Employees in the UK typically get a minimum of a 25-day annual leave. In normal industries, that is.
In investment banking, 25 is a pure accounting entry. Taking holidays is neither encouraged nor welcomed. I personally had to fight for every single holiday, be it a simple weekend trip or a proper week-long getaway. One story in particular has been sitting in my mind for almost two years, waiting to be shared.
Two years ago exactly, I was living a Greek dream. My music was Greek, my passion for Greek men was overflowing, and my Greek language was improving impressively fast. But I had never visited Greece at that point, which was absurd. Eager to rectify that, I got an approval for a long weekend in Athens in late October. I would be departing on Wednesday night, taking Thursday and Friday off, exploring the ancient sights of Athens, shooting off to the Sounion tip of the Attica peninsula, meeting some mates and watching the Ochi-Day parade. I got a great offer at Athens Fresh Hotel, part of my most loved Design Hotels chain. Everything stitched together rather neatly. The mere idea of hitting the Greek soil made me want to fall down on my knees and kiss it. I counted the hours. It would sure be great.
The time went on. August turned into September, which gave way to October. The temporary summer lull was long since over, with all my projects exploding. In addition to my classic Russian electricity projects, I suddenly had a regulated German gas pipeline forced onto me. The German gas transportation sector was seeing a major regulatory shift, and the model I was working on was getting more and more complex. To top it all, I now had not one, but two senior bankers to work with. Two of the most complicated personalities I had ever met in my life. In short, not the best time for a weekend off.
I was still hoping, though. A week ahead of my flight, I sent a “holiday reminder” to all people I worked with, urging everyone, should they have any concerns, to prevent me from going NOW rather than later. UBS had a policy of compensating everyone for a holiday missed on business grounds, but it was not really about the money. No-one responded. No concerns, I concluded. Green light to go.
The crucial night came. I had been working full-on for four weekends and leaving the office, on average, at 3-4am daily. I barely had time to pack and had my bag sitting under the desk in the office. The latest I could leave the office was 7pm to catch the BA flight to Athens. That Wednesday flew by in a whirlpool fashion. More calls with co-advisers, more inputs from the consultants, more scenarios for the model, more distraction from my never-ending Russian projects. The clocks approached the hour. I came up to my Associate Director, bag on my shoulder, to say goodbye and “hope that you’ll manage without me for a few days”. He looked surprised. It was obvious that the idea I was actually leaving never occurred to him. Too bad for you, I thought. Because I am.
…twenty minutes later I found myself in an underground train heading to Heathrow. It was one of those lines close to the surface, which allowed me to receive calls. I looked at my blackberry. Two missed calls from a “Withheld Number”. Whoever once was in investment banking can sniff a truly bad omen here. “Withheld Number” usually means an office landline, or your colleague trying to reach you – to drag into that office. I felt shivers streaming down my spine as the blackberry rang again. After a momentary hesitation, I picked up. Yes, that Swedish accent was my Associate Director’s. I should not have left without warning. Or I could have given a better warning. I cannot leave him behind with a whole model to be delivered to the banks by morning. He has no other analyst familiar with the model.
I exploded. All this should have crossed his mind before, I screamed. I would not have said anything had they made me cancel earlier. But it was too late. I was on my way to the airport, and already in Greece in my mind. Greece was the country of my dreams, and he could not do this to me. Just this once, I begged. Let me go once, and I’ll be your slave forever. I had never asked you for favours before. I had always followed your orders before. Let me off this time. Please.
Silent in his cold Scandinavian manner, my AD went on to conference in our staffer (the person responsible for allocating work in the team). The three of us continued the screaming competition for a few minutes. The staffer was finally the one to put an end to it, telling me, in a cool voice, to “shut up and return to the office immediately”. I did not have any arguments left.
I do not have a clear recollection of what followed that night. I remember changing trains, walking back into the office, responding to some colleagues’ surprised enquiries, making my way straight to the AD’s desk and asking sharply if there was “anything I could help with”. That night was long. The model failed to balance several times, then eventually was sent to the banks around 5am, when I left, my luggage still sitting under my desk. I was back at work by 9:30am, re-embarked on an endless combination of conference calls, meetings, presentation editing, skimming German documents and amending the model. I got several health enquiries from my colleagues. Yes, sleepless nights and the stress of a missed holiday could not improve one’s appearance.
I must have looked really bad though, because, towards the end of the day, the very senior guy called me into a meeting room to talk. He started by apologising. They should have handled the situation differently. I obviously had a strong emotional reason to go to Greece. They should have communicated their desire to have my holiday cancelled way in advance rather than in the last minute. In short, he was terribly sorry. I will have a business class ticket to Athens booked immediately, and am free to go for an abridged long weekend. Wow!
The night was again long and the morning was early. But, after a four-hour flight, I finally made it. Made it to Greece.