TARGETjobs black logo
Key skills for graduate jobs in financial services

Emotional intelligence – a must-have for financial services graduates

HSBC and Willis Towers Watson are among the many employers in retail banking and insurance that highlight the importance of emotional intelligence. It’s a quality that’s easily forgotten because it’s not explicitly requested or graduates don’t know what it means.

All financial organisations are hugely based on relationships. And long will they be, as this essential and personal aspect can’t be substituted with technology.

Emotional intelligence is not only crucial when you’re on the job – it’s also paramount when you’re searching for a graduate role and going through the recruitment process. To hone and apply this must-have skill so you can get the finance job you want, read on.

What is emotional intelligence?

A graduate recruiter at HSBC told TARGETjobs: ‘I’d term emotional intelligence as being aware of how your actions affect other people, and how your behaviour is influencing them. But also, the ability to pick up, verbally and non-verbally, the mood of other people, and predict how they're feeling before they come and tell you.’

Possessing it will provide a solid foundation for the development of other core competencies that are essential to a career in financial services, such as communication, problem-solving, team working, and leadership and team management.

Why emotional intelligence is a must for a career in financial services

If a tree represented a financial firm, robust internal and external relationships would be its roots. Without good roots, the tree wouldn’t experience optimum growth and produce good fruit (results and profit). And emotional intelligence is essential to robust relationships.

All financial organisations, whether they operate within the actuarial, insurance, retail banking, risk or regulatory arena, are still hugely based on relationships. And long will they be, as this essential and personal aspect can’t be substituted with technology.

Carla Lakey, partner at Lane, Clark & Peacock LLP, says: ‘A lot of actuarial consulting work is about building relationships with people, so empathy is also a good quality to have. In a consulting role, it’s important for clients to have someone they are happy to pick up the phone to.’

Retail banking

Take retail banks and building societies as an example. The main graduate jobs are in branch management or relationship management – both of which involve immense interaction with colleagues or customers every day.   

Because of this, HSBC says emotional intelligence is a skill its graduate recruits must have. ‘A lot of our business is working with and leading people – if you're going to be successful with that you need emotional intelligence,’ said the HSBC recruiter we spoke to.


The same applies to roles in insurance – from entry level up to management. Toby Wemyss, global head of facultative business at Willis Towers Watson, said: ‘As a broker, emotional intelligence has an important part to play because if you sense that someone’s reacting positively to a certain theme you continue to go down that route.’

Reflecting on his career with the global insurance broker, Toby added: ‘Now that I’m managing and looking after the people who work with me, being able to read people and understand how they’re reacting to situations is just as important as it was when I was a broker trying to complete a deal with an underwriter.’

How can I prove to an employer that I have emotional intelligence?

There’ll likely be questions on application forms and/or during interviews to help prospective finance employers gauge the level of your emotional intelligence.

Spot when employers want it

HSBC is very specific about its retail banking graduate candidates possessing this quality, so its questions may contain obvious characteristics from the definition of emotional intelligence above. For example, it might ask a question such as: ‘Describe a time when understanding someone else’s perspective helped you understand them better’.

While other employers may also endeavour to employ emotionally intelligent graduate recruits, they might not use the exact ‘emotional intelligence’ terminology when specifying on their websites the qualities they want budding actuaries, for instance, to have. Instead, the company might say that graduates applying for its actuarial programme will need to be comfortable working closely with people as they’ll be explaining highly complex issues to people who aren’t specialists in their area.

You need to have emotional intelligence to do this, and questions in the application form and interviews will try to uncover the extent to which you do. You could, therefore, get a question along the lines of: ‘How do you develop rapport with people?’

Choose versatile examples

Back up your answers with examples from education, work, interests or your personal life that show you have emotional intelligence as well as other skills being sought by the organisation.

This type of example could accentuate, for instance, your team working, communication and problem-solving skills, and your emotional intelligence. And this type of example is practical because it both covers multiple competency-related questions that could be asked during the interview and highlights several of your strengths.

Perhaps at university you were asked to work in a group (team working) to produce a short documentary, and a team member was struggling to fulfil her responsibility but didn’t inform other members of the team.

Of the group members, only you were able to sense (emotional intelligence) that something was wrong, and you organised an informal chat with her (communication) to help find a solution to the issue (problem solving).

Big up your customer-facing jobs  

Work-related examples, specifically customer-facing roles, will also help you to show off this skill. HSBC, for instance, looks for candidates who have a minimum of two months’ customer-related work experience.

Have you had any temporary, part-time or voluntary jobs? Have any of them involved engaging with customers, clients or members of the public? How did you ensure the customers received a first-rate service? What challenges did you face? How did you overcome them?

John Morewood, head of Emerging Talent Europe, HSBC, said experience gained in the retail, health, education and hospitality sectors are particularly relevant as they all involve a high level of interaction with customers. ‘This is important because customer focus is a key part of any retail organisation’s success.’      

Engage at the assessment centre

Of the entire recruitment process, the assessment centre will likely be where your emotional intelligence is mainly tested. For example, you’ll be observed during group exercises and informal meetings/conversations with assessors, graduate employees and the other candidates.

It’s essential that you listen carefully to what other people say throughout the day and consider how they may be feeling. During a group exercise, for instance, don’t steal everyone’s thunder because you want to show how much you know. Be the one who pays close attention, picks up on cues and responds accordingly.

Follow us on Twitter @TjobsFinance.