I’ve been in the corporate world of finance now for more than six years. I get everyone from kids straight out of college, to older guys and girls that have been out of the workforce for ages, to people looking for a career change asking about the finance industry.
I’ve found the real lessons I’ve gained from working in finance are far broader than just one industry. Finance has taught me life skills and how to deal with people. While the startup world was fun, the finance industry gave me some extra skills.
Here’s what I learned working in finance:
1. The grass is never greener.
Over the years, many of my colleagues have left finance to start their own thing or join some new age fintech that apparently has all the answers – that is, until they come up against credit risk or accidentally fund terrorism through their products and services. The grass is never greener.
“Every company, whether it’s a large bank or one you started yourself, is going to have challenges. It comes down to which flavors of challenges you like the most”
Maybe you have to be really innovative in your career but don’t mind lack of funding or small travel budgets.
Maybe you have to work with really smart people but don’t mind being in a low budget office. The people I’ve met in finance that are always chasing greener grass never seem to find it.
At some point, we can’t avoid challenges or people we don’t like – they exist in all companies whether we like it or not. Learning to deal with these facts is how I’ve stayed in finance for six years and not given up on my career.
2. There are mediocre people everywhere we go.
In finance, like any industry, there are mediocre people. Some of them are uneducated; some of them lack critical thinking; some of them have zero sales ability; some are afraid of customers; some of them love a good company paid breakfast for no good reason. We can’t avoid mediocre people.
“What I’ve learned through my years in finance is that it’s not that people are mediocre or dumb; it’s that everyone has different priorities”
Some people want to leave at 5:01 pm to be with their kids and that’s okay.
Just because we don’t prioritize our career and our KPIs, doesn’t mean any of us are dumb because of it. There are many levels of intelligence within a company and all are acceptable.
I’ve visited a few unique and prestigious businesses in Silicon Valley where everyone is a genius and these companies spend half their time arguing who the smartest person is in the room rather than getting down to business and solving a real problem in the world.
3. There are good leaders and bad ones.
Don’t get emotional about it, just spend as much time as you can with the good ones. There will be leaders you encounter who are trying it out and who’ve been given a chance. There will be other leaders you meet that are born for the role.
Everyone has the right to step up and be a leader regardless of their ability.
My career in finance has been focused on getting around the good leaders. Sometimes you’ll have to work for a bad leader and the key is to suck it up, eat shit for a while, and then leave and work for a leader you believe in.
4. Your career is never going to be full of highlights.
I was on the homepage of our company’s website twice in one year. Many never get this chance ever in their career and it happened to me twice in one year.
Then there was a year after that where nothing happened. There were no big milestones, no punching the air and plenty of low points involving customers.
In finance, and in the business world, it’s never going to be a back-to-back show-reel of Instagram highlights where we win every day.
There will be periods of massive growth and then there will be months and even years where nothing happens – times where we show up for work each day expecting something big to happen and it doesn’t.
5. The need for a side hustle.
Our career can’t always be full of highlights, which is why we need a side hustle. Think of it like another avenue that we can use to kick goals, grow and broaden your skills. For me, outside of working in finance, it became social media and blogging. Over the last five years of my finance career, I’ve hustled my face off learning somewhat non-related skills that have nothing to do with finance.
Side hustles allow us to explore our wild side. Working in finance can be quite dry and without my side hustle, I may have succumbed to suppressing my emotions, wearing a corporate mask and dressing in a suit and tie every day.
Side hustles helped me keep it real. Some days I work in jeans and a t-shirt. Other days I wear the cliché suit. My side hustle helped me live a little and get some perspective on what the finance industry was really about. The answer? Like every business, finance is about people.
6. Once we understand people, we’re set.
People go through a range of emotions every day. Once we understand that what’s happening in business could be entirely down to the fact they’re human, and nothing to do with business, we see the business landscape differently.
We become more compassionate to stakeholders, we treat customers with kindness and we quit thinking that we’re a freaking genius that has all the answers and if only people would listen to us the business would make 10X the profits.
Business is about people and by understanding them we can see it for what it is. Our customers are also people, and our interactions with them become easier when we come to grips with this fact.
If I were to get you to learn one thing, it would be the basics of psychology. Most of the key points can be Googled for free but the value they bring will help whether you’re in finance or any another industry.
