Reflections on Leadership: An Interview with Walter B. Wriston, Citigroup CEO (Retired)

Reisel, William D.


Reflections on Leadership: An Interview with Walter B. Wriston, Citigroup CEO (Retired) by William D. Reisel for the Review of Business

Reflections on Leadership: An Interview with Walter B. Wriston, Citigroup CEO (Retired) by William D. Reisel for the Review of Business


Citigroup was ranked seventh in the Fortune 500 for 2001. During that year, the company earned $112 billion from its banking operations in more than 100 countries. Standard & Poor's describes Citigroup as an extraordinarily diversified financial services holding company. The firm has five major divisions: commercial banking; consumer and commercial finance; investment banking and brokerage; life insurance: and property and casualty insurance. Under the current leadership of Sanford Weill, the company continues to grow via mergers and acquisitions principally in banking and investment banking.

Walter B. Wriston retired as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Citicorp and its principal subsidiary, Citibank, N.A., on September 1, 1984, after having served as Chief Executive Officer for 17 years and in various other positions with the company for 38 years.

Born in Middleton, Connecticut on August 3, 1919, Mr. Wriston graduated from Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Among several honorary degrees, he received a Doctor of Commercial Science from St. John's University in 1974.

Mr. Wriston joined Citibank in 1946, rising to President and Chief Executive Officer of the bank in 1967 and of the corporation when it was formed in 1968. He became Chairman in 1970.

Mr. Wriston is a Director of ICOS Corporation, Cygnuts, Inc. and Vion Pharmaceuticals, Inc. He was Chairman of President Ronald Reagan's Economic Policy Advisory Board, a member and former Chairman of The Business Council, and a former Co-Chairman and Policy Committee member of the Business Roundtable. He is a Trustee of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a Life Governor of New York Presbyterian Hospital and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Mr. Wriston is also a writer. , a collection of his essays, is published by Harper & Row, and is published by Charles Scribner's Sons. One of his widely quoted observations is: "Information about money has become almost as important as money itself."

Q. You have been a leader of modern money management. How would you advise young executives who aspire to reach the top in their professions, as you have. Are there any secrets you can share?

A. If the truth be told, most people's lives are a series of accidents. When they get older, they come to believe they planned it that way. I went from being a chemist to being a lawyer. Shortly after I was accepted at Yale law school, my father called me up prior to my registering and he told me that we would have to fight a war and, therefore, I wouldn't get through law school. When I came back from World War II, my wife was teaching school in New York, so I said I'd better get a job until the semester was over. My family doctor said why don't you work for a bank. I asked him to recommend a good one and he said Citibank. I went down there and got a job on a temporary basis and never left. That's the extent of my scientific career planning.

There are people who lay out long-term career plans that can be useful, but the real trick is to do whatever you are assigned to do as well or better than anybody else. There isn't any other way, unless your parent is the proprietor. The fact is if you do well in one thing, the word spreads around the water cooler that this man or women is pretty smart.

When I was with Citibank, we used to identify our top young managers, and these would be the people who would be moved to handle the most important opportunities in the bank. To make this work, we realized that we needed to reward our managers for developing their subordinates--otherwise they would hide them. So we made developing key new people a part of the promotion and salary review requirements of management. That worked pretty well, and those young people came up and are now running half the banks in the world. There is no one secret in rising to the top, however. My advice to young executives is to work hard and try to be the best at what you do-and not worry about the next assignment.

Q. You've spoken of the collective genius of people in an organization and how people are the key to beating the competition. The question is motivation. How do you motivate talent?

A. Morale is an amorphous thing. But if you're a good bank officer, you can tell within 20 minutes whether or not it is a happy branch. People like to be on a winning team. If they think that the people running the store know what they are doing and treat their people with respect, and that they are running a meritocracy, people will be motivated. We always made it clear that we didn't care about family status, or the color of your passport, or your race or gender; all we cared about was if you could do the job. I think that has a tremendous motivating force.

