Investment Bankers Can Learn From Stand-Up Comedians
Posted on Harvard Business Review: June 24, 2011 8:20 AM
Yes, you heard that correctly. Let me explain.
Originally from the Midwest and after a stint in the Navy, I decided to be an investment banking analyst in the late 90's. I did well in my business school applications, and after my MBA, I worked for a private equity-backed healthcare company, then more investment banking as an associate.
But there was a problem. To say I was feeling unfulfilled is a severe understatement. My job became my life and I spent practically every waking hour working. As a result, I missed out on a lot of important things. I missed a few weddings and, most devastatingly, my mother passed from cancer during this period. I will never forget that her last words to me were over the phone while I was sitting at my desk scrambling to put something together for a client. After she died, I realized I had to find what it was I was put on this planet to do. I realized it was not banking pretty quickly.
After a lot of searching, I decided to go into standup comedy. Since that decision three years ago, I've appeared on MSNBC.com, entered and placed in comedy competitions, and I perform at comedy clubs and colleges across the country. It turns out it was the right choice for me. I'm making a living (although not as much money as during my i-banking days, of course). Most importantly, I feel fulfilled.
This transition from deals to the comedy world has happened before. Funnymen Paul Mecurio, Greg Giraldo and others made similar transitions. So far, my stand up journey has been painstaking yet refreshing.
When I leave a club after a gig and think about the lessons I learned that night and the skills I'm sharpening as a standup comic, I can't help but think back to my i-banking days. I see a lot of connections between what I'm learning now and skills and traits that could have helped me then. I'm not suggesting that unfunny bankers try to start telling jokes in client meetings. Rather, I see three traits in successful comedians that i-bankers should seek to emulate: brutal honesty, vulnerability, and allowing different voices to be heard.
Brutal honesty. How does this trait manifest in the comedy world? Look at headlining comics Jim Norton and Robert Kelly. Watching them perform, it's clear the crowd appreciates their honesty about themselves. After speaking with them recently at The Comedy Cellar in New York City, they both reinforced the importance of honesty in their material and how others in the world should consider ways to be more honest with both "the audience" and themselves. This certainly applies to the investment banking world. Far too often, I saw i-bankers sugarcoat uncomfortable truths with clients or themselves. Inevitably this leads to bigger issues down the road. Clients and colleagues, whether they're in comedy clubs or in cubicles are looking for honesty. Far too often, they don't get it.
Vulnerability. This trait is related to brutal honesty, for sure, and you can't be vulnerable unless you're honest. I look to comedians like Bill Burr and Jessica Kirson to see how this trait can be deployed effectively in the comedy world. Bill Burr talks about the inner conflict of his relationships, brought on in part by his upbringing in Boston. Others might be shy about sharing awkward personal details, but you get the sense that he is opening up and bringing you into his real feelings. Jessica Kirson sometimes creatively shares with the audience a motivational conversation with herself on stage, opening up about her insecurities in an endearing way. How does this apply to investment banking? Younger employees daunted by a task can be inspired by those they work for if their superiors share their own struggles from early in their career. Too often in the machismo-laden i-banking world, people put on veneers of invincibility, when of course it's not true. But it sets the stage for an unattainable goal for the younger bankers, which leads to cutting corners and not being honest. The humanizing impact of showing vulnerability (which is different than weakness) can bring about a more cohesive, realistic, and empathetic workplace.
Giving everyone a voice. The success of comedians George Lopez and Russell Peters represents this lesson. Their material gives the Latino and Pan-Indian markets a voice of pride. But their representation of these diverse voices actually shows the common humanity we all share. The leadership lesson here? Ensure all members have a voice on your team. Sometimes this can be difficult to do with the aggressive culture of investment banking. But allowing all voices to be heard can similarly show the common traits in seemingly divergent positions.
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