My Advice to Those Starting a Career in Banking

Joel Harlow
January 24, 2014 — 3,508 views  
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I have enjoyed a thirty year career in banking.  I have been glorified, vilified, promoted, demoted, fired, rehired, and  encountered just about every circumstance good and not so good that one can encounter.  I love the industry and cannot picture myself in any other profession.  I have encountered all types of people, some good, some not so good.  If you are considering a career in finance, I offer you some no holds barred advice as to how to succeed and how to look out for yourself.

Starting Out

I see many young people seeking that first job make the mistake of weighing several offers and going with the one with the highest beginning salary.  This may or may not be the right institution with which to start your career. Given that many people enter the workforce with a tremendous amount of educational debt, it is enticing.  But it can be the wrong choice.

In choosing your first job in finance, do some homework on the institution.  What is their employee retention rate?  Are they constantly having turnover?  These are sure signs of weak management, poor financial condition, or an indication the institution will not pay employees what the market demands.

 While there are exceptions, do not work for a financial institution that has any of these traits.  Some of the exceptions are when a financial institution is going through a change in management or trying to work out of a financial hardship.  In the right circumstances, this institution may be one which the opportunities for advancement are the greatest.  New management may be looking for new faces as they take the institution in a different direction.  There may be opportunities for quick promotions if management is changing.  But, generally, if you are just entering the industry, I would avoid these institutions.  You may be stepping into a situation that you do not have the experience to handle.  These circumstances are more appropriate when you have at least three to five years of experience under your belt.  Very few people right out of college can weigh the factors in this situation (even seasoned bankers have trouble with this).    

ALWAYS avoid smaller institutions about to be acquired.  Heads roll in acquisitions.  There are usually two groups in the acquired institution who get the axe; those with the most experience and highest salaries and those with the least experience.  If you are with the institution being acquired, you may be one of the first ones to go.  They rarely want to spend time training someone they did not hire, regardless of ability.  Conversely, taking a position with an acquiring institution is usually a pretty safe bet.

In interviewing, salary should not be talked about until the very end of the interview and should be brought up by the prospective employer.  Prospective employers are turned off when someone walks in and starts asking about salary.  In reality, this is not the most important thing to look for in the first job.  You want to look for a job where you can be exposed to all aspects of the industry and what the “potential” salary will be once you show them what you can do.

 I know a young woman fresh out of college and has been in an intern program with a solid bank for the last few months. Her salary is minimal.  However, they are providing her training in every aspect of the bank; the lending side, the operations side, the whole ball of wax. She stated she just did not see any future there.  My advice to her was the following:  “You are in the perfect position.  Be patient. The money will come.  They are not spending all of this time and money training you to throw you away.  Absorb everything you can.  Learn every aspect of banking.  In a short time, they will either pay you or you will have training and experience that you can sell to any bank, so it is a ‘no lose’ situation.

Job interviewers will often ask about your salary requirements.  The best answer is “I would like to receive what you would normally pay someone in my position.  What can I expect in the way of compensation and benefits?” This puts the ball back in their court and you can go from there.  Once, I interviewed a young man and asked his salary requirements and he replied “I want to be paid what I am worth to you.”  To which I replied “As of this moment, you are worth absolutely nothing to me and will not be for at least two years. You should be paying me to train you.  You have no experience and it will be a long time before you are profitable to this institution, at which time you may very well leave and go to work for my competitors for a $1000 per year increase in salary after I have trained you.”  He was taken aback.  I smiled and let him off the hook and said, “Look, we normally pay beginning employees in your position this amount.  If you work out, you have the potential to increase your salary exponentially and if you do not, you will at least have some experience.  We are not going to spend time training you just to lose you over a few thousand dollars in salary once you know what you are doing.”  We did hire the young man, he became one of the best (and higher paid) Loan Officers in our institution.

In summary, I would look for a solid institution that has not had (and does not anticipate) a change management, has a history of retaining its employees, and offers a very diverse training program.  The money will come to you quicker than you think and as long as the pay scale is not completely below what the current job market is paying, beginning pay would be a minor consideration to me.

Things to Know When You Have Landed That Job

Once you begin your employment with an institution, there are things you should be aware of and look for to know if this is going to be the institution that is suitable for long term or short term employment.  Here are some things to observe, do, and avoid.

  1. How content are the employees in the institution?  If the employees are happy in their work environment, you will know it in two or three weeks.  You will hear the complaining or the compliments about management.  Do not listen to just one person.  There may be one unhappy person and everyone else is perfectly content and enjoys coming to work.  But if there is constant harping on management by more than a few people, this is a sign that management is not doing its job.

  2. Beware of insecure management.  As in all industries, some banks have insecure members of management.  Some have very secure management that encourages innovation and likes to be challenged by new ideas.  I have seen many institutions in the industry and visited with many people working in these institutions where absolutely no one would assist a co-worker in any way. They felt that if someone else could do a task competently this would jeopardize their own employment.  When this occurs, either the person is insecure or the institution may be the type where they may very well be endangering their employment.  Either scenario is unacceptable.  A bank should not have an insecure person training others and a bank should not make employees feel insecure.  I have been lucky enough to not land at one of these institutions.

    I once hired a young man for a consumer loan officer position and told management the following in my recommendation:  “This young man is smarter and more educated than me and will do well here. The only thing I have that he does not is experience and technical knowledge and I can give him that quickly.  He will not stay in consumer lending.  He will advance up the ladder because of his intelligence, his analytical ability, and his people skills.”

