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How to be a top tier Investment Banking Analyst

After working with multiple first-year Analysts and even more Interns, we have found that everyone has the same problems when starting out. No matter how good your attention to detail or people skills are, everyone gets onto the same learning curve. Everyone is going through the same challenges and struggles. Some get it quicker. Some take longer. Others never get it and get burned.

When you hit the desk as a full-time Analyst or summer Intern, you are excited and nervous. It’s happening. This is your real Investment Banking gig. You’ll be competing with a bunch of other smart overachievers for the hottest deals, promotions or a full-time offer. Keep in mind, everyone who lands an Investment Banking Analyst gig is generally intense. They worked hard, got the grades and properly prepared for their interviews.

Your perception of performance as both Intern and Analyst will be driven by punctual and error-free work as well as not complaining. This is what separates the top-tier performers from the bottom-tier performers. You don’t want a happy-go-lucky Analyst who constantly messes up his numbers. On the other hand, you also don’t want an autist Analyst who is grumpy all the time and has zero peoples skills.

The first impression matters. Take your first few months dead serious because they will set your perception for your Analyst or Intern stint. On the street, perception IS reality. Avoid the big mistakes and bottom bucket when starting out. Then, you can gradually position yourself as a strong performer. Here are six items that will help you achieve just that:

  1. Keep a good attitude, always be happy to help and NEVER complain

  2. Only submit error-free work (attention to detail)

  3. Take notes

  4. Learn Excel and PowerPoint shortcuts

  5. Learn how to ask questions

  6. Take ownership of your work

1. Keep a good attitude, always be happy to help and NEVER complain

We hate to break to you, but you will be a burden for the first three months. As an intern, you will be fumbling. You will have formatting errors and typos in your work. The stuff you learn at business school does not matter once you step onto an Investment Banking floor. You have to learn how the company operates. The same applies to new full-time Analysts. Who do you think is going to work on the next hot deal? A green first-year Analyst or a seasoned second/third-year Analyst who has a proven track record? With that said, it’s smarter to veer on the more humble and low-key side. This gives you some room for errors. That way, you can slowly prove yourself and gradually progress to more interesting tasks vs. being stuck with mundane grunt work.

Don’t act like something is beneath you. Everyone is doing grunt work. The interns are printing and binding pitch books. Your Analyst is busy with the third markup. Your Associate is busy checking his Analyst’s work. Everyone is doing some sort of grunt work. So don’t act like an entitled jerk. If we give you a financial model and force you to build it under time pressure, you will mess it up anyway. So, support the team by saving time and taking care of the little menial and tedious things. That’s how you earn their trust. And yes, that includes not messing up late-night food orders. We all started there – even the trust fund babies.

Admit your mistakes. If somebody points out an error or typo, admit it and fix it. Say it! Yes, that was a mistake. Acknowledge it, admit it and move on. Don’t over apologize. Don’t start to argue with your Analyst or Associate. If you don’t know something, say you don’t know it. BUT, you know how to figure it out and are more than happy to do so! This creates transparency. We will get a good feeling of what you are capable of. We will trust you more because we know that you will admit your shortcomings. A person who tries to cover up their mistakes will be immediately dismissed as untrustworthy and out the door sooner or later.

Don’t argue with your Analyst or Associate. We know, it’s tempting. You hit the floor and are ready to apply all the knowledge and academic methods you’ve learned in business school. You want to show your team what you’ve learned in accounting and valuation class. Don’t. What you get taught is the bush league. No matter how fancy and realistic that case study is, it will never resemble a real deal where real money is at stake. So, please don’t argue with your Analyst or Associate if you disagree on how to proceed. If you have concerns, you flag them. You bring attention to the concern; say that you are “unsure” and let the Analyst or Associate decide. That’s how you add value.