We also believed that the person running an operation has to have integrity. That's number one. In addition, you have to recognize the people who do a good job by opening up growth opportunities for them. I personally tried to meet as many of the new managers as possible. My wife and I would open up the house and have new people to our home so that we could get to know them. People at the bank said it was an unusual thing to do-but those managers remembered it and would tell me about it years later. You have to be willing to help people, too. I remember that one day my manager told me I had written one of the dumbest things he'd ever seen. The next day he introduced me to a bunch of CEOs and said I was going to be a senior credit officer one day. When I reminded him what he'd said the previous day, he told me he wouldn't have said anything to me if he didn't think he could teach me something.

Q. Complacency can undermine prospects for future success. How should leaders fight this personal and organizational challenge to ensure that progress is continuous?

A. One of the things you need to pay attention to is the competition. If you suddenly wake up one day and find that somebody is eating your lunch, you need to do something about it. The result is that people have to keep working hard to keep pace with change. People at Citigroup think they're pretty good--and they are--but you have to remember that there is always a better way to do something. One of the great things is that people are constantly coming up with new ways to do things, and we like to encourage that innovative thinking.

The greatest danger inside a corporation is when no one talks to anyone else. When that happens, divisions become separate silos, each trying to protect their own P&L statements. We believe that every area needs to talk to every other area about best practices. When someone comes up with a great idea, we try to give them credit and rewards for sharing that idea. If you don't do something concrete to encourage people to share their original ideas with others in the company, all the lectures in the world won't work.

I'll give you a quick illustration. I was in Paris one day and I said to the guys, "Why don't you sell any travelers checks?" They said: "When we sell travelers checks, the P&L goes to the functional unit in New York--we don't get credit." So we invented a system that credited the branch for selling them, and suddenly sales took off. You have to figure out a system so people know that what they do is rewarded. Also, to do things better or differently you sometimes need to transfer people between groups. People come in with disparate experiences that can help them to see things differently.

Q. Do you see any major changes coming down the pike for the way major financial institutions will be conducting business?

A. The law of science is the law of convergence. I've always thought that was true of finance, too. General Electric, Sears and just about everyone is in finance, nowadays. Almost every day you get a credit card application in the mail from companies you may not even have heard of. The convergence is there, but the building of the World Wide Web and the ability to move money in 0s and 1s has substantially changed the way we work.

The innovations that will come tomorrow are going to make access to financial services even more convenient than they are today. When we put ATMs through out New York City, all the other banks ran ads saying their tellers smile with pearly teeth, and who wants to talk to a machine? Our unspoken answer was that if you want money at 10 P.M., when those smiling tellers are home, you'd be glad to visit an ATM.

The iteration of the ATM was tremendous. So, the next iteration in finance will be one-stop-shopping that is easy to access from anywhere. The web has had a profound effect on the financial services business and will deliver new products as customer needs are identified. The key will be to have CEOs who are open to the opportunities. These CEOs will need to have a wide scan of current events and be broadly read. I don't care if people read paperback novels, newspapers or technical journals--if you don't have wide vision, you're going to miss opportunities. You might learn something that can have an effect on the future of your industry. I am a great believer in very catholic reading tastes.

Q. The Chicago School of Economics advises against managers assuming the role of social saviors as business is largely an economic enterprise; yet recognition of social responsibility among business is increasing all the time. What are your thoughts about the manager's need to include social responsibility in their organizational decision-making?

A. My friend Milton Friedman and I spoke about this a short time ago. He said that your only responsibility is to create profit for your shareholders. Businesses that become socially involved and fail create a greater disservice to all their people, who are then out of work.

The flip side of that is that you live in a society, and if the society is failing, you're going to have a hard time succeeding. Alexis de Tocqueville said that what distinguishes Americans is volunteerism. And I think organizations should encourage their people to take an interest in their communities and how they work. This is particularly true when we go overseas. We set up schools and train people so that they learn how to perform a wide range of basic business skills. Society is improved by helping people, by building their skills. I agree with Milton that your business has to be solvent--but at the same time, you have to take a good look at the society around you and encourage everyone to make a constructive contribution to society.

