Saturday, June 23, 2007

When it’s my turn to ask my interviewer questions, what should I ask?

When it’s my turn to ask my interviewer questions, what should I ask?
Good question. This is a topic on which reasonable people can (and do) disagree.
Some insiders insist that you should always ask a question when offered
the opportunity, and that your question should prove to your interviewer how
much research you’ve done on the industry and the specific firm. We disagree
with both points, however well-intentioned the advice. If the sole purpose of
your question is to prove that you’ve checked out the firm’s website, read its
annual report, or read Investment Dealers’ Digest, chances are your interviewer can
tell a mile away. “I made that mistake,” says one insider, “I attended a dinner for
all of the candidates who had been invited to interview with a top-tier firm.
There was a moment of silence and I asked the recruiter across from me what
she thought of the recent article in The Economist about the banking industry. I
could actually tell by the expression on her face that she was breathing a deep
internal sigh of resignation. I wanted to crumple up in a ball under my chair. I’d
never do that again—even if I did read The Economist.”
As this insider learned the hard way, it’s probably best to err on the side of
caution with your questions. We advise that you stick to those questions that
you’d genuinely like answered, not to mention the questions that would be difficult
for you to answer without the benefit of insider insight. So if you really do
want to know why your interviewers chose to work at Firm XYZ, then ask
away. We didn’t speak to a single recruiter who dinged a candidate because their
questions weren’t insightful or penetrating enough. Of course, your questions
shouldn’t display blatant ignorance regarding the industry, the company, or the
specific position (i.e., don’t ask your M&A interviewer how long it will be
before you have your own accounts, or your Citigroup recruiter to explain the
Asking for Directions
firm’s commitment to remain a pure-play investment bank). You won’t win
points for playing it safe and asking your interviewer to describe the last project
he worked on, but you probably won’t lose any, either. If you’ve had a reasonably
good interview so far (and perhaps even more so if you haven’t), you may
not want to rock the boat with questions designed to demonstrate how very
clever you are.
However, if you’re determined to ask a highly nuanced question that you’ve
crafted from the bowels of the company’s annual report, you’d better keep a
few things in mind. First of all, botching the details is not an option; we were
surprised by the number of insiders who recalled (with some glee, we might
add, and no small degree of derision) candidates who got the name of the
CEO wrong when they asked a question designed to showcase their inquisitive
mind. It’s also not unheard of for a candidate to ask an interviewer about a
high-profile deal on which the recruiter’s bank was not hired as an advisor.
(Even if you’re sure the bank in question was involved, however, we wouldn’t
advise asking questions regarding a specific transaction. The chances that your
interviewer was involved directly in the deal—or even has a particularly welldeveloped
opinion on its significance—are slim, and your question won’t be
particularly enlightening for either you or the recruiter.)
Not only must you keep your facts straight if you decide to show off your
industry knowledge, but you’d better be ready to offer a credible reason for
your particular query. Perhaps to a greater extent than their counterparts in
other industries, bankers are notorious bluff-callers; if you are indeed bluffing,
the person on the other side of the desk will make you rue the day you even
looked at the annual report. And if it’s a question that’s so obscure they can’t
answer it, you’d really better hang onto your hat; you’ll most likely incur their
well-restrained, buttoned-up wrath, and they’ll derive a particular sense of
satisfaction from putting you back in your place.