    One member of management was surprised.  The member replied “Why would you hire him?  If you are not careful, you’ll be working for him instead of the other way around!”  To which I replied, “I don’t hire incapable people. They cannot help this institution.  I hire people who offset my weaknesses because they will make the institution better. If he has the ability to surpass me and I wind up working for him, I will consider it an honor and feel like I hired the right person.” 

  3. Know when it is time to go.  As in any industry, banks are acquired, merged and change management all the time.  In mergers and acquisitions, duplications occur in which there are two people in the same position.  You will know shortly whether or not you are the one that they want in that position.  If you are in the institution that is the weaker of the two merging, and management of the stronger institution will be taking over the management functions,  you can pretty much be assured that you will not be chosen for the position regardless of your ability.   There are exceptions and your gut will usually guide you, but this is pretty much the way it is.  Management wants to work with people they know.  Ability usually has little to do with it.  Not pretty to say, but sometimes the truth is ugly.

    One of three things usually happen to you when mergers and acquisitions cause duplications and you are at the weaker institution; you will either be put in a position for which you are overqualified, your employment will be outright terminated, or you will leave of your own volition.  After thirty years of banking, I know the warning signs well.  I have been through mergers. Another person and I had the same titles and positions, he with the stronger bank, whose management would be running the merged institution and I at the weaker bank.   The first sign of things to come was a “change in title” without any warning.  The second sign was that I was no longer part of most management meetings and was not being asked to play a significant role in management or decision making.  I did not wait for a third sign.  I secured a job with another institution and resigned from the merged bank.

    When I resigned, I met with the CEO and said the following:  “You know, you have a good guy in my position already.  There is not room for both of us.  It is not good for the institution or me.   I am in a position my skills do not fit and I do not enjoy.  I think it is best for both of us to admit this is not going to work.  I have accepted employment with another bank, I will give you two week’s notice if you want it, if not, I understand and there will be no hard feelings.”   He said he understood and accepted my resignation.  I thanked him for the opportunity of being able to work at the institution, appreciated all that he had done for me (which he had done a lot).  He asked me to stay for two weeks and I was glad to do so.  We remain very  good friends to this day.  I have absolutely no animosity toward him.  He had to make a decision that he thought was best for the institution, and I respect that and did not envy his task of restructuring a team out of two institutions. If I needed a job, I believe I could go back to this institution, probably not at the salary I had when I left, but if I needed a job, I would not hesitate to call him.

  4. Do not burn bridges.  If you leave an institution either of your own volition, you are merged out of a position, or simply terminated, leave on the best terms possible.  There is a time and place for anger and tears, but if at all possible part ways amicably no matter what the situation is.  This is hard to do, but nothing is accomplished by berating management.  You may need them sometime.

    If you are leaving of your own volition, it is best just to say, “I’ve taken a position that better suits my needs and abilities at this time.  I appreciate the opportunity to have worked for you but this is a move I must make.  Thank you.”  Once you have uttered those words, do not change your mind about leaving no matter what they offer.  You may be viewed as someone who is disloyal and will leave in the future and promotions and advancement are not likely to occur.   In this meeting, management does not want to hear how incompetent they are or any other criticism.  You are out the door anyway, so this type of talk accomplishes nothing and has the potential to do you damage.  Leave with class. You will never regret it.

    If you are being “merged out” or “terminated”, always keep your composure.  Accept the fact that management has made a decision, they are not going to change their mind, and even if they did, you do not want to be where you are not wanted.   Try to secure good references from the institution, try to get some termination benefits (which most employers will gladly supply both if they think it will help avoid a lawsuit), suck it up and go out the door.  I have terminated people.  I was once terminated.   I do not enjoy being on either side of the table.

    I did not take legal action when I was terminated.  I did not waste time and money on a  battle I knew I would not win (I work in Texas which is a “right to work” state, and an employee seldom wins an employment lawsuit, unless it is a blatant violation of employment law, which is almost impossible to prove). Most institutions are savvy enough that they have been talking to legal counsel for months before a termination action and they have their legal bases covered.   I had two children in college and had to find employment.  I found employment in three days with a good institution and better working conditions.  One of the key factors was support from a member of management of the institution that terminated me.  He actually visited with my new employer personally.  I doubt I would have gotten that if I had berated management when I was terminated.  I have no ill will toward them, although I would be lying if I said it did not sting a little.  But at the end of the day, they had to do what they thought was best for the institution, I respect that, and they remain friends today.

    If terminated, resist the temptation to “wait awhile and figure out what to do.”  This is tempting if you receive a termination package from your previous employer, but the quicker you can get in the workforce, the more employable you will be.  This is one time it is advisable not to be too picky.  Go to work somewhere, preferably in the banking industry.  If it isn’t the right place, you can always change later.  But the longer you are out of the work force, the harder it will be to find a job.

    A note on loyalty:  I am a baby boomer and I started working at a time when the work environment was very different.  Most people went to work for a company and stayed there until they retired.  Employees and employers were loyal.  The market has changed.  Your first responsibility is to yourself.  You owe it to yourself to work in an institution that you enjoy and can be paid what you are worth.   Loyalty is admirable, but in the current environment, it is a luxury that is ill-afforded.  There are no guarantees.  Always give your institution its money’s worth but if a better position comes along with a different institution, it is best to take it if you feel it is a better situation.  If you are fortunate enough to work at an institution which is loyal to you, you will know it.   They are few and far between.  Do not give your loyalty lightly.  Make sure it is deserved. The institution that currently employs me deserves my loyalty and they have it 100%, but this is very rare in today’s banking industry, or any industry for that matter.


This is what I have learned in thirty years of working in the banking industry.  It is just like any other industry, neither better nor worse.  Just watch your backside, be cognizant of the conditions you are working in, make the moves when necessary, and always be on your toes!

Joel Harlow