Jan 31 2005

The 10 Minute Difference

When I graduated from college I worked on Wall Street for a couple of years as an analyst for Morgan Stanley. While a valuable experience, especially for someone such as myself who had never even considered taking a business or finance course (I was an econ and psychology major), the job pretty much sucked. While I enjoyed the finance aspect of it and, particularly in my second year, had great access to the CEOs and CFOs of the companies I worked with, a lot of my job involved staying up until all hours of the night (morning, technically) preparing analysis and putting together ‘pitch books’ for use in presentations the following day. Not particularly glamorous work. Nor was it generally mentally taxing (to be clear, we did plenty of extremely complicated analysis work, but much of the day to day analysis was more mundane and involved lots of data gathering in the Morgan Stanley library – this was pre the ubiquitous access to financial data on the internet – and less time actually crunching numbers. The job involved working about 90 hours a week (up to 120 on some weeks) and was akin to running a marathon – stamina  counted for a lot.One of the things that’s true about investment banking – even at the analyst level – is that a pretty sizable portion of ones pay comes at the end of the year (actually February for most banks) in the form of a bonus. Bonuses are doled out at senior levels based on deals brought in and revenue generated for the firm, but at the lower levels they were directly tied to your performance review. Morgan Stanley had a rating system with a bunch of levels and the difference in bonus pay-out was pretty substantial. At the top of the pyramid was Outstanding followed by Very Good and so on. A pretty descent percentage of analysts were rated Very Good (probably over 50%), but a very small number (about 5%) were rated Outstanding. The difference in pay was tens of thousands  of dollars (a pretty substantial portion of one’s pay as an analyst).So what’s the difference between Very Good and Outstanding? I’ve been asked this question a bunch of times and the answer to me is very clear. The difference is 10 minutes every day. At a job where one regularly worked 90 hours or more every week there was a huge incentive to cut out of work as soon as you could (at 2am you wanted to get home as soon as you could). But the difference between doing a very good job and an outstanding job was the last 10 minutes of every day when you had  the chance to stop and consider the work you had just done and check it. Most times it was probably fine, but 1 out of10 times you found something that needed adjusting or correcting.

In many respects this was the most important thing I learned at MS and I’ve carried it with my ever since. Despite life’s pull at your time, the difference between doing something well and doing something outstanding is not the 95% of the time you spend actually doing the work – it’s the 5% of the time you spend when you’re done making sure your work is right.