For Recruiters
Citi's ex-head of pan-European equity sales says banking is a harsh, rewarding career. Understand when it's becoming too much.

Burnout, brutality, bonuses: "People in finance know the game"

Ten years ago, Ian Burns was a managing director and head of pan-European cash equity sales at Citigroup, when he made a mistake. It was 5.56am, and he'd just started work after finishing around 10pm the night before. Despite a faultless record during a 26-year career in banking, he sent two emails containing privileged information that wasn't to be shared until 7am. 

It cost him dearly. "The mistake meant I was fired for gross misconduct, and it destroyed me," says Burns. He lost his income at a time when he still had a mortgage to pay and two children at boarding schools. He lost hundreds of thousands in deferred bonuses. He writes that the mistake probably also cost him his marriage: "Financial devastation was joined by social humiliation and by emotional destruction."

With the benefit of hindsight, Burns attributes the error to burnout. A perfectionist, he'd told himself he thrived on stress. He was working late and starting early and was "completely drawn out." His then-wife had noticed. "A few weeks before, she told me that my behaviour was manic and the more I understand about mental health, the more I know that she was absolutely right. I was subject to mania because I had reached the point when things don't work."

That was ten years ago. A decade later, Burns understands a lot about mental health: he's spent the past four years training as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst and currently works as an apprentice psychologist for the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.  "In future it will be a mix of private practice and the NHS," says Burns. "I am not averse to working with clients in the banking industry, but I won't seek them out."

Burns' own banking career wasn't over when he made the mistake in 2012. He went on to work for SocGen, where he spent over a year as co-head of pan-European equity sales and then HSBC, where he did a similar role until 2017. But he was increasingly disengaged and increasingly maverick in his approach. He took up yoga. He railed against sales KPIs. He advocated working from home when such things were unthinkable. "Ironically, once I realized that I no longer really wanted to be in it I got more managerial roles," says Burns. Ultimately, he was let go: "A battle was underway and I lost it. Happily."

Today, as someone who has had comprehensive mental health training and spent long years reflecting on his mistakes, Burns is well-placed to diagnose the ills of the industry. From his new vantage point, Burns says he can see the impact his previous career had on his mental health and his relationships. 

Anyone who claims astonishment at banking's famously long hours is naive, says Burns. "When you sign-up for any investment banking job, it's made very clear that you will be required to work according to the demands of the business." Moreover, he says the kinds of people banks hire welcome this: "It's very difficult to be the smartest person in the room, but you can be the hardest working. It's never the managers who say you have to work until 11pm and be back at 6am the next morning." 

Equally, he says everyone knows the game when it comes to bonuses and RiFs (reductions in force). "If you are working for a bank, you know there will be an annual redundancy round, and you know, too, that if you're not in the upper quartile of performers there is a chance you will be let go before bonuses are paid." Banking is not like other industries, says Burns. As a senior manager, your main role is identifying and eliminating underperformers on an annual basis. "You have this fantasy that it's about improving and developing your team and recruiting well and mentoring juniors, but you know that it's really about getting more done with less." 

While this might sound harsh, Burns suggests that it's a world in which the participants know the rules and are willingly complicit in the resulting reality. "It's a very well-remunerated industry and people understand what it's like." Even so, individuals can fall prey to myopia and misplaced delusions of invulnerability. Two years after the financial crisis in 2008, people who'd been frightened about the end of their careers were back to complaining about the size of their bonuses, says Burns: "There was this chatter that because banks had been supported they needed to restore themselves to their former glories and this meant hiring the best staff on high pay." Despite the precariousness of their jobs, he says people in banking tend to spend all their money and to think in terms of comparisons rather than absolutes: "There's always a feeling that there's more coming in next year. That if you got paid one amount and a colleague made more, you will see if you can get the higher amount in the next bonus round."  

Sometimes, though, it can become too much. Sometimes you can lose your job and your marriage and almost everything. "For anyone finding work close to overwhelming. Don’t push yourself too hard or your body and mind will stop you and where you once believed you had control, you will now fear you will never have any," writes Burns. How will you know that you're close to that point? "It's the people around you who recognise it," he says. "The people who know you best and who love you most will sense that something is awry. My advice is that if anyone who cares about you says, "Are you alright?", don't dismiss it. You need to be able to listen. You need to hear it for the warning it really is." 

Photo by Lubo Minar on Unsplash

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
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  • Le
    Leila
    10 October 2022

    That was a beautiful article thank you. I hope Ian is living a happy life at his new role and with his family.

  • Ch
    CharlesMartel
    10 October 2022

    "Despite the precariousness of their jobs, he says people in banking tend to spend all their money"....How stupid can people get?

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