Lessons I Learned on Wall Street – Part 1: Always Do Your Homework

There’s no place in the world like New York and there’s nothing else quite like working on “Wall Street”. In the finance industry the term “working on Wall Street” doesn’t necessarily mean you work at the stock exchange, rather it refers to working in the broader financial industry. I spent four years working on “The Street” at an investment bank in midtown Manhattan. Let me tell you, the world of finance is a beast of its own kind.

Going to work in finance was like going to war. Every day there were battles to fight and conquests to complete. I did great things during my four years in New York. I earned a big promotion, I learned a TON, I grew immensely as a professional, and I recruited roughly 200 people to join our company. I am really proud of all I accomplished, and for good reason. When I left New York I left with a great sense of accomplishment, not because of all my achievements…but because I survived.

Not only did I survive, but I learned a whole lot along the way. I want to share a few of my valuable lessons with you, because not everyone is fortunate enough to have an opportunity like that.

Lesson #1 – Always do your homework.

When someone pays you to do a job you are expected to be the expert.

At my company, I was literally the only person who had the knowledge and experience to do my job. Yet, that didn’t stop LOTS of other people from thinking they knew how to do it better than I did.

In the finance industry, as a general rule, people are really smart and they know they’re really smart. As a result, whether they admit it or not, most of them think they are smarter than you. If not smarter, then certainly more experienced within the industry. Or maybe they see the big picture better than you do. Or maybe they’re just higher up the chain of command and think you should do things their way. (You get the picture, right?) And because of the way recruiting works in the finance industry, roughly 80% of the people I worked with had some level of involvement in the recruiting process on an ongoing basis.

All that to say, my coworkers and supervisors questioned everything. At every turn, someone was questioning why we were or weren’t hosting a certain type of event, or why we couldn’t just do recruiting this completely different way altogether.

I had a battle to fight every day (sometimes two or three a day) because at the end of the day I was the one accountable for the recruiting outcomes and I had to make sure things were done the right way. So I fought. At every meeting. On phone calls. LOTS of phone calls. And sometimes over e-mail. I spent hours and hours (literally) explaining to people what we were doing and why we were running the recruiting process the way we did. We had well thought out reasons for everything we were doing and we had a great recruiting program. Yet, at the end of the day, what surprised me the most was how much I still had to learn.

For the first several weeks, I swear I left every meeting with more questions than answers. I would prepare, scour through my resources, thoroughly prepare for each meeting and I would be met with multiple challenging questions that I had NO idea how to answer.

I learned to be incredibly thorough. I had to be because I had to be prepared to answer any and every question. Over time, I became better and better at predicting the questions and I could fairly accurately prepare for all of them. Sometimes that took a lot of preparation, but sometimes it just took a few minutes of thoughtful preparation in the right strategic areas.

Sometimes I’d walk into meetings with files full of information, stacks of printouts for reference so I could back up my arguments with research, and we didn’t touch a single one. Other times, I’d pull out every single sheet from the 5 inch thick stack of paper I brought and I would still leave the meeting with a few questions I had to investigate.

But it got me ahead. And it got me promoted. And it gave me access to the CEOs of our businesses, our CFO, multiple group heads, and director of HR. They would talk directly to me because I had proven that I knew what I was talking about. I could usually answer any of their questions, and when I couldn’t I could find them the answer in a timely manner. And you know what? Most of them would be willing to introduce or recommend me to a friend if asked, because I’ve proven myself to them and because we had a good working relationship.

At Catch Your Big Break we often talk about how we don’t advocate the “nose to the grindstone” mentality. We’re about working smarter, not harder. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to work hard. The way that you open doors for yourself, and the way you find people who are willing to help you network and catch your big break, is by being the kind of employee, co-worker, and person everyone wants to recommend to a friend.

So do your homework – Be thorough. Be prepared. Be the expert. Kick some butt.

And the doors will open.