Finance and management consultancy: It's time to get personal

High-flying City jobs require a number of skills - and maths isn't the most important one, says Virginia Matthews
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The Independent Online

If there is one overriding message that recruiters in the fast-moving world of finance and management consultancy want to get across, it is that you don't need to be a maths wizard in order to carve out a career dealing with other people's money.

Whether you opt for accounting, corporate banking, derivatives, equities, hedge funds, mergers and acquisitions, retail or investment banking, or one of the specialist financial consultancy roles, a decent GCSE in maths will usually be enough proof of your basic number skills - just as long as you have got other attributes such as flair with people and a sharp, analytical brain.

While would-be management consultants also need a large measure of self-confidence to be effective - not surprising when part of their job is to tell their clients that they know the business and its needs better than the client does - an ability to engage with customers from different backgrounds is essential in just about all financial careers.

Deutsche Bank looks for a minimum 2.1 degree or 300 Ucas points, but only around one third of the bank's 100 graduate development positions each year tend to go to people with a finance-related degree.

While a good level of numeracy is expected of anyone looking to make finance their career, the bank says it is relationship management skills that are prioritised.

Although the opportunity to earn big bucks at one of the global financial players dotted in and around the Square Mile is of course a major attraction for many impoverished graduates, Deutsche believes that cash isn't the only reason why people opt for a job in international finance.

"It isn't just the money that attracts young people to banking, but the opportunity to work in a fast-paced environment with lots of other intelligent people," says Jane Houzer, Deutsche's global head of resourcing. "It's a global career and a meritocracy and the sector attracts some great minds."

It's worth noting that while senior positions in banking do command big bucks, starting salaries for graduates vary enormously. While HSBC, for example, pays its retail and commercial banking trainees £20,000 plus a starting bonus of £2,500, the big investment banks offer a more generous £25,000 to £27,000.

While investment banking in particular is infamous for operating a "star" culture - with traders often under immense pressure to justify their six-figure salaries and matching bonuses - the majority of jobs are concerned with servicing clients and forging relationships rather than generating huge amounts of revenue.

Whether the job is hand-holding the rich and famous in a private banking setting such as Coutts & Co - whose clients include the Queen - or building a business virtually from scratch in the corporate finance arena, stringent regulations covering the financial sector make it far more likely that you will work as a member of a team rather than go it alone with all those noughts.

"We certainly want bright and questioning people who can think outside the box, but to be able to work well in a team environment is absolutely essential," says Houzer.

HSBC is perhaps best known for its UK high street banking operation, but in international terms, the pedigree of what started out as the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation is second to none.

John Morewood, the bank's senior graduate recruitment and development manager, agrees that in today's service-oriented environment, "numeracy is not the be all and end all."

The bank takes on around 450 graduates each year; 60 or 70 of them as interns. The remainder are taken on by the investment banking arm, by the retail or commercial banking divisions, by IT, by the call centre operation or by the insurance division.

In a sector where the various job descriptions run to at least 50, choosing the right branch of finance or management consultancy, or putting yourself forward for the right training scheme, is essential.

"We're a large bank with lots of different openings for graduates, and we believe that opting for an area of banking that will give a graduate personal satisfaction and the chance to carve out a really successful career is one of the most important decisions they will ever make," says Morewood.

"Although we make strenuous efforts to talk to would-be trainees about their interests and goals, when you take on as many graduates as we do, it is inevitable that some will want to change to a different form of finance half-way through a course and a few will decide that banking altogether is simply not for them after all."

"It's absolutely fine to change your mind, and it's probably less disruptive to do so at 22 than at 42," he adds.

Although banking has traditionally been seen as a job for life, both Deutsche and HSBC report that poaching of talent is very common. "Investment banking is a relatively small world with a handful of recognised leaders and we realise that we are, in a sense, training the industry," says Jane Houzer.

"Even though it can be very frustrating to lose a really good individual to a rival or to a client, we accept that graduates don't take a job for life any more.

"As a large global player, we find that many of the people who leave us end up interacting with us in another capacity or returning to us later on in their careers."

'Once I knew I had a place, I bought a round-the-world ticket'

Sarah Conrad, 28, who joined HSBC as a graduate executive trainee, has a Masters in the history of art and more recently, a BSc in banking and finance. She is now a corporate operations manager with the bank - her first management post. Conrad's role is in corporate and structured banking; helping to manage clients with a turnover of between £25m and £750m and she is based in the bank's head office at Canary Wharf in London.

I did my first degree and my Masters at Sussex University and although I had no more than a GCSE in maths at that stage, I found that the analytical skills that I used when I was a student are precisely the same ways of thinking that I now use at HSBC.

While I was at university, I worked part time at a Lloyds Bank call centre and it was my experience there that helped dictate my career choice. One of my jobs was to manage other students, which helped me to develop my leadership and teamworking skills and again, those skills are really useful to me now.

Once I knew I had a place on the HSBC graduate training scheme - which involved passing an online numeracy test - I bought one of those round-the-world tickets and travelled to places such as Cuba, Mexico and Easter Island.

I work on the operations side of corporate banking, assisting the head of operations. My job includes helping to manage all the day-to-day general administration for our 13 corporate banking centres; including marketing, the annual operating plan, management information, business strategy, internal communications, financial and sales performance and operational risks.

That round-the-world trip has given me a thirst for more travel and, while I am very happy in my current post, I hope to get an international posting in the next five years. Hong Kong and the US are on my hit list for next time.