I used to be an M&A banker. There, I said it. It always feels a little like the mantra that everyone has to repeat at the start of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: “… and I’ve been clean for four years, seven months and twelve days”.
Even though I’m not any more, I’m still made to feel like it’s a guilty secret from my past.
My view on this matter has already been clear: M&A is a great place to start one’s career, as long as you realise that the rates of attrition are very high. In fact, it’s a perfect illustration of Darwinian principles; only the strong survive.
Don’t shed a tear for the rest however. The majority who quit will step out into the real world with a highly marketable skillset. Far from the “Excel and PowerPoint monkey” reputation, M&A will teach you a lot of things that are transferrable to real business. Even the non-profit space can avail itself of your skills:
1. Attention to detail
Bankers spend a lot of time checking and re-checking important facts and figures. This is because an error in a crucial document can shoot down a multi-million dollar deal. Because their clients pay the banks large fees, equivalent to percentage points of those huge transaction sizes, they expect nothing less. In the real world, your ability to execute a plan will be judged by how carefully you have written it. This means checking spelling and grammar, which - when I left M&A - I was shocked to consistently find that a lot of people don’t have a grip of, despite being university educated. Over-reliance on spell-check has led to almost daily occurrences of common mistakes such as mixing up “from” with “form”, “too” with “to”, etc, and this reflects badly on whatever organisation you work for.
2. Efficiency and ability to deliver whatever happens
The bottom line is that when there is a last minute change of plans or a deadline to meet at short notice, you drop everything to get the work done. If that means sleeping three hours a night for a week, that is what is expected. There is no “I’ll get it done tomorrow” in M&A. Imagine if the Post Office was run like that? First Class post being delivered the next morning and never going missing? It’s hard to imagine.
3. Understanding that the client is king
Since bankers bend over backwards to win deals, this skill in inculcated at an early stage. In a fiercely fought beauty parade (where banks square off against one another to win a juicy client mandate), nothing is too much to ask. This is particularly useful if you’re hustling to grow a business from scratch: the only way you’ll be a successful entrepreneur is by being the first to complete to the highest standard possible.
4. Email etiquette
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a minor point. Email has become ubiquitous, and the days when key people in organisations asked their assistants to write emails for them are long gone. Email mistakes can be costly; ask the Goldman Sachs traders who put together the now infamous “Abacus” CDO trade, or even James Murdoch. Double checking the contents of important documents and exactly who is on CC and BCC before hitting send can avoid embarrassing situations whereby the wrong file, or comment, is emailed to the wrong person.
5. Understanding hierarchy
In some situations this is extremely important, in others not at all, but knowing intuitively about the layer cake (and where you fit into it) is vital to social and business interactions and allows you to gain the upper hand immediately.
M&A is like a finishing school for many varied and successful careers. These skills will give you an edge when working for a corporate, yourself, or even in another profession.
The author has spent the best years of his life in investment banking, and has no regrets at all.