Order, Order on the Floor!

2 Feb 2015

September 2017 – “Come in. Close the door behind you.” The head of the team beckoned me into the glass office that overlooked the trading floor. Both him and my line manager sat with the same relaxed posture, leaning back in their chairs though I knew their ease was merely pretence. Both pairs of eyes followed me to my seat as they smiled, the same practiced smile I had become familiar with in the corporate world that normally pre-empted some bad news. “Thanks,” I said, settling in the seat opposite them. The office was bare, with nothing more than the bare necessities, exacerbating it’s cold feeling. The air was thick with tension as I sat down. I was three years into my role at the bank and I’d only ever known this office as one for sensitive conversations. This was a sensitive conversation…

“Thanks for your time,” my manager nodded to me. “Anytime. Thanks for sitting down with me,” I replied. “I want to get straight down to it PB… We’ve noticed a drop in your energy levels on the desk recently. You’ve been missing our morning meetings, leaving the office earlier and questioning responsibilities you’ve picked up. Given the people we’ve had to let go, it’s seriously making us question your dedication to our effort here. We need to know that you’re someone who’s in this for the long run. Now we know it’s been tough with so many changes in personnel and other juniors leaving but we need to know that you’re not someone who gives up when times get tough.” I was raging inside. The last few months had been nothing short of hell. The toxic environment had caused numerous members of the team to leave. Meetings had become dick measuring exercises and I had no appetite for office facetime. However, I had stuck it out regardless and now my commitment was being questioned? Despite, my resentment, now was not the time for arguments. I needed to pick my next words carefully and end the conversation quickly. Agree with my manager’s sentiment and it would amount to an admission of guilt and potentially start the clock on looking for my replacement. Outright disagree and I’d start a needless argument that wouldn’t benefit anyone. I’d have to keep it measured. “Whilst I can see where you’re coming from, I’d be genuinely disappointed if you thought that was the case.” I gestured expressively, impressed at my own bullshit. “Despite the difficult time recently, I’ve always strived to be a pro-active and resourceful member of the team.” I was doing quite well I thought, so I decided to throw in some self-deprecation to make the whole thing believable. “Now can I understand your sentiment somewhat? Absolutely. However, I don’t want the perception to be that I’m someone who can’t dig their heels in when times get tough.” (“Damn, I’m good!” I thought to myself. “Where’s Meryl Streep with my Oscar?”) The indignation in my tone was measured just right, straddling the line of sounding annoyed, but still respectful. I looked for any flicker of kickback or rebuttal from either of the two before me, still trying to keep my composure. It seemed to take ages for anyone to say anything, both managers watching me intensely, but I held my nerve and refrained from spewing anything into the hanging silence. My words seemed to have done the job though, as the head of the team broke. “We’re happy to hear that PB and you’re right, a lot of this job is about perception. We need you to understand the position you’re in. There’s thousands of young people who’d kill to be in your seat. There’s nothing out there that you can’t get from being here on this desk. Think about where you’ve come from… Think about what you’re earning versus your friends you grew up with. Why would you put that at risk?” I let the familiar speech wash over me. As much as I had been pragmatic in my approach, I was disappointed that I hadn’t been more forthright with my managers. I chuckled inside my head, as their monologue continued, “These guys wouldn’t get it anyway…”

Today – Welcome to the game that is office politics, where the top prize is the privilege of keeping your job and losers can forgo their career progression, dignity and sometimes sanity. Competency isn’t a pre-requisite, logic is absent and honesty is an immediate forfeit of the game. Be prepared to get your hands (and nose) dirty. Also, don’t listen to the rumours calling office politics a team sport… this is definitely a single player game. Before entering the working world, I had often envisaged success in the workplace as an extension of academic success. If I did well at school and Uni as a result of hard work and intelligence, surely the same would apply in the working world? How naïve of me. I soon realised that some of the most important turning points in my career would come as a result of instances such as the outlined, where messages would have to be measured, egos would have to be stroked and pride would have to be dropped. Politics at work is as old as work itself. It rewards the crafty and charismatic and is – something I’ve begrudgingly learnt – one of the most important tools to unlocking your future at work. Despite this, I still struggle a lot with the concept of office politics. Does it apply to everyone? Is it something I’ll have to put up with forever? Why should I? Can office politics fix the dodgy canteen menu? Can it solve world hunger? Can it fix my below average love life? For so many young people entering the working world, this will all be brand new. So, I’ve decided to draw up a list of a few cheat codes to get you on your way to winning at work.

