In the world of investments, aside from professional knowledge, one also needs unexpected qualities such as an extraordinary tolerance for stress and the inclination to work without weekends for about 10 years. In the latest edition of Success Builder, the Head of Russia and Ukraine DCM at J.P. Morgan, Kirill Kondrashin, discusses the things even those with honours diplomas don’t consider, as well as how to think like a British HR professional and how a new employee can survive in the jungle of the London financial services market.
One of the main conditions of the programme is you have to know English well because this is the language of instruction. I went to an English school, so I didn’t have any problems with this. One of the scary things about the programme is that if you don’t pass your London exams the first time, you are only able to retake them the next year. Missing assignments in several courses mean you can’t go on to the next year and you have to remain in your second year. I fortunately did well on everything.
Was studying easy for you overall?
What always interested me most was the practical side of learning, but the theoretical also came easy to me. You could say that yes, I was a capable and, probably, lucky student.
After graduating, did you continue studying or did you find something practical to do right away?
The London programme has something called a ‘first class honours degree,’ which is like our honours diploma. Then there are upper-second, second, etc. I had an upper-second diploma, so this is what I had under my belt when I went to get my master’s at Warwick Business School in Great Britain. I got a partial scholarship and reduced tuition rate. When I started there, I understood that after school I wanted to work in London. School starts in September, and this is also the month when you start applying for internships and jobs. By December I had found a job, and then another, and this is how I stayed in England.
Why do junior financiers stay to intern and work specifically in London?
There are a few factors here. Why do people come here for school? Because London is on the same level with the U.S. when it comes to having an excellent education system, which is why students from all different countries go abroad. But America is far and more expensive. London is currently the financial centre of the world, but before the 1990s it was far from it. The offices of a majority of banks were in disarray – those in Milan, Madrid, and Frankfurt… But in the 1990s, when emerging markets started developing, offices started moving to London out of convenience, so London took on at least the European load, gradually becoming the dominating centre for Europe. Emerging markets include Latin America, Asia, Africa, Russia, and Eastern Europe, but it’s not convenient to open up large offices there (it’s easier to have one central office at a location where the offices of nearly all major companies are also located). This is why a lot of banks, European ones included, started moving their global offices to London.
How does one build a career in the wilds of London’s banking world?
Of course all good institutions have career centres that really help more with advice than concrete internships. Major companies and banks start hiring for the next year in September, but those who are less experienced apply for jobs or internships in November and December. The process is clear overall – you start by applying on the company’s website where you state your case in a cover letter on why they have to hire you, then you complete tests and if they continue the hiring process, you are invited in for an interview. But don’t get excited just yet – the interview also takes place in several rounds.
How many of your applications received a positive response?
Not that many. I remember that when I was still an undergrad, students had to be taught to write a cover letter. You have to write in English and write the way people from HR think; you have to describe what they expect to get from you. But when you start your master’s and are writing these letters in September, you’re forced to set aside time just for this – for desperately trying to understand the thought processes of local HR staff.
Is it just me, or do financial institutions often abuse the position of new graduates? After all, there is always the temptation to suppress their undisclosed egos with a tiny salary or with the ‘grunt work.’
You have to understand where you are going to work. You will still have to make it through the thorns, but this isn’t done intentionally; that’s just the nature of the industry. If you go work at a commercial bank, this is a ‘store,’ but if you go work for an investment bank, you have a 16-hour workday, which is normal. The workload lessens as your career grows, but if you are stagnant, then that’s your issue alone. It’s difficult, and if you didn’t survive investments at the beginning, this business is not for you at all. This is oftentimes news for investment rockstars and those with an honours diploma.
An employee at an investment bank might have to be as healthy as an astronaut…
That’s true, really. But psychological preparation is important, even critical, for someone just starting out. Working at an investment bank is for those who have iron nerves and indestructible faith in themselves.
What are the key factors during stressful situations? And by the way, why the 16-hour workday?
There’s just a lot of work. When you arrive, you have to be prepared to encounter the most difficult things (for a beginner). You have to do a lot of things that school doesn’t teach you. The first three years, you’re trying to understand whether what you’re doing is necessary, and you paint your own picture, which takes a long time even for the brightest and quickest. You immerse yourself in the logic of different products – why does this work this way but not that, for example – and that is why you have to work weekends as well. You’re really lucky to get even one day off a week. This is the day-to-day for the first five years. If you don’t crack, it means you were meant to work at an investment bank.
Every large bank has to have its own rehabilitation centre.
Then banks would turn into hospices. Banks take a different approach – no one holds you if you fail, you just leave. I work quickly, and at first there was a lot of new information that I had to understand. I managed to do this, but it’s all very individual.
How many years do you have to work at that pace in order to start relaxing or at least dream of relaxing?
After 10 years, when you are at the director level, the workload decreases. This is the standard career ladder timeframe for a large investment bank.