Do not complain. Nobody wants to work with someone who is constantly complaining. Yes, Investment Banking is tough. But the more you complain, the harder you make it for your team. You will be known as the weak guy with minimal pain tolerance. Say that to a VP who has been on the street for half a decade. You will not get compassion or sympathy. Always keep a positive attitude. Always be happy to help. With time, you will learn to hold your emotions better and better. When you are bombarded with 20 requests in 5 minutes and must respond politically, must be happy and must be accurate with zero errors on three hours of sleep… That’s when you learn how to hold your emotions. Everyone gets unhappy now and then. But it is your job to hold your emotions better than your peers. So, always be happy to help and complain when nobody is listening.

2. Only submit error-free work (attention to detail)

Don’t just treat your first draft as a first ugly draft. Your first draft should be as final as possible, free of any careless errors. Any unclear items are as marked as “To Be Determined” or TBD. Your first draft that you submit to your Analyst or Associate should show the team what you can do. You will get comments anyway. But it is easier to edit a version that looks close to final than a first dirty draft with many careless errors. You won’t look like a sloppy idiot. Now, this is easier said than done. So, how do you get there?

You triple check your work. Print your work and go over it again and again. Check your work multiple times. Always print your work. That way, you can spot careless errors easier. Thoroughly consume your piece of work because your Associate will do exactly that. Pick your own work apart. Your Associate will pick your work apart to save his job because “the intern messed up” is NOT a good excuse. Why is this so important? Well, perception is reality. You want to set the tone early that you are intense and a strong performer who does not make careless errors. Any errors are due to miscommunication.

You have to check your work multiple times; simply skimming is not good enough. Check one time for each type of error. First, you check for formatting errors. Then, you check for typos. Then, you check whether the numbers make sense. Every time you have reviewed an item on your slide, pick a green highlighter and cross that section out. That’s how you keep track of your progress without going crazy. Here is a list of items you need to check:

  • Get your formatting right. Learn the formatting conventions of your firm. Ask for old presentations that were sent to clients and do everything exactly like that. Do not try to invent some new fancy UI. Be consistent with font sizes, font types, page titles and color schemes to a tee

  • Get your typos right. Check your spelling. Press F7. Use tools like Grammarly to check your writing with AI. Get all the typos out. No typos or grammar errors. But more importantly, make sure company names and C-level executives are all written correctly to a tee. Always copy/paste names. Never type names. Make sure the correct document with the correct company name gets sent to the correct person with the correct email. If you mess up this part, you will lose your job

  • Get your numbers right. Does this chart make sense? Does the flow of numbers make sense? Are all your cells linked properly? Can you point to the sources? Are the currencies correct? EURm vs. EURk? Make sure your numbers are 100% correct. One error and you look like a fool. It’s your job to get numbers rights and synthesize them correctly. Imagine advising your client on a multi-million dollar deal and you multiplied LTM EBITDA with the wrong multiple. This completely messes up the valuation and you just lost your entire credibility as trusted adviser. So, check your numbers and make sure they are correct

  • Get your markups right. Never miss any comments handed down to you. When you are given a markup of a presentation, use a highlighter to cross out the comments you processed. If some markups are unclear, flag them and ask them all in one go. Don’t just ignore them. You will look bad because your Associate assumes you have missed it. There is a reason for that change. So, make sure all changes that are handed down to you are processed

If this is all too much for in the beginning, don’t worry. Print your work and pick a highlighter. Check your own work multiple times as if you were a VP checking the work of a junior. Would you send that piece of work to your new client? Start with one small section or even one sentence. Check that section thoroughly. Is it correct? Does it make sense? If yes, cross it out and move to the next section. By crossing things out, you keep track of your review progress. That’s how you prevent re-checking sections of your work after you’ve taken a break.

3. Take notes

You have to accumulate knowledge about the company, your Senior Bankers’ preferences and your most common errors. Nobody is going to hold your hand, be patient and train you until you master the craft. You have to teach it to yourself if you wish to survive in the jungle. You do so by accumulating knowledge by taking notes.