Firstly, you should realise that if you’re in anything that look or smells like a job, you will come across some semblance of politics, so identifying it is an important initial step. The interesting part is that for such a big part of working life, it normally manifests itself in a pattern of unwritten rules. “I know you’ve finished for the day but we can’t leave whilst the boss is still here.” “Oh, those two have never gotten along so we normally avoid working with them.” “Ah, yes he normally sends that email at 7PM after he’s come back from the gym so that everyone thinks he’s still in.” At first, these unspoken truths will irritate you (they certainly annoyed me), but after a while you’ll notice the pattern and feel awash with one overwhelming thought: “I’m not remotely surprised by anything that happens here anymore”. Once you’ve gotten to that stage, congratulations, you’ve successfully identified the rules of your workplace politics game. The next step is figuring out whether you want to be a player or not.

To figure out whether you fancy yourself as an office schemer you’ll need to answer yourself one thing. How much does your job mean to you? Is it a part time gig? Or are you looking to build a career at this place? This is important because it’ll dictate to what extent you’ll take part in the politics game on a day to day basis. If you’re not interested in staying in a job long term, then it doesn’t make sense to try and scheme your way through the ranks. Conversely, if you’re looking to work your way up the ladder in a role then don’t think just doing your day job is going to get you anywhere fast. Networking with people outside your daily role, having colleagues who’ll vouch for you and visibility of all the great things you’re doing makes a difference. If you’re anything like me, this will be difficult. I tend to have a hard time verbalising anything good that I do, not because I don’t think I’m doing a good job (I haven’t been fired yet, after all) but because I just do my job and expect to be recognised for having done it well. Unfortunately, self-promotion and confidence is important in getting ahead at work these days. There’ll be exceptions as with everything, but in this tech heavy era, instant validation and an infinite number of quantifiable performance measures means the ability to be able to demonstrate and communicate your value to the workplace is paramount.

Now at this stage it’s worth pointing out the most important piece of advice. For all the fun and games in office diplomacy, draw a line at where you call it a day. What I mean by that is, for the most part, you’ll get used to some of the peculiarities of your workplace, even if they’re irksome. However, every once in a while, something will happen… You’ll be asked to do something questionable, get passed on for recognition or a promotion or find yourself taking home toxic work baggage where it no longer becomes worth it. Knowing and naming your limit on what you’ll have to do to excel helps put things in perspective. Understanding the value of your dignity and health will help you approach things with absolute commitment, knowing full well that any situation that doesn’t work for you ends on your terms. Contrary to the popular ageist theory, this does not suggest you’re weak or “some spoilt millennial”. In an age where increasing mental health issues and undue amounts of pressure is ever present in the workplace, identifying boundaries is infinitely more mature than perpetuating self-destructive behaviour. Trust me, if you take one thing away from this article, it’s that toxic games aren’t worth losing yourself over.

To conclude, I have by no means perfected the art of being the workplace finesser. A lot of doing well for me has been being humble, letting people run with their ego’s and staying below the radar. Although it’s hindered me slightly, the compromise is having a good balance of emotional detachment to my role and emotional investment in myself. The key for you will be finding the right balance that keeps you whole enough to keep playing the game.

The Poor Banker

A Day in the Life of an EnTRAPreneur

2 Feb 2013

February 2012– It was a crisp, late-winter evening in February, and me and two friends were arguing whilst briskly walking through campus. Despite the cold, the place was lively. Friends huddled around the union strategising on how to best seize the night, as a misty haze hung over the smokers outside the library. Students slung bags over their shoulders as they head back to their rooms, laughing either in large groups, or as couples cuddled together.

