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Opinion

Abigail Hofman: The rise of self-effacement

The past two turbulent years have also redefined the adjectives that are acceptable to describe a chief executive in the financial services industry

As detailed in the July issue of Euromoney, HSBC was named the magazine’s Bank of the year and Credit Suisse won the award for Best investment bank. I recently met Brady Dougan, Credit Suisse’s chief executive, and found him extremely impressive. As we walked away from the meeting with Dougan, my editor commented: "I think Dougan is the most self-effacing and laid-back CEO, I’ve ever met." In my June column, I offered a guide to decoding the vocabulary used by senior bankers who have left the industry. The past two turbulent years have also redefined the adjectives that are acceptable to describe a chief executive in the financial services industry. In fact, "self-effacing" is the only adjective a chief executive wants coupled with his name these days. The adjective, which the Compact Oxford Dictionary defines as "not claiming attention for oneself", says everything. It says you are not arrogant. It says you recognize mistakes have been made. It says you don’t travel in private jets as a matter of course. It says you understand that outside Planet Banker the world is tough. And finally, it says you are not a tyrant and that you listen to others even though you are probably brighter than them. The word "self-effacing" is a litmus test that we should apply to those who run businesses. After all, would anyone ever have described Jimmy Cayne, the former Bear Stearns chief executive, or Dick Fuld, the former Lehman Brothers chief executive, as self-effacing? Of course, if you are leading a global business your character has to combine the self-effacing with the charismatic. It’s no good sitting in a corner being humble if no one will follow you. The new ‘lite’ self-effacing financial chief executive can be compared with the old Wall Street model: the imperial chief executive. Imperial chief executives still linger on: think John Mack of Morgan Stanley, Ken Lewis of Bank of America and Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan. But that style of management by fear and barking orders is on the wane. The imperial chief executive is a fatally wounded animal because I believe the boards of US financial services companies will increasingly decide to split the chairman and chief executive functions – which has already happened to Lewis at Bank of America.

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