Have one master World file where you drop all your notes. This secret separates the fast learners from the slackers: The fast learners collect and retain more. You have one master Word file on your desktop, your Google Docs, Evernote or Asana. This is your journal. This is your holy bible. This is the place you come back to. You take note of every mistake you’ve made with every person. Write down everything new you've been learning: where to find useful templates or database logins. Write down everything, so you remember what’ve you learned so that you don’t make the same mistake again. Write it down in one place, so everything is consolidated in one place.

Pick up on cues from your immediate and informal feedback. Your immediate and informal feedback are short comments or markups your receive. This is your daily operations. You submit something and you get immediate feedback. Those are cues you have to pick up on if you wish to stay in business. Never make the same mistake twice. If it’s a new mistake, it’s okay because you are learning. Write down everything you notice. After a week or two you see your most common errors. Before you submit your next item to that very person, you make sure you NEVER repeat the same mistake.

4. Learn Excel and PowerPoint shortcuts

Why bother, you might ask? I can do everything with a mouse. Yeah, you will be made fun of on the floor. Every Analyst and Associate uses keyboard shortcuts – that’s industry standard. Keyboard shortcuts, especially Excel shortcuts, significantly speed up your workflow. In real life, it’s the difference between going home at 23:00 or 24:00 vs. debugging your Excel file until 3:00 AM with your mouse.

In the short term, it means you can go home earlier because you work more efficiently. In the long run, this skill set will stick with you forever. You learn it, you get it done, get it done right and move on. Your job is, after all, to turn Excel spreadsheets around with new data and make them look shiny and polished with zero errors – every single time. The ability to quickly manipulate and edit your spreadsheet will be extremely helpful for you to the point where you should focus on practicing your shortcuts vs. learning super “advanced financial modeling”.

Use Alt + E + S for paste special. Use Shift and Ctrl when navigating the spreadsheet. Use F4 to fix formulas or repeat the last action. Shift/Control + Space and Ctrl + +/- to add/remove lines or columns. Shift/Ctrl + Space and Shift + Alt + Left/Right to group/ungroup rows or columns. Train your hands to use Home, End and Ctrl + Shift when typing and selecting text. Ctrl + Backspace/Delete to delete entire words vs. just single letters. This lets you manipulate text a lot quicker. Use Alt + Tab to switch between windows. Finally, practice navigating the internet without a mouse: Alt + D to jump to the address bar, Ctrl + T for a new tab, Ctrl Page Up/Down to switch tabs, Ctrl + R to refresh, Space and Shift + Space to scroll up or down.

This may sound daunting, but it just takes practice. You pick a few shortcuts and try to incorporate them into your routine. Then you move on to the next shortcut. Have a master Excel file where you drop down shortcuts you have mastered or are still trying to learn. That’s how you progress. This is how you consistently increase your efficiency.

5. Learn how to ask questions

This is a very common mistake we see in Junior Bankers. They don’t know whether they should or when they should ask questions. Often, they don’t know how to ask questions and relate that information to progress with their tasks. You end up either not asking any questions and pretending you have understood it or you end up frantically asking too many questions because you don’t know what to ask for. Both of these approaches are wrong.

Ask questions to progress. You are eager to show what you are capable of. You can figure it out by yourself. Then you get stuck and instead of switching your mindset to “what information do I need to progress,” you try to brute force it while staying quiet. Then the hours pass and at the end of the day, your output is meager and you are labeled as the “slow” guy. If you can’t progress anymore, ask yourself what question or information do I need to continue working? If you don't know it, ask. Don’t make any assumptions.

Don’t ask questions too frequently. Once you discover that you actually have a team that supports you and don’t have to figure everything out yourself, you think you can just walk up to your Associate and ask them anything. Yes, it’s their job to mentor you. But don’t ask your questions one at a time when they pop up in your head. You are ripping your Associate out of his workflow every time. God forbid you are asking questions that can be answered with a simple Google search. You will be labeled as the annoying one.

