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SCAN Business interviewed Lancaster alumni, Gregory Tilmant, who is currently an Executive Director at Goldman Sachs in London and gave insights into his experience at Lancaster, how students can prepare themselves for work life and how to stand out as a student.
Tell me a bit about yourself and how you came to Lancaster
I left Belgium for England to study English for a year because I couldn’t speak a word of it! I was doing something similar to a University foundation course so I did have classes in Finance and Economics. I intended to go back to Belgium after my course was over but at that time, there was a lot of talk about going to University in the U.K. and I decided to apply. Following on, Lancaster University was part of my list and I knew a few people who studied here so I applied and got an offer to study Business Studies.
What did you go on to do after graduating in 2006?
During my final year at Lancaster, I wanted to work in Finance and I did apply to quite a few banks but didn’t get any offers that year so I tried to do something different and applied for an internship in China.
I received an offer for a 1-year internship as a Project Management Assistant in Shanghai at a company called Bekaert, which deals in steel wires.
However, in China, I did not enjoy what I was doing as I still wanted to work in Finance but exploring the new culture and the language barrier was quite an interesting experience; I couldn’t even pronounce the name of my street! Only my managers in the factories could speak English and through engaging with them, I discovered a completely new custom that was an enjoyable yet a challenging experience because I’ve always embraced various cultures and this was another great experience, which prepared me for life at Goldman Sachs.
What motivated you to join Goldman Sachs after China?
I wanted to work in an Investment Bank and had a choice between lots of banks because they all have great, unique assets but I wanted to join Goldman Sachs because it has a good name and initially, when you don’t know so much about companies, you think about the best. Now that I have been working here for a while, I do not have any intention of moving and this is because of the people I work with. I am surrounded by amazing, smart and talented people who are willing to help each other and that is what the Goldman Sachs culture is all about. Everyone thinks banking is a ‘world of sharks’ but that is not true, we are all helping each other, not trying to be above everyone else and only thinking about the company and its goals.
The only way that you can succeed here at Goldman is by being transparent, honest, hard working and smart and that is what I love about it.
How did Lancaster help shape your career goals?
Lancaster offers a high level of education and the lecturers were quite good but what is so unique is that it is extremely diverse and you see people from every country. I went to weddings in China, in India and made friends from everywhere in the world. I met my wife in Lancaster too so diversity is something that is truly unique to Lancaster and an important aspect when working in Finance because at Goldman Sachs, I work with people from various cultures.
I also enjoyed the fact that it is away from London as I experienced something so different from the city life and feel I know England better than most of my colleagues. Socially, Lancaster prepared me for work life as I met people from different social backgrounds and this has helped me in approaching and understanding clients because of the different type of people I engage with on a daily basis.
What are the biggest challenges you faced transitioning from university to work life and how did you overcome this?
To be honest, I don’t remember having any strong challenges but from what I see from today’s students, and in what could be in my case as well, is that quite often, I see graduates joining firms but they don’t take enough initiatives.
They wait for their managers to give them work; they do it and they hope they did it well. That is not what you want to be doing at such an early stage in your career. If I give something to my junior I want them to do the very best they can because to the client, you have to be perfect and not just focus on ‘getting the work done’.
That’s where the barrier is and taking more responsibility and initiative is where they struggle when they arrive at a new job. Nevertheless, I believe British universities tend to be bit less like that than others because they are more proactive and address these issues early on.
What challenges do students face when applying for jobs and how should they address these?
I went to a Careers Fair not long ago and I was quite surprised because I realised that people came there to ask specific questions but they did not really prepare to have a conversation.
People came to me and asked plenty of questions on finance but what I was expecting to find is great students who would interact with me, ask about the sector and company specific questions which would impress me and where I could have the opportunity of recommending that person to the HR.
I was disappointed that I did not find prepared students. You should have questions but be prepared to go ahead of that, have a story to tell, say something that will make you different, read the Financial Times to know what’s happening in the financial world and the activities and culture of the company you are applying to. This is really important and is what counts when you have the opportunity to be interviewed and shine in front of your recruiter. Being prepared is what gives you the competitive edge and allows you to engage more with your interviewer and improve your understanding about work-life.
What, according to you, differentiates one student from the other?
If we talk about finance in general, we receive a tonne of great CV’s people from the most brilliant academic backgrounds but what I am looking for are people who have done something ‘a little extra ‘(a sport or any other activity) that they would push through to extreme levels for.
I know it is easier said than done because I was never any ‘sporting legend’ at University but your CV needs to have something special. I did not get an interview initially after graduation because I did not do anything special but what eventually differentiated me was that I did an internship for 1 year in China and that made me stand out. So I would advise students to differentiate themselves as much as possible. Take an activity, do a sport, do an academic year aboard but having those ‘extra skills’ are important. Above all, do not underestimate the value of internships and that starts from year 1!
How tough is the market right now for the youth after Brexit?
Honestly, I believe Brexit is not going to change anything much. Some banks might slash jobs but I have not heard of a single year, in good and bad times, where a company hasn’t laid-off people and where they have not hired new people, so that shouldn’t be a huge concern.
Nonetheless, these companies are inclined to recruit a large number of analysts because even if you hear that companies are cutting jobs, I would not worry so much as an analyst because they need to have young, energetic people who would provide them with different perspectives and ideas.
Brexit may lead to some banks relocating from London to Frankfurt/ Paris but these banks cannot simply just hire a bunch of new local people. They need to make use of the people they already have, otherwise they lose their biggest assets!
So I believe Brexit would not change much and the only thing that might change is where you might be located but honestly, is that a big deal unless you are unwilling to move?
What would you go back and tell your young self?
I would go back to the age of 19 when I started off at Lancaster and tell myself to work harder and get involved. There is going to be plenty of ‘playtime’ anyway so focus on the grades and try to get internships and activities done but at the same time enjoy university life and have that much needed balance before you make your way into the corporate world.