Don't Know What You're Doing? Who Cares … A Success Story.

17 May 2012 01:46 PM CDT


I can't remember when I first started dreaming of moving to New York and working on Wall Street.  Ever since I was a child I had a fascination with money and finances.  I had a sign that hung over my bedroom door that said "Wall Street" on it.  I was the kid who would literally iron my cash flat.  While in college my focus was purely academic, and led me to investment banking.

Nothing in the world can prepare you for a career on Wall Street.  Especially if you're a kid that was born in Nebraska and grew up in suburban Denver.  And New York City itself is a harsh environment for anyone.  Naturally, my mind was blown.

Before new analysts can work on the trading floors at the Lehman building they must complete several weeks of training and pass the Series 7 and Series 63 financial licenses exams.  After successfully completing and passing the training program, I was ready for my placement in the Capital Markets division of the bank.  The placement process is a bit like dating.  You interview and meet with many groups looking for new analysts.  You shadow bankers and traders.  You eat dinner and grab drinks and socialize.  On one occasion I spent an entire day on the trading floor with a particular group (the Emerging Markets Group), getting to know what a day in the life is like.

After several weeks of interviewing, shadowing, fraternizing, and the like, the analysts received their placements.  I remember opening my envelope and being very confused.  I had been placed in a sales position in the repo group.  I hate to admit it, but at that moment I couldn't remember any of the people I had met in that group.  Furthermore, I had no real understanding of what function the group had within capital markets.  Envelope in hand, I took the elevator down to the trading floor.

I literally had no idea what I was doing.  I can't imagine any of the new analysts did.  Walking on to a trading floor, where phones are ringing and people are screaming, is pretty surreal.  In college I was the kid that did his homework in the silent library.  Now I was going to be working in the middle of what appeared to be the circus.  Everyone there was wearing the exact same thing.  A white oxford shirt with some version of a tie (Burberry, Brooks Brothers, or Ferragamo).  Everyone wore a dark black or blue suit, but no one wore their suit coat while on the trading floor.

My superior was a man named Tom Luglio.  I walked in to Tom's office and he told me I'd be working for Larry Servidio. Tom introduced me to Larry, and Larry told me to be at his desk the next morning at 7AM.

That first day was a blur.  I went home to my basement apartment, and remember setting my alarm for something like 5:30AM.  I fell asleep early and got a phone call from my parents shortly after dozing off.  The next thing I remember is waking up, looking at my alarm clock, and seeing that it was 7:30AM.  WHAT!?!?!?!

That morning is the fastest I've ever launched out of bed, taken a shower, dressed myself, and rushed to work.  Miraculously, I made it to Larry Servidio's side by something like 8:15AM.  I have no idea how I managed to go from a sleeping zombie in a basement apartment in Weehawken, New Jersey to a fully clothed Wall Street analyst in Manhattan in 45 minutes.  I sat down next to Larry and immediately apologized for my tardiness. He didn't even acknowledge my existence.  No joke, he didn't look at me for at least five full minutes.  I just sat there frozen wondering what to do.  Finally, Larry turned to me and told me to talk to Tom because I was no longer working for Larry.  I picked up my bag and walked to Tom's office.  I told Tom I had accidentally overslept and that Larry told me I couldn't work for him anymore.  He chuckled and told me to go back to Larry.  So I did.

I sat down silently and waited for further instructions from Larry.  Again, five minutes of silence passed.  Finally, he turned to me and just started screaming.  He was pissed.  He uttered an unending stream of expletives and somewhere in the horror of his anger, he told me to start answering the phone.  He said, "I don't want to hear a phone ring twice."  He told me to just pick up the phone and figure out what to do next.  I sat next to Larry and just started answering phone calls.  I had no idea what I was doing and had no idea what these people even wanted.  I would pick up a phone, look confusingly at Larry, and then relay whatever information I could.  It was nuts.  I can't explain how bizarre it was to be thrown into a completely foreign environment and then asked to do something I knew nothing about, all the while feeling Larry's anger from a desk away.  He told me I didn't deserve the job.  He told me about the hundreds of people out there that would kill to be in my position and that I didn't even have the decency or the courtesy to show up on time.  He went on and on and on about how upset I'd made him.  He would ask me questions like, "What were you doing last night?  Did you stay up late playing with your Barbie doll collection?"  Believe me, that's the most tame thing he said that I can comfortably include in this post.  Most everything else was ridden with expletives and vulgarity.  I had also made the mistake of wearing a brown suit to work.  I quickly learned the unofficial dress code at Lehman Brothers is exactly as described earlier - white shirt, pricey tie, dark blue or black suit.  My brown suit was dark - you could hardly tell it was brown.  However, from that day on I became known as the UPS guy.