Ask questions in batches. This is how you should do it. First, you try to research for 15 minutes. Consider Google or any company database or documentation. This is how you prevent asking stupid questions – questions you can quickly answer yourself. If you can’t find the answer, drop it own on your notepad. Then, work on other items where you can progress without guidance. Once you hit the wall, drop all the questions on your question list. Now that you have 3-5 questions hit your Associate up and ask all your questions in one go. By doing so, you are perceived as a more autonomous worker who knows how to strategically ask questions to progress on your tasks.

Ask clarifying questions during briefings. If you are being briefed one-to-one with new tasks or information, make sure you 100% understand what you are being told. Don’t just smile and nod only to go back to your desk and figure things out all by yourself. That’s not the point. If you don’t 100% understand what you are being briefed or don’t understand what you are supposed to do, ask clarifying questions. Don’t just assume things.

6. Take ownership of your work

Take ownership of your work. Once you have a strong grip on all the points above, you can gradually take on more responsibility when the time is right. This is the home stretch once you have mastered all of the above. You are gradually becoming a more autonomous operator vs. needing to be told what to do on every single turn. This is how you gradually advance from Intern to Analyst to Associate. It’s the same principle, just with different task complexity.

If you touched it, you are responsible for it. If something is incorrect, you will be blamed. If you are at the bottom of the totem pole, you're going to be thrown under the bus quickly if things go wrong. “That’s how the template was” and “nobody told me how to do it” are all terrible excuses. It’s your job to make it work – no matter what. Therefore, if you are working on a pitchbook and your Associate randomly adds 2-3 extra slides… check them. No matter who creates the additional item, check them anyway because if it is incorrect, you will be blamed. If you don’t know how to fix it, flag it and bring attention to it.

Do things before you are being told to do them. Your job is to save your team time. You have to think 1-2 turns ahead of what you are doing right now at the moment. You have to anticipate the items that will be passed down to you before being told to. This is how you save your team time. This is how you become more of an autonomous operator. If you are working on a file and you notice that something needs to be done, do it. If you're working on a presentation and items are missing, fix it without being told to do so. Research the peer group ahead of time. Research your target company and understand the business model ahead of time. Don’t just wait until you are told to do so.

Assume more responsibility when the time is right. You always want to assume additional responsibility whenever possible. Notice that you have been doing this indirectly with all the points above. You are making sure your work is as final as possible without any careless errors. You are asking smart questions to progress. You are trying to anticipate and take care of minor changes when they come up without being told to. When the time is right, you will be given more responsibility. Suddenly, your Associate is tied up in more important tasks and you are left with drafting an entire presentation vs. just a few slides. This is how you gradually assume additional responsibility. Show that you are available, but don’t be too pushy about it. If your Associate is super engaged in a project, just wait until the time is right. You want to support your team, not compete with them.

7. Where does it leave us?

There is a lot of stuff happening behind the scenes. It takes a lot of work to get your work quality to the point. This is what separates the mediocre Analyst from the stellar Analysts. As they say, perception is reality. The first impression matters. Here is how to slowly progress from beginner to more advanced:

  • Bottom tier: Have a good attitude, don’t complain and don’t argue. Next, have good attention to detail and consistently submit error-free work – no careless errors. Check your work multiple times. Take diligent notes and never make the same mistake twice. Slowly incorporate more keyboard shortcuts and become more efficient. These are the basics. This will push you into the top half

  • Middle tier: Strong communication skills and asking smart questions to progress will put you up the next quartile. This is the next step. You consistently submit error-free work on easier items but still struggle with larger items. This is where you need to communicate more and work with the team to progress

  • Top tier: Taking ownership of your items will push you into the top bucket. This is the culmination of the two preceding tiers. You have been working on your efficiency and attention to detail. You ask smart questions to keep on progressing and are slowly becoming more autonomous. Then, an opportunity comes along for you to assume more responsibility to help the team. This is how things usually build up. However, if you mess up the bottom or middle tier, you will not be given more responsibility

Additional resources

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