Why Fresh Graduates Should Join The Front Office

If you're a fresh graduate out of university, or soon to join the workforce, here's a good piece of advice for you - join the front office. Be out there in the front lines of an organization - meet clients, be responsible for top-line revenue and avoid a "back-office" role. In the long run, you will have gained front office skills like client management, business acumen and proposal development - all critical skills in running a business.

I've lived and worked in Singapore for most of my professional life. Throughout my career, I've seen many young fresh graduates who struggle with what they want to do after they leave school.

Many of the graduates in Singapore I see these days (e.g. Generation Y and born after 1980) coming out of school fall into two groups.

The first group want to do "their own thing" and start their own businesses. They have a great idea for the latest social app and want to take over the world aka Mark Zuckerberg.

The second group want a high-paying, prestigious job , preferably in an investment or private bank, or with a strategy consultancy like McKinsey and Company.

This article discusses the second group - let me elaborate more in the following.

 why fresh graduates should join the front office 1Fresh graduates usually want high-paying and prestigious jobs

1. By All Means, Aim High

If you're a fresh graduate, I totally encourage you to apply to the best jobs you can. Apply to Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and the like. And if you're a star athlete, class valectorian and a straight A student who's also volunteered in the UN, you can easily sail into one of these prestigious companies.

For the rest, who have average or even above average academic results, you'll most likely not get in. The question is, what do you do then?

2. Applying To Back-Office Roles

What I see fresh graduates who don't get into top banking or consulting roles do - is to join the middle- office or back-office of a well-known bank.

Hey, it's still prestigious and it pays well.

In my opinion, that is a mistake.

I'd rather you choose a smaller, less well known bank or firm and work in a front-office role.

Why? Because the exposure you get in the front-office is immense. In one year, you will learn skills that far surpass three years in the back-office.

Let me paint you a scenario - consider two fresh graduates, Miss A and Miss B. Both have pretty good grades, and came out of the Singapore Management University (SMU). They tried but could not get into Goldman Sachs, UBS, Credit Suisse, McKinsey or Bain & Company.

Miss A choses to join Credit Suisse in a back-office role (an "alternative role" the bank offered her when her application for "Institutional Sales Representative" was rejected). The role is something like "FX / Money Markets Reconciliations Analyst".

Miss B choses to join a small asset manager, say Company X in a front-office Sales role, say "Institutional Sales Representative".

To those who are unfamiliar, a "FX / Money Markets Reconciliations Analyst" is basically someone who reconciles the bank accounts held by a bank against the clients' bank accounts. So if I bought $200,000 of equities today, my bank account has to go down by $200,000 and the counterparty (who sold you shares) has to have his or her bank account go up by $200,000. The number of shares, say 2,000 shares with each priced at $100, also need to be debited from the counterparty and credited to me.

Banks have ARMIES of fresh graduates doing this reconciliation stuff. And I can tell you, from my experience in the banks - this is brain-numbing work. Spreadsheets and spreadsheets day in and day out. If the numbers don't "reconcile", you're not going home. I've seen poor young boys and girls sitting in the office until 12 am because their accounts didn't reconcile. That's the back-office for you.

 why fresh graduates should join the front office 2Back-office jobs in banks can be brain-numbing work

An "Institutional Sales Representative" sits on the "Buy-Side" of banking , i.e. goes out to meet corporate clients (e.g. think of the investment departments of say, Procter and Gamble) and persuades them to invest money in a fund run by Company X in the above example. Or persuades the "Buy-Side" of banks (who take positions in the market) to buy research reports from Company X. The work involves a lot of traveling, answering client queries and is extremely stressful.

So, back to our story of Miss A and Miss B. Let's just fast forward three years.

After three years, Miss A has been promoted to "FX / Money Market Reconciliations Team Leader". She looks after five junior officers all reconciling trades for her. But Miss A has not grown any network of clients, has not seen industries outside of her bank, and has not picked up client management or presentation skills.