Shortly into my day with Larry he started questioning why I was even in the repo group.  It was odd, because deep inside I had the same question - why did I get placed here?  I didn't know these people and literally knew nothing about the repo market.  Eventually, Larry walked me around.  He would stand next to me and ask the other members of the group, "Do you know this kid?  Did you interview him?  Do you know why he's working with us?"  Larry was a super loud guy and very few people on the desk could compete with his wit.  I don't remember a single person actually looking at me when Larry walked me around.  Most people kept their eyes on their computer screens and kept working.

I sat next to Larry for the rest of the day answering what felt like thousands of phone calls.  At the end of the day Larry took me to the end of the trading desk to cover a few basic items about the market for repurchase agreements (repos).  Finally, Larry told me I had to be the first person to arrive at the desk the next morning.  That meant getting to work by at least 6AM.

Was I in the right group?  At the end of that excruciating day I paid a visit to HR just to double check.  Apparently, I was.  That night, on my way back to New Jersey, I bought two extra alarm clocks.

Thanks to a chorus of three alarm clocks I managed to wake up the next morning with plenty of time to get to work.  I was the first person on the trading desk and I started answering phones exactly as I had done the previous day.  After a few hours of business as usual Larry got a phone call and was asked to go to his superior's office.  He looked confused and left the desk.  I watched him walk over to John Coghlan's office and noticed John, Tom Luglio, and a woman from HR all sitting in the office waiting for Larry.  All the sudden I felt a pang of nervousness.

When Larry came back to the desk, he didn't talk to me for quite awhile.  Finally, he asked me to join him in a conference room.  Larry chose a room on a different floor of the building.  Yikes.  Once there he unloaded on me.  He was furious.  He wanted to know what I had said to the HR department and what I had done to get him in trouble with his superior.  I told him I had simply asked HR if I had been placed correctly.  I did my best to explain to him that I didn't say anything inflammatory and that I didn't even say his name.  The most memorable moment of day two, and possibly my entire career at Lehman Brothers, was when in the midst of Larry's rage he said, "You realize I'm treating you this way as a favor?  I have to show my extreme disappointment in you in order for the other people in this group to know that I actually care about you.  It would be easy for me to just blow you off and ignore you.  By making a big deal out of my disappointment I'm actually giving you credibility and credit in here."

I was shocked.  He was testing me.  He put me through a grinder and I kept coming back.  He wanted to see if I would give up.  I didn't.  He wanted to see if I had the kind of determination and stamina to succeed in a high octane environment like Wall Street.  I did.  He actually had a plan for making my presence known and valid.  And it worked.

Back on the desk people started placing bets on how long I would last on Wall Street.  Some thought I'd be gone in six months.  No one thought I'd last.  I managed to silence a lot of negativity, a lot of noise, a lot of demands, and just focus on doing my best work.

Not only did I survive past six months, I eventually started trading emerging market repos and was instrumental in doubling revenues for my trading ledger over three consecutive years.  I was made a Vice President and was eventually offered a leadership role in the Lehman Brothers business in London.

After six years in New York I was ready for a change.  I felt like I had accomplished more than anyone thought possible at Lehman, myself included.  And New York didn't feel like home anymore.  At around the same time these thoughts were swirling through my head, I was being flown to London to check out the office, the people, and investigate the opportunity of working in Europe.  While there I had breakfast with Ian Maynard, European Head of Equity Finance and Fixed Income Repo Trading.  We dined in an executive dining room on the top floor of the Lehman building in Canary Wharf.  Breakfast was served by a dapper gentlemen wearing white cotton gloves.  It was very British and very regal.  The dining room had a stunning view of the entire city of London.  The sun was rising and the vista was remarkable.  I'll never forget standing there, staring at the view of London, and being offered an incredible promotion.

A few weeks later, back in New York, I submitted my letter of resignation.  I had climbed as high as I wanted and was desperate for a new challenge and atmosphere.  Many people expressed their disappointment in my decision to leave.  Amazingly, even more expressed their disappointment in themselves for not taking a risk like that when they had the chance.  I can't tell you how many people I talked to who wished they had chased another dream earlier in their lives.  They had big houses and children in private school.  I was young, didn't have obligations like that, and could go out and experience something new.

In those last few weeks Larry once again asked me to join him in a conference room.  He and I hadn't worked together in years.  He told me how excited he was for me.  He told me that he didn't know what I would do next but that he knew I would be successful.

Here I am at the beginning of another adventure.  Sometimes I feel like I don't know what I'm doing, but my journey on Wall Street taught me it doesn't really matter.  What matters is getting in the race and hitting the gas.  Success is less about what you know and more about tenacity, learning from your mistakes, and surviving the grind.  Each and every milestone gets you closer and closer, and before you know it, you'll reach your goal.