Back to School: A Syllabus for M&A Professionals

September has come and gone, and school is back in full swing, with students all over hitting the books. It’s also a good time for M&A professionals to brush up on their skills, whether they’re fresh out of school or have a few years under their belts. With that in mind, we’re going to cover some topics and pointers across the experience spectrum that everyone should be familiar with.

General Windows and Office Tips

There’s no escaping it – Microsoft Windows and Office products are ubiquitous, so knowing their ins and outs will allow you to get the most out of them. While most people know how to navigate with a mouse, being able to get around with only the keyboard is considerably faster. One great way to avoid needing the mouse is knowing how to open the context-sensitive menu without it – use the combination of Shift + F10 instead of a right-click. From there, the options can be scrolled through with the arrow keys or accessed by pressing the corresponding underlined letter.

General Windows and MS Office Tips

Pressing “F” here will open the Font Menu

When navigating menus with several tabs, they can be switched by holding Ctrl and pressing the Tab key; adding Alt to the mix will allow you to shift backwards, while pressing only Tab will cycle through the options on the tab, which can then be selected with the spacebar. It takes some getting used to, but it’s much speedier than moving your hand off the keyboard and clicking with the mouse.

Since Office 2007, Microsoft has used the Ribbon within its programs to navigate menus. Pressing the Alt key once will bring up little letters in bubbles which correspond to given Ribbon tabs. From there, you can work your way down to the functionality you want by pressing corresponding letters on your keyboard.

Work the Ribbon in MS Office using your keyboard

By pressing the corresponding letter on your keyboard, you can navigate the Ribbon without having to switch to your mouse

These work across all Microsoft products, but using the mouse is a tricky habit to break, especially at first when using the keyboard is slower. Once you’re used to it, though, it is much faster than navigating with a cursor, and can save you a lot of time in the workday. When you’re in the midst of a deal, and feeling the time pressure, every second counts.

Excel Basics

In the M&A world, most people will end up spending an inordinate amount of time using spreadsheets in Microsoft Excel, so it’s one of the more important programs to master. We’re not going to cover important functions like VLOOKUP, HLOOKUP, or their more robust combination relative, INDEX-MATCH, since these have been covered extensively by most Excel tutorials in considerable depth. Instead, I’d like to highlight Pivot Tables, an oft-forgotten but very powerful data manipulation tool. Pivot tables are great for sorting very large datasets very quickly by forming a matrix that uses your data’s rows as inputs. Various repeated values are used as fields and column headers within the matrix to sum, count, and otherwise manipulate the datasets, allowing you to quickly summarize the information within them. Delving into them entirely is beyond the scope of this article, but they are well documented online and learning how to make use of them will greatly expand your Excel abilities and speed up data analyses.

From a more navigational point of view, there are a few Excel shortcuts worth mentioning. Pressing Alt, then E, then S in succession will open the Paste Special menu without having to go through the ribbon menu. Options can be chosen from within the Paste Special menu by pressing the corresponding underlined key, much like the context-sensitive menus mentioned earlier – V will select “Values”, F will pick “Formula” and T will choose “Formats” – allowing for quickly moving pertinent data, formulae, and/or setups around your spreadsheet. Some can be combined; for example, you can paste both Values and Formats at the same time. Alternatively, if you’ve copied a cell with a number in it you can select “Add” by pressing D and it will add that number to the cell’s value you’re attempting to paste into.

Moving around a spreadsheet can be time-consuming, especially as models and datasets become increasingly complex. Luckily, Excel allows us to move across contiguous blocks of cells by holding the Ctrl key while using the arrow buttons. In a long dataset, this means you can skip directly to the bottom row or final column by holding Ctrl and pressing either down or right, which is much faster than scrolling or holding down an arrow key. Adding the shift key to this mix will highlight the cells, allowing you to quickly select large swaths of cells which you can copy, paste, or otherwise manipulate.

Excel Modeling

Spreadsheet models can vary from very simple to extraordinarily complex, depending on what they’re trying to represent and how granularly they’re trying to represent it. Generally, though, it’s best to start with example models and structures and build from there once you’ve got an idea of how they work and what you’re trying to accomplish. Firmex provides business resources for financial modeling, including a discounted cash-flow model and a leveraged buy-out model, both of which are great places to start if you’re trying to build your own models.

Bill Vlaad, founder of Vlaad and Company, a leading financial services recruiter, stresses the importance of mastering financial modeling if you want to advance your career in M&A:

“While the M&A role has become better known as a career path due in part to the proliferation of business schools, the hurdle to getting into a ‘chair’ has increased,” Vlaad says. “A reduction in roles in other areas of capital markets has redirected more graduates to M&A. Additionally, outsourcing M&A services overseas has reduced some of the entry-level roles. Given the supply/demand equation, ‘good’ financial modeling capabilities are no longer acceptable; they must be great.”

“We ask technical modeling questions as normal practice when we work with clients to identify top talent for their teams,” Vlaad continues. “And standardization of skill level is a reality. The Financial Modeling Institute, a partnership which includes The Marquee Group, has launched a global financial modeling accreditation program which has seen huge participation for its first year of exams. As the need for fine-tuned financial modeling skills becomes a prerequisite for M&A roles, professionals can lean on creditable experts in financial modeling like The Marquee Group to both develop and demonstrate their skills.”


In today’s world, the ability to code is increasingly important and being able to automate processes to save time or manipulate data at blazing fast speeds will increase the value you can add significantly. If you have to learn only two languages, VBA and SQL are the two top recommendations, given their flexibility and functionality, VBA is very heavily integrated with Microsoft Office products, meaning you can manipulate your favorite Office programs via code. SQL is the database language to learn, and as Big Data becomes more pervasive in our day-to-day lives, being able to have a strong command over it will help you stay ahead of the competition. As we mentioned back in March, programming is becoming the literacy of the 21st century and learning it is something that should be embraced, not avoided.

Saved by the Bell

There’s a lot to learn about how to best manipulate Windows and Office, far more than could be written about in a single article. These points represent a good start for people who are unfamiliar with what is expected in the M&A world and should act as a good refresher for those who are more advanced. In either case, it’s always a good time to improve your skills in this competitive landscape and keep building your repertoire so you can continue to add real value for your clients.

Kevan Hartford

Kevan Hartford is a Toronto-based finance professional working in asset management.