If all of this advice has your head spinning, don’t worry! There are ways to jazz
up your standard-issue “What Questions Do You Have For Us?” queries. One
recruiter suggests that candidates reframe relatively broad questions by personalizing
them. For example, rather than asking your interviewer to describe the
firm’s culture, you may choose to put it this way: “I’ve talked to several analysts
representing a range of product and function areas, and a number of them
have mentioned that they’ve been surprised by how accessible the senior people
are at Bank XYZ. I wondered if this was consistent with what you’ve experienced,
and whether you feel that’s indicative of the culture throughout the
bank.” Provided that you actually have spoken to analysts (and don’t even think
about referring to fictitious conversations), this question allows you to establish
your sincere interest in the firm while remaining relatively safe.
Another insider tip: Pay attention when your interviewer introduces himself,
and make a mental note of the group he represents. When the spotlight turns
to you, give your question a group-specific slant. “You mentioned earlier that
you worked in the energy group. I know that group assignments play a big part
in determining analysts’ experience, and I wondered if you could describe the
ways in which the energy group maintains its own unique culture. I’d be interested
to know whether you’ve worked in other areas of the bank, and how your
experiences in other groups compare.” Again, this question isn’t so generic that
your interviewer’s eyes glaze over, but it doesn’t suggest that your primary
objective is proving your business acumen.
As with any other interviewer question, there are a few types of questions to
avoid like the plague, including the following:
Presumptuous questions. “I really want to spend my third year in the London
office. How can I improve my chances of getting my first-choice location?”
Well, let’s see: You could start by getting a job offer with this firm in the first place.
Interviewers typically dislike questions from candidates who prematurely
assume they’ll receive an offer, so be careful to avoid even the teensiest bit of
presumptuousness in your questions.
Questions with a tattle-tale tone. “I know that during the 1999–2000 recruiting
season, most banks on the Street significantly overestimated the number of
analysts and associates they’d need to hire, and then many of those same
people lost their jobs a year or two later. I’m curious whether your firm has
developed a better way of adjusting hiring activity to the market.” This is a
question that you may indeed want to ask, but use your better judgment. After
all, it’s a little early in the process to reveal your cynicism about the industry.
Questions that suggest you have underlying concerns about the job. “One of
the things I’ve heard over and over again is that the hours are really, really
brutal, and that it’s tough to take vacations or even long weekends. How many
weekends would you say you’ve had to work over the past year?” How many
times do we have to tell you that the job is demanding? Interviewers expect that
by the time you’ve gotten to this stage in the process, you know what you’re
getting into and that you’ve accepted it. If you’re still worried about evenings,
weekends, and vacations, you’re interviewing for the wrong job.
While you’re crafting questions to lob in your interviewer’s direction, keep one
last thing in mind: Most of your interviewers will be on a fairly tight timetable,
and they’ll be struggling to keep each interview to the 30- or 45-minute time
slot it’s been allotted. Learn to read your interviewer: If it’s clear that she is
trying desperately to wrap things up, don’t feel pressured to ask your questions
simply because you’ve prepared them. If you sense she’s trying to move things
along, a diplomatic response might be, “Thanks. I’m conscious of your time
restraints and know that the interview schedule is tight. Perhaps I could take
one of your cards and contact you later with any questions?” This way, you’ve
left it up to her—if she’s indeed at the end of her interview tether, she’ll take
you up on your offer. If she’s got plenty of time, she’ll invite you to ask away
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(and she’ll be impressed that you’ve respected her schedule—major
interpersonal aptitude points!).
If asked to name a group preference, should I provide a specific answer, or
should I say that I’m open to any industry or product group?
That depends. If a particular industry or product interests you, then by all means
mention this interest to your interviewer. As with any other interview question,
be prepared to provide solid reasons for your specific answer. If your unique
background is consistent with your choice (e.g., you completed a summer internship
at Procter & Gamble and cultivated a genuine interest in consumer products),
so much the better. However, you should refrain from expressing too narrow an
industry or product focus too early in the process or implying that your decision
to join a particular firm depends solely on whether it can accommodate your
stated interests. In early rounds, for example, it’s not appropriate to imply to
your interviewer that it’s either an offer in the firm’s health-care industry group
or no offer as far as you’re concerned. While firms often try to achieve a match
between candidates’ interest and their own staffing needs, several factors (almost
always beyond your interviewer’s control) determine where you’ll be placed.
If you’ve decided to indicate a group preference, make sure that the firm’s
organization allows for such a specialization; many firms have reshuffled their
industry and product groups significantly in the past few years, and it’s possible
that the group you have in mind has actually been lumped in with another one.
Not all firms have a consumer products or industrials group, for example, and
stating a keen interest in joining a group that does not exist may not advance
your candidacy. And even if you’re certain that your world would end if you
don’t land a spot in the mergers group, it’s probably best to say you’re openminded.