Miss B, on the other hand, is by now well-travelled, has had her client management skills well honed, is confident, poised and can talk to C-level executives easily. She also knows a thing or two about selling and has built up an impressive roster of clients.

Who do you think has brighter career prospects?

3. The Most Critical Skills A Fresh Graduate Should Pick Up

The moral of the story above is this - as a fresh graduate, you should try your level best to pick up foundational career skills. What are "foundational career skills", you ask?

Well, these are universal skills which help launch your career, regardless of what industry or profession you're in.

Let me walk through some of these with you:

Communication and presentation skills. The ability to stand in front of a room of full of people, most of whom have more experience than you - and still be able to deliver a superb presentation and convince them of the merits of a business case, a product or a solution. THAT'S the kind of skill that launches a career. Not back-office work.

Networking. The ability to walk up to a stranger (usually more important than you) in an industry forum or a gala dinner and confidently hold a conversation. And convince him or her of your value proposition in work or your personal life. And get him or her to call you and follow up to discuss more. THAT'S the kind of skill that launches a career. Not back-office work.

Sales. The ability to sniff out prospects, hunt for opportunities and close deals. The ability to keep calling and calling a prospect until he or she gives you an opportunity to give a pitch and listen to your solution. And eventually buy your product or service. THAT'S the kind of skill that launches a career. Not back-office work.

Poise and Confidence. The ability to display "gravitas" - a certain confidence and know-how to speak at the appropriate time, particularly in front of C-level executives and board members. The ability to listen carefully, ponder and speak words of wisdom in response - not just stand there and ramble anything that comes to mind. THAT'S the kind of skill that launches a career. Not back-office work.

 why fresh graduates should join the front office 3The skills you learn in the front-office will serve you all through your career

4. What If I'm Already In The Back-Office?

I realize that my little treatise here may offend many, particularly those fresh graduates who just joined the bank in the middle or back-office.

Look, I'm not saying you should quite the back office or anything.

I'm just saying that the best learning opportunities tend to be in the front-office, particularly for a fresh graduate.

And here's the other thing - as a fresh graduate, you have the chance to experiment (unlike me, who is tied down with responsibilities, family, etc, etc.).

If you think you made a mistake joining the back-office, you have a chance to quit and find another job in the front-office (just don't do it like, 10 times in 2 years).

And by the way, this article has focused on banking and finance. But this rule of the "Front-Office for Fresh Grads" holds true whichever industry you're in.

Case Study: Take myself as an example. When I first joined the workforce, I joined an engineering role in a multinational. I was in the "back-office" i.e. the production floor and oversaw a set of machines producing bubble jet printers. I HATED that job.

It didn't take me long to hunt and I was fortunate to have joined an American IT consulting company as a consultant - as front-office as it could get. I was meeting clients, building up presentation skills, building my network and accumulating sales and confidence.

I did that role for SEVEN YEARS. By the end of that period, I could even have started by own business if I wanted to - I'd learnt so much and saw so much of the world.

Take that as an inspiration to go out and join a front-office role. Trust me, once you've joined the front-office, you will really think twice about going to the back-office - it will be too brain numbing.

And here's another thought - for those of you who think that being in a bank's back-office - you can move to the front-office, become a Relationship Manager or Trader in a few years.

I'm sorry to say, most of the high performing Relationship Managers or Traders in banks join the front-office straight after graduation, or after their MBAs.

If you're in the bank's back-office and want to move front, your best bet is (1) join the front-office of a smaller bank or financial institution, where you have a better chance of getting in or (2) go do a MBA at a top-notch university (not an online, distance MBA which is just a waste of time).

Wrapping Up :

I hope the above has helped you understand why fresh graduates should join the ranks of the front-office, to significantly ramp up their career prospects. If I had any piece of advice to give to a young person joining the workforce, this would be it!

JOIN THE FRONT-OFFICE when you leave school - it will do more for your career than anything else out there.

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