He’s an investment banker. I’ve known him for ten years. “Known” only in the working sense, never in the social sense. His bank is one of the banks that works with my company, so when his bank does a deal with my company, he sometimes shows up on our team, and when that happens sometimes I’m there too, and we end up working together. Sometimes closely. For a while.
We’re not friends, but our relationship is always friendly. That’s because he’s a banker, and bankers are programmed to be friendly no matter what. Even when they’re stealing money from you, they smile all friendly-like.
Years ago he pulled a fast one on me, claimed I’d agreed to pay his bank a ridiculously high success fee. We went back and forth, he ended up going behind my back, pulling rank on me. It got very unpleasant with my superiors and he got a little of what he wanted and that was way more than he deserved and I solemnly swore I would never speak to him again. I didn’t really care. Plenty of fish in that fetid sea. I was glad to be rid of him.
Then a few years later there he was on my doorstep again, all jolly and happy with a mandate from a higher-up in our company (and a sizable fee discount) and suddenly it was let bygones-be-bygones and onward-and-upwards and arm-in-arm all over again. Nothing I could do about it. Might as well smile and enjoy it. That’s how it is with bankers.
Anyways, there’s something about him that struck me from the minute I first met him. Banking is a macho culture, dripping in testosterone, lots of jocks, thick necks, four-letter words. Even the women bankers swagger. He’s different.
Most bankers love a fight. They live for the moment when they can show their client that they’re fighting for them. He, on the other hand, hates conflict. He can be devious, but he will do anything to avoid an in-your-face fight. “Never ruffle a feather” is his motto. Negotiations with him involved can be excruciating, as he carefully listens to every side, trying to find a way to ensure that everyone’s needs are being met, that the word “no” is never said. In long meetings it is easy to forget who he represents. I often find myself cringing in conference rooms as he strains to find common ground where there is clearly none; on several occasions I’ve had to be the banker, shutting him up and being the one to tell the other side “no.” I hate that about working with him.
He’s also insanely analytical. He actually reads the legal documents and fills the margins with questions and comments that drive the lawyers crazy. You’d be amazed how often the lawyers don’t read their own documents. He recrunches all the numbers in the financials and spreadsheets, often finding errors or thinking of different ways to model things. He’s an equal opportunity nudge, attacking everyone’s documents. By the end of a meeting, everyone who’s brought a document hates him. I love that about working with him.
He’s got to be pushing 50, which is ancient for a banker. His OCD-with-the-documents shtick probably earned him big brownie points back when he was the junior banker on the team, and had nothing else to offer, but now that he’s sprouting gray hairs, that act has gotten old, and only underscores how little he brings to the table. I’ve seen junior bankers on his team roll their eyes as he grabs the room, breaks the flow and demands that we focus on yet another column of figures or still another legal clause he thinks he’s found an error in, holding us all hostage until we either agree with him or convince him he’s wrong.
As I get older I am blessed with a new perspective on life that let’s me better appreciate how people end up. When I was younger I used to think life was more of a meritocracy. Novels and biographies and always emphasized that the top people were the “best” at what they did, clearly implying that that was why they were the top people. Now that I am older and have actually met some of these so-called top people I can see that this is not universally true. Our banker is clear evidence of that, a complete mediocrity, obvious to all, who has managed not only to stay afloat, but to succeed, despite lacking any but the most superficially annoying skills needed to succeed. Clearly life is a lot more complicated than novels and biographies led me to believe. And, thankfully, a lot more interesting.
Looking back, I can appreciate now that our banker’s conflict avoidance issues may have meshed well on some transactions with my, shall we say, directness issues. I have a tendency to do the opposite of our banker, to cut to the heart of the matter, tell the other side in the first minute of a meeting exactly where they are strong and where they are weak, and tell them how their deal ought to be done. Sometimes my approach isn’t greeted as the refreshing blast of fresh air that it is. Sometimes people need some hand holding, need to do the dance, need to finger their worry beads, need to lie down on the couch and talk to their analyst, need to confess their sins, need to analyze the problem twenty-eight different ways and prepare three hundred different models before realizing that my solution is the right one after all. For those deals I guess he brings something to the table that I don’t.
Because, let’s face it, I, too, am a mediocrity, albeit one of a different stripe. I guess it takes one to know one.