The future of investment banking talent – by Ken Moelis

Future of investment Banking

Banking Investment / June 10, 2020

The investment banking industry is seeing the largest flight of talent in its history. Somehow throughout all of the industry transformation over the last three decades, the pitch to new recruits about what a career in investment banking can offer has remained completely stagnant.

Yet today's investment banks are completely unrecognisable from their former selves. In 30 years - through boom, bust, consolidation and crisis - the industry has gone from a small collection of club-like firms led by highly motivated, charismatic, creative individuals to a group of financial conglomerates that "specialise" in everything from checking accounts to derivatives trading.

But as present day industry veterans describe the role of an analyst or associate as it was for them in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it's no wonder that the expectations simply don't meet the reality of what many banking jobs have become. And, until we promote an environment and a model that meets those expectations - or we change the expectations - top talent will continue to head for the exits. What are those expectations? What are millennials looking for in a career and can they find it in banking?

Millennials continue to be attracted to innovative companies, disruptive startups and places they can see the impact of their work. More so than compensation and a structured career track, they seek flexibility and customisation. In the US, that has led top talent to Silicon Valley - where innovation and experimentation are celebrated. In Silicon Valley, even failed innovation is often a stepping stone to successful innovation. In the current Wall Street environment, failed innovation is often a stepping stone to investigation. Innovation on Wall Street has been stymied by a number of factors since the 1980s. The wave of financial institution consolidation in the late 1990s and early 2000s created the large bureaucratic banks we still have today. Innovation was quickly decried as the chief culprit of the financial crisis and as a result few new ideas manage to rise to the top. Innovation has become synonymous with risk.

In a highly regulated environment, where being a banker requires you to "cross-sell" your client every product the bank provides, we still have 25-year industry veterans describing investment banking jobs as they were when they first started. That disconnect has disillusioned many young recruits who walked through the doors of a large investment bank expecting excitement and impact only to find regulation, commoditisation, tedium, and bureaucracy.

This disconnect first became prevalent in the early 2000s and we got a glimpse of the future during the dotcom boom as some top talent took a leap of faith into the world of tech. The industry was spared from a larger exodus of talent by the burst of the dotcom bubble and was undoubtedly helped by the investment banking boom years leading up to 2008.

The last financial crisis exacerbated the disillusionment. Outsized compensation packages were dialled back, the perception of bankers turned negative and the promises of an exciting and bountiful career in banking couldn't be kept.

Couple the crisis with the explosion of social media, where information is fast flowing, and it's easy to see why new recruits have lost faith in the outdated recruitment, retention, and development programmes investment banks have tried to implement. Social media exposes the good and the bad experiences quicker than ever before and recruits are finding that the reality of the experience doesn't meet the expectations.

The fast-paced trading floors of yesteryear aren't found at the bulge brackets - today they are known as hedge funds. Top talent is flocking there because new and interesting ideas are given a platform to develop and materialise. Advisory professionals, tired of selling other capital markets and cash management products to their clients, have left large firms to focus exclusively on unique transaction experience and deal-making at independent banks, elite boutiques and private equity firms.

Instead of fixing the experience to combat the movement of talent, bulge brackets have forced new policies on millennials to try to cater for their needs. While in some cases they address millennials' want for work-life balance, many of these policies are seen as ineffective band-aids. Ultimately the experience remains unsupportive of innovation and fails to address the root of the issues.

It's time we break away from the conventional ways of recruiting, retaining and developing talent which have largely been unchanged since the 1980s. Through innovation and creativity we need to actually underwrite the exceptional experience we are promoting. As the regulatory burden continues to creep across all financial players, it has been the independent banks, entrepreneurial firms, and partnership-driven organisations that have so far provided a safe haven for high-performing recruits looking for impactful and engaging work.

If millennials want a chance to change the world, and in my experience investment banking can provide an amazing platform from which to do that, then the industry has to be courageous enough to give them the opportunity.