SG Cowen and Investment Banking

“Among four well qualified candidates, to whom do you give the offer?”

Today’s Leadership class started, as always, with a straight forward question. The protagonist of today’s case was a recruiting manager at SG Cowen, an investment bank.

Understanding the bank’s business model and Cowen’s corporate culture, and given the resumes of four MBA students, we were to make a decision as to which candidate should be given an offer of an associate position.

A student with a military background promptly raised his hand.

“I would hire Andy. Although he has little finance background, Andy has entrepreneurial experience and strong interpersonal skills. Considering the size of the company’s organization, these qualities are more important than hard skills in accounting and finance.”

“Does anyone disagree with this?”

When asked by the professor, a multitude of students raised their hands, most of them investment bankers.

“I can’t disagree more. You don’t understand what the investment banking business is. It’s a real hell. There is no work-life-balance. Work is life. What is required is physical toughness and mental tolerance. But Andy is an entrepreneur.  He may accept the job offer, but I promise he leaves in 6 months, and we can’t get the recruiting cost back.”

The professor followed up by inquiring, “How many of you are from investment banking?”

About 30 students, myself included, for the most part disagreeing with the military student, raised our hands.

The professor then asked “And, how many of you want to go back to the investment banking business?”

Surprisingly, but not totally unexpected, everyone lowered their hands, again, myself included.


The main takeaway from the case was intended to be the importance of aligning corporate culture and recruiting standards. However, it seemed that many of my section mates were impressed more with the graphic stories of the hellish lives led by investment bankers than they were by the case’s takeaway.

Five years after the financial crisis, investment banking still remains one of the top industries HBS MBA students aspire to. Only time will tell how many of these naive souls find happiness with investment banking as a career choice, and I can’t help but wonder how many will be saying “What was I thinking?”


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