help an individual succeed. However, if others could achieve the same outcome without the assistance, is that not an inefficient allocation of resources?

      Is having trouble coping like a disability that allowances might be made for? Or is it an indication that the person is simply not up to rigours of the job?

      The individual could always quit, but then so could a person who is losing their vision or ends up in a wheelchair. The question is should they have to?

  5. The Accumulator 10 April 2021

    Great piece, Indeedably, insightful and affecting.

    The answer to the question is: it’s not worth it. But society lionises this kind of behaviour and we’re fascinated by extremes. It’s a terrible system but few will admit it and whether you climb to the top of the heap or not, you probably have to rationalise in retrospect.

    Ultimately, I blame the employers. It doesn’t have to be this way. They don’t have to treat people like that. Society is a reflection of ourselves and we’re free to reshape it.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 10 April 2021 — Post author

      Thanks TA.

      Employers foster their working culture. What gets rewarded? What gets tolerated? What gets punished? Far too often there is a “do as I say, not as I do” hypocrisy that results in a bland corporate values statement that is mere window dressing, baring no resemblance to the behaviours on display.

      However, I think employees have a responsibility to themselves to own their decisions.

      What are they willing to put up with?

      How do they treat others?

      If a culture isn’t to your liking then either fix it, suck it up and stop complaining, or leave.

      It can be very difficult to accurately gauge a working culture from the outside. But once an employee has worked somewhere for a few months, they will have seen and experienced enough to know the realities of where they are selling their time.

      If they then choose to continue working there, as the financial analysts did in this story, that speaks volumes about the values and priorities of the employee more so than the employer.

      • tarsolutions 10 April 2021

        Fully agree with this – as the saying goes, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. People going into these jobs know they’ll be worked hard, and will also (in the main) be rewarded for their efforts.

        Having worked on a number of trading floors, those working there know the score. None plan on doing it forever, but for some of the lucky ones, they work for 20 years (or less), then retire to something more leisurely.

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 10 April 2021 — Post author

          Thanks tarsolutions.

          I could never decide whether the lifers on a trading floor were the lucky or the unlucky ones! That caffeine and cocaine lifestyle is attritional. There weren’t many long timers who had survived with their health and marriage(s) intact, alimony and child support imposed an expensive reality check on their lifestyles and future plans.

      • The Accumulator 11 April 2021

        I agree of course.

        I think speaking out, publicly, as those employees did is courageous and the right thing to do. Their action serves as a warning to others and can, in the best instances, effect *some* real change as management are called out.

        Generally you can’t fix a culture until you’ve acquired some power. If you leave beforehand then you’re branded a failure, or feel like one.

        I place the lion’s share of responsibility at the feet of those who have the power to change something they hated on the way up but then exploit and perpetuate as they ascend.

        I don’t think this kind of culture is sealed off from the rest of society either. Practices at famed and powerful institutions are copied and aped more widely.

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 11 April 2021 — Post author

          Well said.

          Individually, we each choose our battles. Nobody has the stamina or bandwidth to suit up for them all. Occasionally a brave soul scores a win against the odds, Catherine Spence, Nelson Mandela, and Rosa Parks are examples. However, we only know their names because they won.

          In the case of these analysts, to a large degree they must have known what they were signing up for. Large investment banks wear their dog-eat-dog presenteeism driven working culture as a badge of honour. To pretend otherwise would be as disingenuous as someone claiming surprise at being bullied in the military or character assassinated in politics.

          You’re right about these types of cultural attitudes existing across society at large. England’s “lager lout” football fan culture is a good example. No fun for anyone but members of the mob, yet tolerated and indulged as “boys being boys“, and even defended when “foreign” media outlets dare to report the behaviours as riots or hooligans running amok. Which objectively speaking, is exactly what they are!

  6. Malcolm 11 April 2021

    As a veterinarian I tended to think that human and animal behaviour were essentially the same-why wouldn’t they be?
    It’s a jungle out there-eat or be eaten modified by civilised behaviour -rules etc
    Reality is always present and keeps breaking through however and it’s a poor employer/parent that does not make people aware of that salient fact
    “Life is not fair “ is a useful last resort statement to use but sparingly
    We must strive constantly to make life fairer-equal opportunities etc
    Learning to cope when reality strikes though is survival skill that has to be learnt at your mothers knee before it’s too late and the lion eats you!
    Personally having come through the English public school system of many years ago -rather akin to a Spartan upbringing- there are very few terrors left but that is perhaps to much to ask of young people today and there were casualties
    No system is perfect-a necessary requirement today which is unsustainable
    When reality sets in corrects an imbalance it happens brutally so to be avoided if possible
    Interesting times
    xxd09

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 11 April 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Malcolm.

      I think that is a good observation, “life is not fair” but we should try to succeed and make things better, regardless.

      It is revealing how quickly the thin veneer of civilisation gets stripped away whenever upheaval occurs. Innate “lord of the flies” behaviours quickly asserting themselves: mob rule, safety in numbers, “us” against “them” to provide a common interest against a common enemy, and so on.

      Another case study is doing business in countries where the rule of law is more subjective and commercially flexible than we like to pretend is the case in developed countries. What we perceive as a strength that underpins a civilised society, others view as a quaint self-limiting set of behaviours akin to the clichéd perception of Napoleonic era soldiers dutifully lining up and taking turns to shoot at one another.

      Your comment raises a fascinating insight about the “spartan” public school experience. Does it still fulfil its function of preparing the “leaders of tomorrow” for adult life, now that many of those terrors are no longer tolerated?

      Would a graduate of that system today be equipped to excel in the workplace those financial analysts in the story found themselves?

      Is the network access alone worth the price of tuition?

What say you?

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