Peter (Hoflich, now the managing editor of The Asian Banker) and I were in Kuala Lumpur filming interviews for “The Banking Conversation”, our most recent online-video initiative, when we ran into none other than Chuck Prince, the former chairman and CEO of Citigroup.
The Banking Conversation (http://www.thebankingconversation.com) is our new initiative to move The Asian Banker’s publication business online as much as possible, using video and social networking technology. I would recommend that all friends and visitors to this blog visit the site, view the interviews you like and please register to the Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn accounts from where you will get further insights into the interviews we do. (I must emphasize that registering to these accounts is an important part of The Banking Conversation experience, and I hope that readers will do so.)
I had never met Chuck Prince personally before. During the time that Chuck Prince was chairman and CEO of Citigroup, he visited Asia several times and Singapore at least on three occasions. But that public relations girl, Penny Shone, very craftily kept the more consequential media such as The Asian Banker and other regional ones away from him, while generating manageable publicity from the less influential domestic ones. She may have thought that she was doing her job. But I think she did more damage to Citigroup’s goodwill with the more influential media, which they needed to draw on when things turned bad for them.
I have had the chance to meet, or at the very least shake the hands of Sandy Weill twice, Robert Rubin twice, and John Reed several times in different meetings and cocktails in New York and Washington DC. But not Chuck Prince, and even if I did at the same cocktails, I did not recognise him then.
Having said that, I did think a lot about Chuck Prince, and what kind of person he was, and the leadership style he offered. I also thought a lot about the board of Citigroup, and how and why it chose its leaders. I had a tentative impression of Chuck Prince as a clean-up man, the boss’ bouncer, a personality who was important because of all the difficulty the bank was getting into at that time, and I was so intrigued to have some of these impressions confirmed or modified as a result of finally meeting him… in tiny Kuala Lumpur right across the world.
It was Peter who first spotted him, this huge over-weight man in a suit loitering at the back of the room at a conference in the hotel where we were doing out filming. Chuck took to Peter readily. Peter has this disarming charm about him that makes him amiable to someone like Chuck.
Chuck agreed with Peter to do an interview. Peter came back to where I was, in a small room on another floor, saying that Chuck Prince will do the interview. We were both very pleased. Not many people anywhere in the world have heard much from Chuck Prince since he left Citigroup. We sent messages back to our offices in Beijing and Singapore to ask for the latest coverage on Chuck and a lot of background material.
I did try to be sensitive about whether Chuck would answer questions on Citigroup – everybody would want to know. So, I crafted questions on leadership, governance, compensation, risk management and so on, all with a view of drawing lessons from the Citigroup experience. But I was also aware that he might not want to answer any questions on his Citigroup years.
Before I knew it, at the appointed time, Chuck came into the small room. But when he saw the cameras and studio lights all set up and how organised we were, he backed off and said “I am not doing this, I did say that I don’t mind doing an interview, but not on that (video camera).”
I had to think on my feet, and persuaded him, “why don’t we do some general questions on what you are doing now on video, and we can do the rest on (a voice) tape.” I was surprised how easily he could be persuaded, as long as he got the sense that he could trust the person.
He then showed Peter a file on his Blackberry with the terms and conditions of doing an interview with him, from the company he represents in the US. It was easy to agree to those terms.
I then did the video segment. It was less than four minutes. It was designed to get him to say something which he graciously did. Watch the interview on http://thebankingconversation.com/?p=1404 and then read the transcript of the fuller interview he was at greater ease doing (the transcript is on the side bar on the same website).
There were three qualities about Chuck Prince that came through during the encounter. Firstly, I was taken by just how gentle and kind he was. I kept thinking he was a southerner, but when I checked my notes, I realised that he was born in California and lived in the East Coast. I would have liked to ask a few more questions to pin down where that quintessential Southern quality comes from.
Secondly, for a man who has been through a lot, heavily criticised in recent years for Citigroup, he held himself so very well. I thought a little bit about people in positions such as his, where failure could or should have destroyed them, but they pick themselves up and hold their head up high and move on. He is obviously aware that everyone around him would want to talk about Citigroup and Citigroup only. But he wants to talk about something new.
The one other leader I had the privilege of interacting with who was in a similar situation, was Al Gore, who in his words was “the former future president of the United States.” I had a very congenial one and a half days with him in 2005, the year after that disastrous election. He, like Chuck Prince now, had put on considerable weight and was going through the process of healing from such a monumental a defeat.
Unlike Chuck Prince, Al Gore wore his defeat on his sleeves, joking about it, poking fun at the system and so on, until he found his new calling in crusading against environmental degradation. Strangely enough, both men parked themselves into investment funds. Al Gore’s at that time, was a $10 billion fund. Chuck Prince mentions a small, but growing, fund that is associated with former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and the former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger.
My third observation about Chuck Prince was that he was never meant to be a leader in his own right. Even when he was chairman and CEO of Citigroup, he was obviously playing to the wishes of his true and lifelong mentor, Sandy Weill. Chuck Prince was the Sancho Panza of Don Quixote in that Spanish tale, to use an analogy loosely.
It may appear irreverent to suggest such an analogy, but we must realise that it is possible for anyone to go to the very highest echelons of power, money and fame, and still be really playing out the same themes as at the bottom of the rung.
There is no doubt that Chuck Prince is a man of enormous talent as a lawyer and a corporate executive. Even that came across in the short encounter and the taped interview. But he is one of those individuals who make excellent number twos to a Don Quixote number one. There are many like him in the corporate world, who are happy with their own careers being lifted up by the ambitions of another.
Which then brings to the question that if he was an obvious number two, the board of Citigroup had no business putting him out as chairman and CEO and hanging him out to dry. That now famous epitaph, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance,” was indeed quintessential Chuck Prince, saying things as he saw them, just as Panza spoke truth to Don Quixote. Even after all these years, he never developed the penchant for guile that true leaders possess as a matter of survival.
He is now a man in transition. In search of a new Don Quixote. He mentioned Madeline Albright several times. Quite obviously, she is offering him some promise of a new life after banking. But it is unlikely that she is another Sandy Weill or a Don Quixote.
With her stature and connections, she was able to raise only a modest fund—pocket money for any Wall Street CEO. I think it would not be out of the way to suggest that she in turn is looking to Chuck Prince for a lot of the goodwill that can project her future career. But most important of all, it suggests that both will almost certainly fail each other and the relationship will unravel in the near future.
I have often enough seen, and continue to see, this plot of post-retirement grandeur being played out in the lives of so many former chairmen and CEOs—the untold story of how they try to find that second wind, and how many fail in their quest. In this regard, what all of us saw Al Gore achieve was remarkable and instructive to all of us. His secret was to come to terms with who he really was, and to deal with it until he found his second wind.
We saw Chuck Prince many times during that conference. He was participating, listening in on sessions and gave a commendable presentation himself. He has started to make himself available to the world again. He has not re-invented himself just now. But being the fundamentally decent man that he is, we hope he will, and unlock the tremendous talent he has to offer the world.
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