In these turbulent times, it is worth remembering our industry has always been cyclical, unpredictable and prone to occasional blowouts.

Tim Skeet headshot

At an industry event some time ago, a speaker gave an uplifting account of his career to a group of young bankers and lawyers. Motivational speakers tend to tell tales of overcoming adversity to reach the top or repeat familiar advice of getting your head down, working hard and believing in yourself. These stories often give the impression that working in our industry is a smooth upward trajectory, based on sweat and dedication. Yet, as I look back over four decades of working at or near the top of my industry, mainly as a debt capital markets specialist, I see things a little differently.

This is not to say that a good dose of hard work and application is not at least part of the story, but what is often overlooked is the hand of fate, the intervention of luck and the random arrival of ‘black swan’ events which can frustrate the best laid plans.

The industry I have called home for four decades has been unpredictable, highly cyclical and greatly influenced by the extraordinary march of technology, regulation, changing business practices and geopolitics. Against this background, following the advice of the motivational speakers to forge one’s own luck cannot tell the full story. Careers in financial services have long required constant adjustment, changes of course and an ability to rethink the ‘master career plan’.

Somewhere back in the mists of time, in an era of legendary long and boozy lunches in wood-panelled dining rooms, smoky bars and careers for life, my own career was launched at a pre-‘Big Bang’ [the day the stock market was deregulated in London in 1986] merchant bank. These banks hailed from a long-gone era — pillars of a blue-blooded City of London establishment unravelled in short order following the deregulation and changing business practices of the 1980s. American investment banks arrived in force to show London how things should be done. Over the years, I had experienced several culture shocks adjusting to different styles of management and business practice, yet that post-Big Bang shift was the most severe I experienced.

Experience shows that most of us are in no position to take evasive action, even if such signs are visible ahead of time

Alas, the aggressive hard-charging culture of a fast-developing US firm also showed an ability to upsize, and then downsize, in the time it might have taken my erstwhile colleagues to select the claret. I sampled the up and the down, including the sudden out-on-my-ear, just as my first child was on its way. Undeterred, at the dawn of the 1990s I was working at another, albeit much smaller, US firm. This job went well, but a few years later the sheer unpredictability of the industry struck once more. This firm, the now forgotten Kidder Peabody & Co, was shut down following an accounting scandal.

Although the failure was a shock, there had been some signs of impending doom. Experience shows, however, that most of us are in no position to take evasive action, even if such signs are visible ahead of time. The Kidder failure might also have been viewed as a one-off unlucky drama, but I was to experience another firm’s failure first-hand almost 15 years later — demonstrating that lightning can certainly strike twice, with electrifying results.

Failures’ many forms

The following years brought a variety of further dramas: Black Wednesday [1992 UK pulls out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism], the Barings Bank’s blow up (I missed that one), Lehman Brothers shaken but surviving the Russia crisis (I was hit by that one), and hedge fund Long-term Capital Management’s crash. The 1990s closed in style and I came to recognise that banking failure could take on forms other than a full shut-down. I was to be a powerless passenger in what amounted to a bank ‘car crash’ — a messy, failed merger between two of Germany’s biggest banks. My colleagues and I at the DKB investment bank were collateral damage in the plans of great industry visionaries. By way of ironic footnote, I was also working with the team on the NatWest defence as it fell to Fred Goodwin’s RBS bid, a precursor to epic future hubris and later events which cast long shadows.

Extricating myself from the German frying pan required a leap into what soon turned out to be the fire of a somewhat brutal corporate restructuring, two years into another new City job. The bank, Barclays, didn’t fail, but the division I worked in did. I was collateral damage once more, so accordingly there was little choice but to dust down and carry on.

Undeterred I landed a fresh job at ABN Amro. Here I tweaked my career tactics — spotting the next possible meltdown in the apparent lack of strategic direction at the badly run big Dutch bank, I took pre-emptive action. I accepted an incoming job offer and moved to Merrill Lynch, a seemingly invincible titan of Wall Street. Shortly after I jumped, RBS swung once more into view, messily swallowing ABN Amro. For once it seemed, I had avoided the pile up as the ABN Amro acquisition turned sour. Seemingly secure at Merrill, I had not reckoned with September 2008.

Careers in financial services have long required constant adjustment, changes of course and an ability to rethink the ‘master career plan’

In September 2008, Lehman Brothers went down — an event that was totally unexpected. The presumed federal intervention did not materialise. The huge loss of market confidence and financial unravelling of the Lehman mess heralded the great financial crash. Merrill was completely swept up in the epic events of that eventful September weekend and was taken over by Bank of America.

The financial world went into meltdown, with significant consequences for the wider global economy. On a more local level, large numbers of City and Wall Street workers would soon find themselves out of work and cast adrift (myself, of course, included).

The following decade continued to provide plenty of excitement. Eurozone member Greece restructured, Libor was fiddled, central banks learned quantitative easing, commercial banks expanded capital, fintech disrupted, trade wars raged, populist politicians and Brexit crowded the 2010s. In another curious twist of fate, I found my working life once more overshadowed by RBS, though this time as my employer. I was recruited to help out some former colleagues from the old ABN Amro days. It was an interesting time, but a series of strategy changes, leadership switches, and periodic restructurings took its inevitable toll.

Expect the unexpected

Change in this industry comes from many directions, but all too often it’s both out of left field and out of the blue. Technology, shifting regulations, political mood and climate, office politics, personality clashes, business blow-ups, macroeconomic shifts and geopolitical bust-ups are just some of the factors that needed to be reckoned with. Now it’s Covid-19. There’s no easy formula for how individuals should deal with such levels of volatility, which are usually unexpected.

However, there are some points to facilitate the art of career recycling and bounce-back. We all need to ensure we are not yesterday’s expert in tomorrow’s world. Telex operators that failed to evolve had no future. Darwin’s theories of evolution and survival should perhaps form part of the financial services career handbook. Future-proofing a career, seeking new skills and expecting the unexpected are part of the secret to avoiding complete career implosion and burn-out — something as true today as it was decades ago.

When challenged to give an overall verdict on four decades on the frontline of this extraordinary industry with its built-in rollercoasters, I nevertheless own up to having enjoyed most of it. Easy it was not, but a rich experience it certainly was. It takes more than sweat and dedication to succeed; some things are just beyond our control. I can attest to that myself.

Tim Skeet is a career banker in the City of London.

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