7. We’re all constantly growing in secret.
I always thought that GM’s, CEO’s, etc, had it made. I always thought that they woke up each day and came to work with a killer instinct. The finance industry taught me I was wrong. The leaders we admire with those big job titles are just like you and me: they’re scared as F.
The difference is that the leaders we admire are growing in secret.
You think they have it made but when you get in their head, you realize that even with their success they suffer the same human pitfalls that you and I do. The difference is they embrace those pitfalls and take action regardless.
Even your heroes are fearful when they have to perform, but they do it anyway.
8. Your happiness doesn’t stay the same.
At the start of a new role in any industry, we’re loaded with energy. We come to work with new strategies and different ways to acquire customers. Then a few years go by and we become a bit negative. We see the same challenges over and over and the same people failing to take action.
This can lead to unhappiness in our career.
What working in finance has taught me is that there will be times we’re really happy with our role and other times where we are unhappy.
What we learn in the unhappy times helps us when we’re living through the happy times. If you expect to get into any industry and be blazing on fire for decades straight you’ll be sadly disappointed. One solution I’ve found is to change up my career and try new things.
Maybe you start in a sales role and end up working in product or risk. Maybe you work in customer service and end up in a strategy role.
Much of the unhappiness is tied to boredom and changing roles can help reboot our happiness at work.
9. Innovation is much harder than we think.
Geez, if there’s is one thing I have seen a lot of in many financial services businesses it’s innovation. So many companies have tried it and it never works. Sometimes it’s too much red tape that is put around the business or idea which ultimately suffocates the life out of any opportunity to innovate.
Other times it’s the wrong people that kill the innovation.
“Surprisingly, one thing that makes innovation really challenging is an abundance of resources”
Large businesses can afford to throw lots of money against the wall at innovation whereas startups can’t.
The limitations and budget restraints a startup has are often why they can be nimble and innovative. In the end, true innovation is damn hard. If it were easy, then many businesses would be more successful than they are.
The key is not to give up on innovation. It’s a slow process to embed innovation into the culture of a business and get results. True innovation requires a lot more failure than the leaders in the business world are often comfortable with.
It’s only by looking at what doesn’t work that we find truly innovative solutions.
10. It’s not about networking: it’s about helping.
Someone emailed me yesterday and said, “Hey I’d like to network with you.”
I thought to myself “Wow that sounds really silly!”
This idea that we have to network is stupid. What makes more sense is to build relationships just like we would with friends. Networking is focused too much on what we can get and what we will give in return. It’s transactional and it feels unnatural.
The subtle difference is that when we build a relationship with someone (instead of network with them) we’re not seeking anything from them. There’s no expectation and that’s where the magic lies right there.
11. We all experience bad publicity. It’s how we handle it.
Even monster success stories like Facebook have bad publicity. Working in finance can have some ugly moments. Not everyone is honest and there will be times where the business you work for or even your own business may face negative publicity.
No company or industry (including finance) is perfect. Businesses make mistakes just like humans do because ‘Business’ is just a label for a group of humans doing their life’s work.
Expecting the company you work for to be a perfect corporate citizen is a fantasy.
12. Listening to customers is not easy but it works.
Working in finance has allowed me to see my fair share of angry customers. For years, I tried to defend my position and this caused me to miss what the customer was saying.
After a while in finance, I learned that if you shut up and listen to the client, you learn much more. Sometimes they might yell at you for 30-minutes flat. Sit there and listen.
By listening, you get the chance to understand the problem fully and it gets your mind ticking with ideas. When people feel they are being properly listened to, they’re more receptive to the solutions you present for their problems.
It’s freaking revolutionary when you listen more. Not just in business but in life too.
13. What you have for lunch matters.
I was eating chicken nuggets in a bread roll for ages and it caused me to be sleepy in the afternoon. This killed my productivity and my desire to work effectively so I would cram all my challenging tasks into the morning.
Once I learned what a proper lunch was and began eating one every day, my energy, mood and productivity improved. I’m still getting better but what I learned is to monitor carefully what I eat if I want the energy to excel in my career. Bread, at lunchtime in particular, tends to suck away my energy later in the afternoon.
14. Kindness and compassion are superpowers.
Your humility separates you from the pack. Trying my best in my finance career to show compassion and be kind to people has helped me immensely. These two traits are rarer than you think.
