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Big bank or small bank? Your career choice, lender

Part 1: The case for “big”

Big bank or small bank? Your career choice, lender

In all the talk about bank size and the fog of discussion surrounding Too Big To Fail issues, I find it curious that there’s not more chatter among bankers about where the best career opportunities lie.

Big bank or small? Is size a determinant of job satisfaction? Does size have a significant bearing on ultimate job proficiency? What about career mobility?

Maybe it’s a subject that is extremely perplexing to the point where bankers don’t even know how to frame the question. Who can you talk to for advice and useful ideas and suggestions?

Factors going into your thinking

First and foremost in any career path evaluation is that anyone should like what he or she does. No one but you, ultimately, can answer that question.

Something like 75% of professionally oriented workers today are in fields their college degree was not designed to address. So, to some degree, it’s luck but a corollary to the role of luck is the need and the ability to create our own luck.

When a young banker occasionally asks me for career-related advice or input, I have to start with the presumption that he or she likes the business. People have to find banking appealing for the long run. If not, they’d better find some other line of work.

There’s a wealth of data that suggests that young people today identify with their work more closely than their employer. Years ago I’d have said, “I work for The Bank of New York.”  Today, a young person at a particular bank is much more likely to say, “I’m a commercial loan officer” or some functional descriptor.

So, if a young person likes banking and aspires to be a commercial lender as a career objective, where should he or she learn the fundamentals?

Who can help these people find their way through the maze of the five thousand or so active bank charters today? 

What are the non-bank alternatives where there may be fundamental skill sets in common and where excellent learning opportunities in a related and relevant way may be available?

Thinking about employer bank size

I’m not a headhunter, so I can’t point the way to specific companies or provide a comprehensive list of non-bank alternatives.

In the occasional career conversations that I’ve had in recent years, one of the primary concerns that always comes up is whether a big company or a small one affords the better opportunities.

I respond by frankly confessing my biases, among which are these principal ones:

1. Big companies are usually more formal about career development.

They know what they want and need over a wide range of job opportunities and job descriptions—both currently and prospectively—and they train for these things.

In-house programs often teach specific skills directed to the bank’s needs in the relatively near future. They will expose participants to a wide array of possible career concentrations.

I remember as a young lender in Florida working alongside a contemporary who had been through the Citibank credit-training program. I think my Bank of New York experience was as good, but it was not identical. His training, for example, seemed to emphasize “Capacity” of the Five Cs of Credit. My training seemed to emphasize “Character” and “Conditions.”

2. Big companies offer a wider range of jobs and specialties.

Lending is a defined set of skills. The bigger the bank, the broader the product line, so the skills may develop in different ways.

There’s also geography to consider. If you’ve had enough of Boston in February, maybe the bank has an opening that you can post for in Phoenix or Dallas.

3. More competition will demand your best game from you.

Big companies usually have high standards of achievement. The bigger the company, the more likely the professional staffing is drawn from “A-list” types with first-rate educations and track records of early accomplishment.

Be aware, though, that such environments, with their competitive atmospheres, can sometimes also be “sharp elbow” environments. Not everyone likes that nor does well in such circumstances—while others thrive. How thick is your own skin?

4. Big companies have excellent employee benefits and usually “pay up” for their talent.

Career earnings at a big bank for similar levels of responsibility compared to a smaller bank are likely going to be considerably more substantial. The pay gap is narrowing, but sheer size is an advantage in the ability—and variety of ways—to compensate.

Many of us automatically assume that young people today are motivated as we were at equivalent points in our careers and salary, if not top of mind, was quite important.

But I look at my four grown children—nurse, teacher, clergyman, and not-for-profit manager. They all have kids so salary is important but it was not the number one motivator for any of them.

5. Large companies such as many of our regional and mega banks might offer hospitable environments for young workers who value socially oriented objectives.

Size is not necessarily the determinant of such workplace values but large companies frequently put substantial resources behind such initiatives.

Through a personal lens

While I started my working career at a large Wall Street bank of its day, most of my experience has been in large community and regional banks.

Upon reflection, I had the best of both worlds. My employers were large enough to offer me excellent training, jobs with considerable responsibility, and were willing and able to pay competitively.

But I never had the opportunity to fly around the world on one of my company’s several jets or be invited to a White House luncheon for consultation by the President and his advisors.

Full disclosure: I’m not a “one per center.” 

Mostly, I wanted an interesting career and I’ve had one—and it’s not done yet either. While there’s much to commend a career in a large or mega bank, I’ve also experienced some community bank environments that were truly wonderful.

Next week we’ll think about what a community bank career might be like and why that may be a great choice too.

Ed O’Leary

Banking Exchange Contributing Editor Ed O'Leary, a veteran lender and workout expert, spent nearly 50 years in bank commercial credit and related functions, working with both major banks as well as community banking institutions. His last job before retiring was as the CEO of a regional bank headquartered in Alburquerque, N.M. He earned his workout spurs in the dark days of the 1980s and early 1990s in both oil patch and commercial real estate lending. O'Leary began his banking career at The Bank of New York in 1964, and worked at banks in Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. He served as a faculty member and thesis advisor at ABA's Stonier Graduate School of Banking for more than two decades, and served as long as a faculty member for ABA's undergraduate and graduate commercial lending schools. Today he works as a consultant and expert witness, and serves as instructor for ABA e-learning courses. You can e-mail him at [email protected]. O'Leary's website can be found at

In mid-2016 O'Leary's "Talking Credit" blog received a bronze excellence award for the Northeastern Region from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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