August 25, 2017

How investment bankers should NOT answer this interview question

Investment banking job interviews involve plenty of technical and competency based questions, but you’ll inevitably face the generic HR-style stumbling blocks, which are still surprisingly important.

Chief among these is a question asking what your biggest weaknesses are. Investment bankers aren’t exactly known for self-reflection and are more likely to try present strengths carefully disguised as seeming weaknesses. This will annoy your interviewer.

“Talk about where it’s impacted you, talk about what you learned from it and how you combat it,” said Rebecca Dappen, managing partner in the accounting and finance division at Lucas Group. “It’s not about having weaknesses; it’s about having the maturity to admit you have them and that you know how to overcome them.”

This is what not to say.

1. “I work too hard”

Top of the cliche list is saying that you’re too committed or that you work too hard. This genuinely has the potential to sink your application, however, as most banking recruiters say this indicates bad time management.

“The worst weakness you could say is time-management, because that’s an absolute must at an IBD,” says Brianne Toole, principal consultant on the investment banking team, Americas, at Selby Jennings.

2. “I get too involved in the details”

Banks want juniors who can crunch vast amounts of data over long periods of time without making mistakes. What they don’t want, however, is someone who claims to have a view on the minutiae of an investment banking deal. It’s beyond your experience level, says Jeanne Branthover, a partner at DHR International

“If you’re going to say something that is a concern, for a young person, say something that there’s no way for them to know yet,” she says.

Don’t say “I’ve never done due-diligence on an M&A deal.” Instead, saying something like “I need to develop my skills in this area” is fine, because the IBD hiring manager will realize that there was no way for an inexperienced candidate to develop them yet, says Branthover.

3. “I haven’t closed any deals”

Again, this is an answer that a junior could potentially give. While honest, it’s inadvisable to play down your deal experience, even at the early stage of your career.

“Instead, frame it in a positive way: ‘I’ve pitched X number of deals and I’ve participated in the execution stage for Y numbers of deals,” says Toole. “Maybe you haven’t closed as many deals, but focus on what your strengths are, and when discussing a weakness or shortcoming, focus on why the position is interesting.”

4. “I’m a workaholic”

Yes, you’ll be expected to burn the midnight oil in investment banking. However, with banks focusing more on junior working hours, coming across as a martyr who works all-hours for the sake of it can raise a red flag, says Branthover.

“Be careful before coming out and saying ‘I can’t finish a project,’ or ‘I’m a workaholic,’ because a company that you’re interviewing with might view it as a big negative,” Branthover said. “That said, you shouldn’t say nothing at all, because everybody has something to work on.”

5. “Let me start with all the mistakes I made at my first job and go from there”

It’s critical to plan your answer and be succinct.

“Some people literally go on and on and on when asked this question,” said Patrick Gorman, the founder of the accounting and financial recruitment firm Gorman Group. “The manager isn’t asking to hear your life story of weaknesses. They want to know that you’re a team player and easy to manage.”

6. “My biggest weakness is [one of the core prerequisites for the job]”

Talk about professional weakness or experience deficit that doesn’t interfere with your ability to perform well in a specific job. For example, don’t say you can’t code if you’re applying to a quantitiative trading job. Clearly, you don’t want to identify a weakness that would genuinely affect your ability to do the work based on what you know about the job description.

7. “I have a tendency to burn bridges with former employers”

That’s a ridiculous example, but the point is to tread carefully when describing a situation that you admittedly should have handled differently.

“Banks want to find out whether you’re trustworthy and whether you’re going to put your interests before theirs or vice versa,” said Roy Cohen, a careers coach and author of the Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. “They want to ensure you’re not going to embarrass them or cost them money.”


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