Thursday, March 27, 2008

Whale Turd on the Ocean Floor

With all the business book reading I've been doing lately I've come across a really neat parallel between the financial world and military -- the doers are king, and the support folks play second fiddle.

I've known for some time now that this is the case in the military. At an F/A-18 squadron, for example, there are actually over 100 people. But if there are only 12 planes, that means either 12 or 24 total actively-flying aviators (depending on whether the model is configured to have a backseater). So what is everyone else?

Essentially, a window-wiper.

Whether you're the mechanic, the supply guy, the corpsman, the imagery analyst, the admin clerk, or any of the other (many) people it takes to get Goose and Maverick up in the sky, at the end of the day you're down a few rungs on the totem pole if you're not in the cockpit. Your options are either to accept your fate, get out, change your rating, or go work for a different community.

Strong-willed people are going to choose one of the latter three options, but never the first.

I had no idea it was like this in other realms, but this is a theme I keep coming across in financial literature. Several books I've come across have stated that the best talent in finance is always "closest to the money" or "running the money."

Last night I hit up Michael Lewis' "Liar's Poker" in which he describes the hierarchy among traders, salesman, and analysts at Salomon Brothers in the mid-1980s. Traders are the kings, he says, while everyone else is about as low as "whale [expletive] sitting on the ocean floor." He describes the nature of the relationships in vivid, outstanding detail.

Burton Malkiel says the same thing when he disparages analysts -- essentially, he writes, the best analysts are going to jump ship to portfolio management or hedge funds.

In one of our late-evening, beer-fueled bull sessions back in our old office in Virginia Beach, my former boss (Lieutenant J.S.) explained to me why most of the strongest members of our (support) community get out -- they don't want to be the towel-holders on the sidelines while someone else is playing the game.

In my case, I'm switching over to Civil Affairs for the rest of my career mainly because I think it's a better fit for my skill set and interests. But on some level, I realize that part of my reason for the switch is that I want the opportunity to lead.

I can definitely see the parallel in finance, and I'm sure it could apply to myriad other communities as well.

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