Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Delicate Balance: Long Hours and Personal Lives

We hear about the long hours in finance--the weekends, the late nights, and the interrupted vacations. They are real. MBA students huddle among themselves to discuss how they will prepare for them. New corporate-finance associates or research analysts brace for the worst--based on epic horror stories about unending workweeks and exhausting days.

In such environment, how do you maintain stamina, perform well and balance work and personal life? Is it possible in many finance roles?

All depends. Traders lead hectic, compact, frenetic daily lives. They get to the office near dawn, and most are long gone by six. But in between, they seldom have time to breathe, get water, or daydream. They operate on the edge and let you know it. So much is at risk, and quick, firm decisions must be made.

The pace of a corporate-finance associate, venture capitalist, or research analyst is a marathon--the stuff of legends. There are deals to analyze and review, client pitchbooks to prepare, dozens of Excel spreadsheets to sensitize, countless scenarios to sensitize for, investments to dissect, and industry statistics to update and present.

There is the suddenly scheduled pitch to a new client to win a mandate. There are whimsical, demanding clients who want and expect an update on advice in acquiring another firm or divesting a business. There are demands from senior manager who expect new business, new clients, and revenue growth from quarter to quarter.

There is competition--the inclination or suspicion that another firm is working twice as hard to win the same deal. There is fear of loss--from a losing trade or investment, from a borrower who risks defaulting on a loan, or from a potential client that muddles over choosing between your firm and another.

There are Sunday afternoon conference calls, when friends hope to meet you for brunch. There is the out-of-the-blue "request" on a Friday night from a managing director to work on a new project and get it done by Monday morning. There is the Saturday-morning summons to the office for an emergency meeting to manage a client in difficulty. And there is pressure at 10 pm on a Tuesday night to learn everything possible on a new interest-rate option, analyze it and present it crisply before the next morning.

And there is technology, the advantages of which appear to be disadvantages occasionally. Technology keeps you further plugged to office demands: There is the laptop you haul everywhere to finish projects, presentations and financial models. There is the "Crackberry" you are expected to check every other minute for the latest e-mail demand.

Technology makes you accessible all the time and keeps you attentive to make it possible to finish the 30-page Excel spreadsheet, the 100-page pitchbook, the 150-page industry review, or the 25-page client-business update. Of course, there is the senior manager who hauntingly reminds you she wasn't blessed with such tools and prepared the same spreadsheets with a No. 2 pencil.

As a result, there is a paranoia over errors, mistakes, wrong conclusions, misinterpreted data or the possibility of misvaluing a trade, misunderstanding an investment, or losing the deal to a known competitor.

But all is not an ordeal. Many bask in this atmosphere, buoyed by an electric sense of urgency, the excitement of working on a headline deal, the satisfaction in helping a client rebalance a large portfolio, or the thrill in completing an important presentation.

MBA students from top schools, including Consortium students, should know this pace. They lead a similar life on campus. They understand pressure and mind-boggling schedules. They understand what they need to do to approach monumental tasks in a tight timeframe. What they will want to do is transition from a campus to a corporate pace, where objectives differ and tempers might be swirl or moods swing based on client or market activity or investment performance.

Many who have been at it for years can tell you, if you are fascinated by finance, you don't watch the clock. If you're attracted to the the thrill of the deal, the trade, the client, late-night research on something brand new, you enjoy being immersed in the the project at hand.

If you enjoy your current role and if your contributions are valued, you can tolerate long hours and interrupted vacations. In the heat of the moment and with a specific goal in mind, you find the adrenaline to keep going.

Therefore, if it's possible, find a finance niche or role that will keep your interests and adrenaline alive, where you will be motivated by new concepts, new ideas, successful deals, and meaningful accomplishments. That's not always easy to do. Figure out what motivates you--clients, deals, analysis, research, finance theory, investments? Push to find it. Fascination and interest can keep you going when it's Sunday morning or 10 pm Friday night.

But even so, you still need to find the right work-life balance. Otherwise, you risk physical burn-out. No matter how much you are fascinated, exhaustion and mental fatigue can set in. One senior manager once called it a banker's law of diminishing returns. After long, exhaustive, consecutive hours on a project, deal or analysis, at some point, productivity declines. All work done thereafter is effectively a negative contribution to the team's overall effort. He advises sending the banker home after "x" consecutive hours, because the banker's contributions after that point are harmful to the deal team, the client and the bank. Errors encroach, and there is a noticeable lack of creativity or freshness in ideas.

What can new MBA's and those in their early years do? How do you dare fine-tune work-life balance, when senior managers talk the talk (about work-life balance), but seldom walk the walk (talk it, but still summon you to the office Sunday morning for an all-day project after you had planned a weekend trip to the shore)? Expectations run high, and sometimes it's near impossible to tell a nervous manager while so much is at stake you need to take a break to revive the senses.

Manage this balance carefully, and take it seriously. Get into a habit of separating work and personal life and establishing a cut-off time each day to devote to personal objectives (family, friends, hobbies, etc.). Remember the above law of diminishing returns. Take advantage of having access to work from home.

Discuss the strains on this balance with managers, who too are trying to manage the same.

Become an expert at completing projects and accomplishing tasks efficiently. Develop good work habits to work rapidly. Be adept at prioritizing and managing time. Focus on the task at hand to avoid distractions. Exercise regularly to maintain stamina and be alert always. All this helps you carve time for a personal life and helps you work effectively (and, let's hope, leads to outstanding results).

Don't be a workplace hero; take time off and take vacations. They give you a chance to regain freshness, regroup, rethink and return with an eagerness to get back into the fire.

Most of all, throughout it all, step back from time to time and keep proper perspective about everything. The deal, the trade, the client, the job, the firm. Always.

Tracy Williams

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