You mentioned you learn different things at work – was a double-degree programme really not enough?
Those are different things. Academic knowledge is important for your overall development. They gave you the foundation, but work gives you the tools.
What roles and competencies did you have to go through during your career trajectory?
For around three and a half years you are an analyst, then you’re an associate, and after three years a vice president, then director. But in order to jump from vice president to director you have to be successful. If you have poor work, they fire you. If you are an average or above-average employee, you grow and demonstrate your metrics. You become a director and can be a director for as long as you want.
How is your success evaluated? By number of projects executed?
It depends on your level. During the first stages (6-8 years), everything depends on your colleagues’ and managers’ reviews on your performance. Then everything depends on how much money you bring the bank.
Have you had unsuccessful projects?
Have you only had positive experiences as a result of your mistakes?
You are constantly learning. You gain something new from every deal. Then you are able to avoid past mistakes, but each time you still encounter something new and unique. You can’t build a cushion of success around yourself forever. Success is partly about making mistakes.
How did people survive and what do they survive on within the company?
The banking business is a dog-eat-dog world with highly motivated and highly paid workers. Money is the simplest motivator. Another motivator is doing what you love, and this is even stronger. You can hold talks with the heads of the largest companies, and this is interesting, but you have to get to a very high level for this. This is also a motivator. You have to have a certain set of characteristics to work at an investment bank: the technical ability to execute tasks, an extraordinary tolerance for stress, and great skills at communicating with clients with the goal of winning. If you have these characteristics, then you’ll grow. For example, in America they hire large teams of analysts. They work for two years and then 90% of them go on to get an MBA and work in corporate finance. But some sharks remain.
As for one’s resume, is working abroad a great achievement?
You can take that line on your resume and go find other good jobs and jump to an even higher position. Starting out at an investment bank in no way means that you’ll work there your entire life.
Can you talk about your current position?
I’m the head of the debt capital markets for Russia and Ukraine. Our division organises long-term financing by issuing Eurobonds (bonds sold to international investors). My team is number one in the region, and by a large margin. We closed nearly 30 deals in Russia this year.
We are part of a larger team that covers Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. This larger group consists of people from all over the world. It’s a lot of work because teams at investment banks are relatively small – 3-5 people per individual division. Creating large teams and lessening the workload doesn’t really work. The chain will be too long, and it’s difficult and time-consuming to find professionals in this field. If a company’s leadership has gotten used to talking to one person, then they are going to talk to this person and you can’t tell them, ‘he’s busy, talk to someone else.’ It’s the wrong pace of work. Since I became the head of my team, by the way, we’ve had two people join from ICEF, and I’ve hired six or seven ICEF graduates over the course of my career.
How did it go adapting to a foreign culture?
The culture at investment banks is international. Our team doesn’t have a single person from England. I’ve lived in London for 13 years already and have gotten used to it. By the way, I spent my first year working for an audit firm, which was made up almost entirely of English people and had a completely different atmosphere. I felt less comfortable. There’s more understanding among different cultures. It seems like a certain secret, but mutually understandable, non-verbal language works itself out automatically.
Are there a lot of HSE alumni in London? Do you keep in touch with them?
ICEF has alumni meetings there once a year. At first I was an active participant, but after a few years I realised that I didn’t know anyone anymore. My wife went to ICEF, and I can say that for me it’s a community that has similar ideas and takes similar approaches to work. It’s nice.
When you finally got free time, what sort of hobbies did you take up? It appears that you like boxing?
Correct, but mostly kickboxing. I go to Thailand for this. I also ride motorcycles, but we have a small baby now, so I don’t have free time for this. Life in London is more comfortable than in Moscow. You live in the centre of the city and you can have your own garden where you can go and meditate or spend amazing weekends with the family after a busy workweek.
What is everyday life like in London?
In my opinion, London is more expensive than Moscow (and you pay more taxes), but on the other hand you can go to a cheap restaurant and the food there is just as good as in an expensive one. London’s not as cold, and you can go sit in a park. You spend less money but have just as good a time. There’s something here for everyone, which is why everyone loves London.
Did you know what you wanted at the start of your career (or even school)?
I liked finance. But few people make plans for the future while they’re still a student, at least in the sense of a mobile paradigm for the future. A student gets a sense of the right path only through trial and error, however. At the time, I had a poor understanding of where to go next, and even after devoting myself to investment banking, I was still at a crossroads. Investment banking has a lot of different fields, such as trading, sales, research, derivatives, debt structuring, etc. And after diving headfirst into your first job or internship and working on three or four teams, you understand what you like and what you are best at. That’s why I consider internships to be the most important way of determining your growth vector. But that said, I would still admit that a large part of one’s professional career is luck. At least it was in my case.Sonya Spielberg, specially for HSE
Interview for HSE portal