Q. More and more is coming out about Enron. The scandal has even been added to our lexicon: "Enronitis." How can future Enrons be avoided? Was something missed at the Board of Directors' level? Can it be fixed?

A. There is a lot of misconception going around about what the board and the audit committee should have done. How an audit committee is constructed for corporate governance doesn't matter. At the end of the day what is critical is open communication. That obviously was not the case at Enron. If the audit committee asks the senior officers if they saw anything or knew anything--and they lie--you're not going to find out the truth. This has cast a pall over the entire business community because it is clear that the Chief Financial Officer was doing things that should have been stopped. The lesson of corporate governance is that you don't give officers waivers on moral principles.

In all fairness, however, there are 782 pages of FASB regulations for how to book a derivative. Maybe somebody understands it. I don't know. Once you have something that complicated, the presumption is that a company can find a way around it with a lot of smart lawyers and financial experts. Auditing firms state that the validity of the financial statements is the responsibility of management, not the auditor. This means that we are dependent on the integrity and honesty of management. Big companies may operate in 10 countries with 10 legal systems and 10 accounting systems. Without the integrity of management, forget it. If they are not honest, you're not going to find it out unless someone blows a whistle. I think Enron has had a corrosive effect in that now everyone is suspect. But it has also had a beneficial effect in that companies will be less likely to take liberties with their responsibilities to their shareholders.

Q. The media plays a huge role in shaping public opinion. How should today's savvy managers work with the media?

A. Citibank used to operate only in the five boroughs of New York City. We were prohibited by regulation from expanding. We were regulated on the amount of interest we could charge or the types of non-banking businesses we could enter. Part of my job was to work to relax these regulations so that the bank would survive. I took on the job of being a semi-public figure, not because I wanted attention, but because I wanted to create an atmosphere that was conducive to business. As far as the media is concerned, one should never lie to them. You may leave out some information, but you must always be straight with the media. Second, if you've got a festering situation, you get out information about it quickly and accurately. Answer the questions, otherwise you won't have any future credibility.

We used to have a dinner with the media every Christmas time. The rule was that they couldn't ask us any question--we could only ask them questions. It got to be a nice arrangement, where we became acquainted with the media--even if we were in an adversarial relationship. After a while, they got the general idea that we weren't going to lie to them. They also knew that we were watching what they wrote. So if they went off the deep end, I'd write an op-ed piece to restore balance to the news presentation. The public perception of a company is extremely important, and part of the job of a CEO is to manage that perception.

Q. Jack Welch, the recently retired CEO of General Electric, is credited with being one of the best management minds of the 20th Century. While he is remembered for his successes as CEO, he also had a memorable failure when a factory was destroyed by explosion. He saw this failure as an opportunity to learn. How do you view failure among relatively new managers?

A. I know Jack well. I was the longest serving director at GE and was on the compensation committee that put Jack in his job. We always said if you make a mistake, make it for a good reason. There is no negative stigma attached to it. You pick up and go on. If you make a mistake that is ill advised, then that's another category altogether. We have plenty of people who are innovators, who created all kinds of ideas Some of these ideas worked and others did not. The ones that didn't work we chalked up to learning--as long as the methodology by which they were produced was sound. We would say that the failure was for a good cause, and not a mark against an individual. People were expected to pick up and move on to something else.

You have to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit. Otherwise you produce bureaucrats. Then you may as well join the Post Office. Around Citibank there was always a new idea. Some were good, some were not so good, and some were total failures. Sometimes good ideas aren't obvious right away. I'll give you an example. We believed that credit cards were going to be the delivery system of the future. Well, we lost a billion dollars in that business and no bonuses were paid out for two years. But the directors believed in it and stood behind it. Today the credit card business is one of the main drivers of the Citigroup. So the lesson for handling failures is to recognize that they are a necessity for learning, and you want to encourage learning even when a sound approach sometimes leads to mistakes.

Q. When things are going well they go very well, but when things take a turn for the worse, they can do so surprisingly quickly. You managed many challenging situations during your tenure at Citibank. Among those was the structural frailty crisis of the (then) newly constructed Citibank HQ. What is your thinking about leading during crisis?