In the business world, kindness and compassion are the glue that sticks all of the right opportunities together for you and presents them as a beautiful collage.
The reason I’ve had some cool opportunities (particularly of late) is that I’ve tried to be different instead of being like everyone else. I’ve questioned the way business works and experimented with kindness and compassion.
It turns out these two traits make people see me in a weird way. It’s almost like these two traits make me more human.
Kindness and compassion are about seeing the best in people before making assumptions that they’re out to screw you. Kindness and compassion are about believing in the power of the human species above all else.
15. Taking off the mask is freeing.
For the first half of my career in finance, I wore a mask. It’s hard to admit but it’s true. I used corporate language like “revenue targets” and “customer value proposition” and took a notepad to meetings to look smart. I wore the nicely ironed suit with the cute little cufflinks.
I said hello politely to everyone and was graceful. When it came to social media, I promoted the company and supported my colleagues. I told people I liked what they did even when I didn’t.
I did all of this because I thought that being fake and wearing a mask of bravery and perfection was what you had to do to succeed. I thought that’s how business land worked.
I found that all of this acting became exhausting and it was incongruent with who I really was. Deep down, I was an entrepreneur and a highly creative person that wanted to express himself.
After a string of bizarre situations – like narrowly missing cancer and seeing a few people close to me like my grandma pass away – I decided to throw away the mask.
I started dropping the odd F-Bomb. I told people politely when I didn’t like their idea. I became brutally honest with clients and stopped telling them what they wanted to hear.
All of this led to the real version of me being on display. Some people liked it and others weren’t interested.
“Either way, you can’t keep faking it till you make it at work every day because eventually, you’ll fall down from all the BS and wonder whose life you’ve been living for the last six years”
16. Scheduling holidays in advance provides additional motivation.
Let’s not pretend we’re 100% motivated each week at work. Some weeks will suck and that’s normal. Booking holidays in advance gives me a permanent memory of yet another thing that’s great about life: taking breaks.
The first half of my finance career involved almost no holidays. Not only did I become burnt out, but I also didn’t have as much to look forward to. Then I began booking in holidays to New Zealand, the USA and Japan. My motivation changed. I’d work harder leading up to holiday time so that I could take an even bigger break away from it all.
Holidays became like a reset button for my finance career and they gave me something else to aim for other than boring old KPIs.
17. Working really long hours means there’s a problem.
There have been a lot of times I’ve encountered people in finance working their butt off. I used to think it’s cool; now I see it as a problem.
If you’re working long hours, there is a problem. You’re either unproductive, distracted or under-resourced. All of these issues can be resolved and working stupidly hard is not the answer.
“Productivity is the opposite of working long hours”
18. You’ll have to speak in front of others.
That’s why I tell everybody to get their arse to Toastmasters and learn how to speak without having a thousand Ums and Ahs between every word. Public speaking is a basic form of communication and mastering it is how you get across your ideas, visions and tell phenomenal stories.
No matter your speaking ability in front of others, it’s time to improve it.
19. Most people have no idea about business so don’t feel so bad.
Yep, that’s the truth! All these people you meet in business that sound like they know what they’re talking about often don’t. They are just regurgitating something they heard or read which they thought was right.
We all pretend like business is an art and so many times it’s not what it’s made out to be. The science of business has more to do with life skills than anything else. Most books about business try and overcomplicate something that isn’t that hard.
“The greatest challenge and complexity with business is understanding its simplicity”
20. Change is guaranteed. Why not embrace it?
And here’s the final thing I’ll say: whether you work in finance like me or in another industry, change is guaranteed. One of these will happen to you:
– Your industry will be disrupted if it hasn’t been already
– Your company will go through a restructure, merger or be acquired which may cause you to lose your job
– The business you are a part of could fail
– Or a natural disaster or manmade event like a GFC could screw with your career
Change is guaranteed in your career so rather than avoiding it, what I’ve learned in finance is to embrace it. See the fork in the road as the greatest gift you’ve ever been given.
Welcome change with open arms otherwise it will be the kiss of death to your perfect, cookie-cutter career in whatever.
If you want to increase your productivity and learn some more valuable life hacks, then join my private mailing list on timdenning.net
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