One possible answer to this question might be, “Well, as I mentioned earlier, I’m
a finance and accounting major, and so my academic interests and training have
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Asking for Directions
typically centered around the highly quantitative and strategic analysis driving
corporate finance. So far, I’ve gotten the sense that I might be a good fit in
either Mergers & Acquisitions or Leveraged Finance, but I’m flexible. Through
my conversations with current analysts, I’ve learned that a personality fit with a
given group makes a big difference in the analyst experience, so I’d be interested
to know your thoughts on which groups are likely to be a good match for me.”
As part of your preinterview research process, be sure to ask current bankers
whether analysts and associates are hired into particular groups, or whether
placement decisions are made once the training program begins. If you join a
firm that hires directly into groups, you may have little or no involvement in the
placement decision. On the other hand, firms that make placement decisions
once training begins allow you to meet with various groups before stating your
group preferences. Still others offer a rotation program in which incoming hires
work in multiple functions or products before a permanent placement occurs.
Each method offers its own advantages. If you’re hired directly into a product or
industry group, you may find yourself specializing earlier than you’d like.
Conversely, analysts who participate in a “matching” process once training
begins sometimes report a sense of competitiveness with classmates to snag
coveted spots in the most high-profile groups.
If you don’t have a decided placement preference, don’t feel pressured to name
a few groups or products for the sake of doing so. (In particular, don’t say
“M&A” unless you can offer a solid reason for it. It’s the default answer for
many candidates who just don’t know the names of any other functions or
products, or those captivated by the apparent glamour of Wall Street). While it’s
probably best to demonstrate that you’ve given the various functions and
products a thought (or—at the very least—that you know what they are), you
won’t lose points for being flexible in your response.
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Asking for Directions
Everyone says I’m expected to “do my homework.” What exactly does this
mean? How much will I be expected to know about each company with
which I interview?
First and foremost, “doing your homework” means that you genuinely understand
the role of an investment bank and can clearly articulate the distinct roles
of its various functions and that you have devoted some time to distinguishing
among the major players. It means you’ve considered all of this information
and shaped an idea of which firm you’d like to work for, and in which general
area. It means that you’ve developed reasonable job expectations, done some
good old-fashioned soul searching to decide whether or not the inherent
sacrifices are worth it to you, and determined the specific benefits you’d hope
to gain from the analyst or associate experience.
As we discussed earlier in this guide, the homework bar is higher at the MBA
level than it is at the undergraduate level. In general, interviewers are more
forgiving of analyst candidates for two primary reasons: First, no one expects a
22-year old interviewing for his first job to know for certain that his destiny lies
in investment banking. Second, investment banks typically hire analysts for a
2- to 3-year time horizon, after which they expect many will go on to business
school or other jobs. Nonetheless, firms will expect that both undergraduates
and MBA candidates alike can articulate solid reasons for pursuing a job in the
field, and they will expect to see evidence that you’ve invested some serious time
determining whether this career—and this firm in particular—is right for you.
Regardless of the specific position for which you are applying, “doing your
homework” has two primary components: understanding what distinguishes the
firm in its industry, and understanding what distinguishes the firm as a place to
work. The first of these relates to the firm’s position in the financial marketplace,
while the second has to do with its “employment brand”—the unique
way the firm positions itself to prospective employees.
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Our Seven-Step Homework Guide should help you to learn about both
distinctions:
1. Particularly if you’re an undergraduate with little prior exposure to investment
banking, make sure you understand what an investment bank
does and how the various functions of a securities firm fit together.
We’d recommend that you start with WetFeet’s Insider Guide to Careers in
Investment Banking. Mariam Naficy’s book The Fast Track: The Insider’s Guide to
Winning Jobs in Management Consulting, Investment Banking, and Securities Trading
also provides an excellent overview. As the name implies, this book is a
particularly good resource for those candidates comparing potential
opportunities in multiple areas.
2. Once you’ve determined which firms you’ll be interviewing with,
check out any firm-specific literature you can find. This includes the
WetFeet Insider Guides to investment banking firms (see the list at the end
of this book), which provide insights into the firms’ areas of relative
strength and insiders’ perceptions of the companies’ culture. In addition,
be sure to review any recruiting literature on file at your campus career
center. This information is likely to be fairly general, but it will provide a
useful overview of each firm’s organizational structure and respective
recruiting processes. Also, these materials will give you a general sense of
the “employment brand” that the firm is trying to convey—in other words,
you’ll get a sense of how the firm distinguishes itself from other firms in
the marketplace that compete for talent.
3. Check out the website of each firm with which you’ll be interviewing.
This does not mean that you’ll be expected to memorize and regurgitate
