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Graduate career progression advice from Barclays, Mercer, Lane Clark and Peacock and RBS.

How to succeed in your first financial services job

Once you’ve got your graduate job in finance, how can you ensure you impress and progress up the career ladder quickly? Our panel of actuarial and retail banking professionals give you their advice.

You’ll find that your more experienced colleagues like to explain their thinking to new graduates, so you can learn a lot if you’re switched on.

1. Take advantage of the development opportunities available to you while you’re still junior

Elizabeth Almond is a senior consultant at Lane Clark & Peacock LLP and her advice to would-be graduates was unequivocal: ‘Make the most of the opportunities available while you are still fairly junior – for example, it is far easier to get meetings experience as a junior observing than later on in a more senior role.’ You’ll also find that your more experienced colleagues often like to give the benefit of their advice and explain their thinking to new graduates, so you can learn a lot if you’re switched on.

It’s also standard across the industry for graduate-level recruits to take professional qualifications: for some roles it’s mandatory and for others it’s optional. If it is optional, do your research and discuss with your manager the possibility of your studying a certain qualification. When studying go along to all the events run by the professional body that you possibly can. It will build your technical understanding, your soft skills and your network of contacts (who may know of suitable job opportunities for you if and when the time comes).

2. Ask for chances – and then do a good job

The graduates who get ahead are those who take a real interest in their own career development. It’s always worth asking to get involved in any projects or initiatives that crop up. As long as you don’t imply that you are asking to get out of doing the work you’re currently doing, managers will be impressed by your get-up-and-go.

‘At this point in my career I’m keen to experience everything that I can,’ a retail banking graduate at Barclays told TARGETjobs. ‘I’ve asked to get involved with some high priority projects and have been thrown in at the deep end as a result, which I love.’

When given opportunities, your team needs to do a conscientious and a good job. ‘Presenting our strategic project to the managing director of the branch network has been my biggest career highlight so far,’ she added. ‘We had to work hard, but we got great feedback from some really senior stakeholders – as a result, out suggested solutions are coming to life.’

3. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver

In your eagerness to volunteer, though, don’t make unrealistic promises – for example, saying you will meet an impossible deadline. It will look bad when you are unable to meet it. ‘Unreliability is frustrating,’ said another retail banking trainee at Barclays. ‘Those who make promises but don’t deliver bring the whole team down.’

Part of the secret here lies in learning how to manage your time. Many graduates who manage perfectly well with essay deadlines struggle when they’re in the office. There are many websites offering time management tips and courses; it’s well worth doing your reading before starting your job.

4. Muck in

This piece of advice is aimed specifically at retail bank managers, but it’s also useful for other disciplines: don’t be thinking you’re too good to do the more mundane, less management-y tasks. Mucking in will stand you in good stead later down in your career, and everyone likes a hard worker. ‘I trained as a cashier early on so that I would have more credibility instructing cashiers later down the line,’ said one of the Barclays graduates we spoke to. ‘I was worried I wouldn’t be accepted, but the team was pleased I mucked in and even elected me Employee of the Month.’

5. Look for ways to be innovative

The financial services industry needs innovative thinkers to come up with new products, strategies and ways of doing things, so keep your eyes open for a chance when you can come up with a commercially sound idea. ‘Use your initiative – if you spot a chance for improvement, put forward a realistic and considered proposition,’ said Katy Shepherd, an activation manager at RBS.

6. Keep your ideas about your career path open

When you start out on your graduate scheme, your career choices will be structured – but after that it’s up to you. The advice of Deborah Cooper, a partner at HR consultancy Mercer, was to keep your options open. She has moved from actuarial work at the Government Actuary Department to academic lecturing to consultancy work at Mercer. She stressed that a lot of your skills are transferable: ‘Skills such as making sense of data and presenting results in an understandable way to a varied audience are endlessly applicable to many walks of life, leaving your career path flexible. Don’t be pigeonholed: move between disciplines.’

7. Have a social life

The financial services industry – and the insurance sector in particular – is known for its emphasis on relationship building. Being sociable can pay career dividends, according to Elizabeth. ‘Get involved in the social aspect of the job – getting to know the people you work with in a relaxed after-work setting is really enjoyable, and quite often you can pick up invaluable pieces of advice that just come up in conversation over dinner or drinks.’

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