A. That's very interesting because the engineer who designed the Citicorp Center was world famous. He put a model of the building in a wind tunnel and everything was fine, so the building was constructed. Then, just before it was finished, the engineer wrote an article about the engineering of the building, and a student at M.I.T. read it and said, hey, you made a mistake. If the wind blows squarely, you're right. But if the wind blows on a corner, the force is multiplied and the building could fall down. The engineer went back and, to his credit, found that it was true. He called up and I went to see him. You're not going to believe this--while I was sitting in his waiting room a picture of the Citicorp Center fell off the wall and broke on the floor. I said this is not good. They told me that if the wind blows at a certain speed, the building will fall down and hit Fifth Avenue and possibly kill thousands of people.

We set up weather monitoring systems in Queens and all throughout the building. I notified the deputy Mayor and the fire and police departments. The Red Cross went house to house to get names and addresses of everyone in the area. In the meantime, we needed welders to go into the building at night, after hours, to add structural steel to strengthen the entire building. We couldn't find 20 welders to come in at night so I called the Governor of New York and he found them for us. We went in each night, starting on the most critical floors, and pulled out the wallboards and welded prefabricated structural supports in place and put the walls back in. Rumors were circulating that something was wrong with the building, but no one realized the actual situation. In the meantime, we continued to make the repairs, and thankfully the work was completed before the building could be tested by any strong winds.

One of the decisions we had to make was whether to tell people. This could have created a panic in the streets. Of course, if you don't tell people and something happens, you are derelict. So, like most tough decisions, you're between a rock and a hard place. We had a lot of confidence in the people who were doing the repair work so we decided that panic was not an option. The Mayor's office, along with the Fire and Police departments, were all excellent. This was one of the most difficult challenges in my business career. Luck also played a part as it does in most things. All the newspapers in the city were on strike during the whole period.

My friend, Peter Drucker, believes that most officers use their best people when they find themselves in a mess. That's wrong. Drucker says, because you should put your best people to work on the best opportunities. I thought about that a lot. He's right, but when the mess gets big enough you want to make sure that you have the proper talent to clean it up. At the end of the day his thinking is correct. The only point I'd argue is the magnitude of the mess. If it's a corporate-life threatening mess, then you can forego the opportunities for a while.

Q. As college students prepare to leave school with their degree--the symbol of 'what they know'--how important would you say success depends upon 'who you know'?

A. It all depends on who the "who" is. Getting a leg up is not a bad idea, and just about everyone does it. The modern term is networking. It may be that one of your professors at St. John's knows a corporate executive, and that executive calls up and asks: "Do you have any real smart students?" That's a form of networking. But it's a catch-22 if you recommend a person who doesn't know anything, and because of your recommendation the person gets the job. He or she won't last very long, and the company may not come back to you again asking for people. On the other hand, there are people who walk in off the street and turn out to be excellent employees. I got my first job that way. Yet sometimes you need to know somebody who knows somebody to simply get a hearing.

The bottom line is, you've got to know what you're doing when you get there. Some of the best people we had walked in off the street. We had one when I was working in the European group. I asked him where he went to school and he said he joined the merchant marines and when he got enough money he'd go to school wherever the boat stopped. He spoke two or three languages. I asked him what his family did and he said his father drives a vegetable truck from Albany to New York every night delivering produce. I said. "You've been around the world," and he said he had just driven to Timbuktu. I asked why he did that and he said: "I've never been there." "You're my kind of guy," I told him, and we hired him. He ended up owning a business in Saudi Arabia--although he held no college degree, he certainly had an education.

Every human being has different talents. The challenge of management is to figure out what they are. So the important thing for a young person starting a career to remember is: keep your skills honed, draw on your unique strengths, and create value for the company. And don't forget to have some fun along the way!

  • This document was created from the article, "Reflections on Leadership: An Interview with Walter B. Wriston, Citigroup CEO (Retired)," written by William D. Reisel for the Winter 2003 edition of St. John's University's "Review of Business." The original article is located in MS134.003.026.00005.
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