either the company’s financials or its business principles in the course of
the interview. However, if you’re interviewing with a public company, you
should probably at least take a gander at the firm’s annual report (generally
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162
available through the Investor Relations section of the firm’s website). In
addition to providing detailed information on the company’s financials,
the annual report highlights the key transactions in which the bank was
involved over the course of the previous year and summarizes the relative
performance of each of its major revenue-generating areas. Also, check out
the most recent press releases for any noteworthy developments that have
taken place since the last annual report went to press.
4. Refine your industry-specific knowledge and review the major
transactions in which each firm is involved. Trade journals such as
Institutional Investor, Investment Dealers’ Digest, and The Daily Deal provide a
wealth of timely industry-specific information. For example, Investment
Dealers’ Digest (www.interactiddmagazine.com) offers an excellent online
database for subscribers, which includes league table information, recent
deal flow activity, and information on the biggest transactions in various
areas (M&A advisory, high-technology, energy, etc.). Unfortunately, an
annual subscription to this little gem costs a hefty $995, but full-text
articles from the print publication are available through Factiva, a comprehensive
online news database; if your business school library offers Factiva
access (and it’s worth checking into), you may want to take a look. If not,
Investment Dealers’ Digest occasionally offers trial subscriptions at little to no
cost. In all likelihood, you won’t ever be asked about a particular bank’s
league table standings, but it doesn’t hurt to develop a sense of who does
what on the Street.
5. Keep abreast of current events—those relating to the financial
markets and otherwise. Even if you’re not ordinarily a faithful Wall Street
Journal reader or subscriber, it may behoove you to become one, at least
during the recruiting season. The publication’s online edition is particularly
user-friendly and is available to students at a significant discount (as is the
Asking for Directions
print version). The Financial Times (WSJ’s European equivalent) is another
excellent source of financial news and not surprisingly provides a more
pronounced international focus than the Wall Street Journal. At a minimum,
you should know the major developments and trends characterizing the
investment banking industry. In particular, the increasingly widespread
practice of “bundling” investment and commercial banking services and
the intense scrutiny over firms’ investment research franchises are two
trends you should feel comfortable discussing in an interview. Also, be sure
to have at least a general sense of movements in the major indices (investment
banking interviewers have been known to ask what the Dow closed
at the previous day) and the events that most directly affect the financial
markets.
6. Attend the on-campus information session. Trust us: The hour that
you spend at each firm’s on-campus meet-and-greet will be time well spent.
At the information session, the company will undoubtedly address the
topic of what sets it apart from its chief competitors—its competitors for
business and its competitors for talented people. Pay attention to what the
firm’s representatives stress as its key selling points: whether it’s the firm’s
untrammeled dominance of M&A activity, its unique rotation program for
incoming analysts or associates, or its unparalleled reputation as an employer
of choice. In addition, these information sessions provide an
opportunity for you to meet current analysts and associates and to hear
them answer the questions that you’ve been formulating throughout the
course of your research.
7. Take the time to speak with insiders! There’s really no substitute for
good old-fashioned informational networking (a process which should be
relatively easy for current MBA students, who have a considerable network
of b-school students, former analysts, summer associates, and alumni to
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consult). If you’re an undergrad with fewer industry contacts, check out
your career center’s alumni database for the names and contact details of
current firm employees (preferably within the division to which you’re
applying). At the very least, contact the individuals who represented their
firms at the on-campus information sessions (analysts and associates,
please—firms may send VPs and the occasional MD to information session,
but bankers at this level aren’t likely to return your call—remember
our discussion of the hierarchical structure earlier in the guide?). Not only
can these individuals generally answer your most pressing queries, they can
typically put you in touch with other people at the bank who can provide
you with a broader perspective on what it’s like to work there. Not only will
this help you learn about the specifics of each firm’s culture, but it will give
you some real-life insight into the life of an analyst or associate.
Make no mistake about it: Preparing for interviews is a time-intensive process.
If your schedule is already filled to capacity with academic and extracurricular
obligations, it’s particularly tempting to gloss over interview preparation in favor
of the more immediate demands on your time and attention. This is a dangerous
trap, and one that you should avoid at all costs. In this case, it’s better to
take a long-term view. As one recently hired insider advises, “Take a light
course load that semester if you can. The time you spend researching
companies and talking to insiders is time well spent, and definitely worth the
investment in the end.”

43 comments:

kinshuk said...

That is an important discussion as regards to what to ask and when to ask. Thanks for raising this vital issue.

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Julio said...

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Source: Bank interview questions

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