As we walked past the campus shop, all three of us looked up and observed just how busy it was. Customers were cutting in and out before it closed for the evening, loading up on drinks before student night at the local club. We paused our conversation and took note of the activity before heading downstairs, off the main concourse, not breaking stride as we skipped down the steps. I brought us back to our debate. “I’m telling you fam, he’s gonna start asking for more p’s (money),” I said, looking across the other two boys. “Look how active campus is, we can’t keep bumping him – he’s outgrown the wage.” “I hear you, but I’m not sure PB,” Anton replied. “I think we can get away with keeping him on the same money for now, you know. We’ll probably have to pay him more somewhere down the line, but I think we can hold off for a bit. Plus, there’s bare (a lot of) other people on campus who would sell for us.” He had a point to be fair. Between the three of us, we’d managed to grow a sizeable late-night food and drinks delivery business. Stupidly, (or perhaps tactfully the uni thought) the only shop on campus closed at 8PM, when many students were rolling out of bed, sweating out the toxins from the night before and looking to load up on more. Being the spirited, but flat-out broke students we were, myself, Anton and Kingsley decided to take advantage of this. We scraped together whatever money we had and went to the local wholesalers, bought stock and sold it straight to students on campus at night. We sold to everyone, and I mean everyone. Needed to pre-drink before a rave? We were there. Needed a snack during late night revision? We were there. High as fuck and had the munchies at 3 in the morning? We were there. Just broken up with your boyfriend and needed 2 bottles of wine and a box of chocolates? We were always there. The business was growing in a big way and we had a few workers who would take alternating shifts. We were on our way to the top salesman at the time, Sami, to collect some cash. I could sense he wanted a bigger slice of the creamier cake we were baking. Kingsley, who I’m sure was the 2012 incarnate of Peckham’s Del Boy, as always, wanted to squeeze on the money. “Nah fam, fuck all that! If he acts up, we’ll just find other workers. I ain’t taking shit from him, I’ll slap him.” Anton and I laughed. Make that a 2012 mix of Del Boy and DMX…

As we approached Sami’s building Kinglsey rang ahead to get him to open up. He buzzed us in and we strolled straight through to his flat which was on the ground floor, our footsteps echoing around the hallway. As we approached, Sami was at the door ushering us inside, something was hurried about his body language. His room was a mess, not your average few pizza boxes lying around mess. I’m talking police raid in the middle of the night type mess. The three of us were looking around when Sami cut through the silence “Guys, we’ve been robbed.” he murmured. “Ah shit” Kinglsey cursed. “Are you okay?” Anton and I responded in unison. We’d all grown to like Sami and could see he was pretty shaken. “Yh I’m fine, but they took all of it”, his voice was cracking and he was playing with his hands, rubbing and knotting them together like they were filthy. “What did they take, how much of it?” Anton asked. “Well it isn’t really your stuff they took…” Sami mumbled, not looking directly at any of us. The three of us looked round at each other puzzled, wondering what he was on about. “What do you mean?” Kingsley snapped. Sami finally looked up. “Guys, I needed a bit of extra money. It was only supposed to be short term, but I’ve been selling a bit of weed on the side…” I closed my eyes and let out a long groan as Anton reeled off a stream of profanity under his breath. Kingsley simply looked at Sami with sheer incredulity. “Guys you’ve got to help me! I’m in way too deep here. This guy I sell for wants his money back in the next three days!” Real panic stained his words. Sami was right, he was in way over his head. “Sami, I don’t get it… You’re a good yout (youth). Why get involved in this shit. It’s a whole different ball game,” I said. “I know, I know. I just need to sort this and then I’m out I swear,” Sami rushed. “How much and whose was it?” Anton asked. “Just over a grand. You know James, right? He’s on your course Anton,” Sami replied. Kingsley interrupted immediately, “So what, they took James’ food (weed) and nothing else, none of our cash?” The three of us looked at each other knowingly after Sami nodded. “Aight, Sami – sit tight,” gestured Anton. “Yeah, it’ll be fine,” said Kingsley, standing up. “We’ll try and hook you up with extra shifts and up your rate a bit, that should help you get back on your feet. We’ll be back around in the next few days to sort it out.” The situation had even softened our Del Boy a bit.

