A banker friend from the Midwest recently asked if I'd give his son advice on where to turn next in his career.
The young man came East. He was in his mid-20s, attractive and intelligent. He had graduated from a small college, achieved an undistinguished record, and obtained a position in the training program of a midsize bank.
The training program had lasted a year. The he'd been placed in small- business lending and had received his first officer title. He enjoyed the work but wondered what might happen to him over the years.
A friend of his father's had said, "You can't go anywhere in banking without an MBA." His father asked me to see him.
After the training year, the young man told me over dinner, he was assigned to his favorite department - lending. He seems happy making calls and doing the follow-up work involved in placing credits on the books. But what next?
We agreed that 10 years from now, assuming he still has a job in this downsizing industry, he will be doing pretty much what he is doing now. And we also agreed that with the new techniques of credit scoring, his talents will be less needed. Some banks already have eliminated personal attention in making loans of as much as $250,000 - which his bank considers a fairly good-size credit.
So the questions on the table were: Did he have a future in banking? Would an MBA help?
I quickly disabused him of the thought that an MBA would be the right path. Sure, a few prestige business schools lead to a golden road. But this young man didn't have the academic inclination to get into one of these programs, and couldn't have done the work. Also, he wasn't driven enough.
More important, I said, leadership, imagination, morality, and ambition are what financial institutions need most these days - and you don't get those from MBA programs. I have seen too many students for whom the most valuable part of an MBA program is that on graduation they were two years older, and therefore somewhat more mature.
Well, if I discouraged him from looking at an MBA as his magic carpet to career happiness and high income, what was next? Staying put certainly did not look promising, and moving to a smaller bank also seemed a bad idea. So I ended up suggesting two paths:
* Try to get a job with a consulting firm that would so challenge you that you'd become an aggressive professional. If so, you could later fit into any bank position - once your years of 12-hour days and living out of a suitcase are behind you. (We agreed that getting the job would not be easy.)
* Look for a job as a financial officer in a small business. Your training and lending skills could be valuable; you could grow, diversify your skills, and become a top officer. (Recent surveys have reported that this is the route a great many outplaced bankers have taken.)
But I was sad. This young man loves banking, but he can't count on it for a satisfying lifetime career without spending more time away from his family than he's willing to give.
Am I wrong? Was I too pessimistic?
Let me know if I gave him bad advice. I'd like to correct my mistakes in this space if you think I was unfair to banking and to him.
As always, the best response will win its author one day as president of Schmidlap National Bank.
Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.