Whilst leaving the building I decided to say what we were all thinking: “James lined him up. He sent guys to rob his own worker and he’ll double his money when Sami pays him. They didn’t take anything else because they didn’t know he had anything else – James doesn’t know he sells for us.” Anton and Kingsley nodded. “Otherwise he would have taken it all, why turn down free money? In any case, we need to rethink how we do this…”

Today– Let’s get the important stuff out of the way first. Sami got through his madness and ended up graduating uni. He did go through an identity crisis, failed several exams and graduated with a considerably lighter bank account, but which student doesn’t? James wasn’t as fortunate and ended up not finishing uni and getting kicked out before his final year. Me and my two boys ran the business before winding it down ahead of graduating. Now we didn’t ever find out for sure whether James had set up Sami in the end. At the time (and in hindsight) it was the most plausible explanation for what had happened. Sami never found out and it wasn’t like he could just call the police and report it. James didn’t say anything and to be honest, we didn’t ask. He was the type of guy who drank Stella’s outside his building at 10AM, posted proudly next to his Renault Clio parked in the disabled bay, with tinted windows darker than his habits. He was well known on campus as a bit of a loose cannon. I wasn’t trying to get into it with guys like James at uni – it wasn’t worth it.

Whilst there are clear differences between our legitimate campus business and James’ attempt to be the university Top Boy, there were common traits that linked all of us. We were all extremely capable, very driven and highly entrepreneurial. I would argue that James was even more so than myself, Kingsley and Anton. Consider it, James had to operate a profitable business, including sourcing good product in the market, finding a loyal customer base and equally loyal workers but doing it discretely enough to avoid the attention of the university and the authorities. I mean it’s almost like working in an investment bank! The ability to be able to do this successfully should not be taken lightly. Of course, it goes without saying that James should’ve directed his efforts to something vastly more family friendly to make extra money and having ability does not make him exempt of the personal responsibility for his misdeeds. However, consider this argument: if you could make money selling a plant, such that you didn’t have to worry about the rent, or whether you’d be eating pot noodles for three years, or how you’d pay off 40 grand of debt; would you? There’s clearly a market for it. If you’re talented enough to build a business out of it, what’s the big deal? It’s very difficult to readily turn down extremely rewarding sums of money for what seems on the surface pretty harmless. Whilst my darker side is all for taking risks and screaming fuck the law, the fall out from operating a business this way is self-evident. These aren’t victimless operations unfortunately, enforcing trading boundaries, disciplining workers and dealing with competition all require moderate to extreme levels of violence and destructive behaviour. Consequences of such behaviour are life changing and not worth the monetary gain.

I’ve always found it interesting to compare investment banking and the drug industry. Drug barons who’ve been immortalised in film and TV are shown to be business savvy and ruthless, quickly identifying issues and dealing with them with frightening vigour. They’re often idolised as men of the people, supporting local communities and serving as a lightning rod for anti-establishment sentiment. Their story normally ends abruptly when Johnny Law finds them and locks them up or kills them, ultimately dismantling their operation and subsequently ridiculing the notion that these people could’ve ever been true forces for good. The irony here is that if they had chosen a different path in life they indeed could’ve had a much more positive impact. The skillset of a high-flying market trader or banking advisor versus that of an individual running a fully functioning drug enterprise aren’t too dissimilar. Strength with processing numbers, the ability to problem solve for a range of situations and a decisive streak all qualify you for both career paths. Whilst James was nowhere near a baron in his time at university, he built a successful business nonetheless. His real-life experience of what made a lucrative enterprise was worth a lot more than some of his peers who had only studied business theories from a book. He truly had the potential to be something great. The sad part is that all he probably needed was a word in his ear or a more relatable role model to nudge him along the right path. At some stage an inevitable criminal record will probably overwhelm and extinguish any potential that lingered.

To round up, I’m not making the argument that all drug dealers have the potential to be Richard Branson. On the flipside of that, not all squeaky-clean students will go on to achieve greatness. There’s a fine line between taking risks, breaking the rules and being off the rails. Finding the right balance is key.

The Poor Banker