The CEO agenda: Mike Corbat, Citi

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By:
Peter Lee
Published on:

People rise to the top of the agenda.

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Our employees want to see us reinforcing what our company stands for and believes in

Mike Corbat spends a lot of his time thinking about people. He’s proud that a renovation of the bank’s headquarters in Greenwich Street, New York, will finish ahead of time and under budget. He’s just as happy that it means all Citi employees and visitors now come into the building and are greeted via one vibrant entrance.

“We should never forget that we are in the customer business,” Corbat tells Euromoney.

Improving on the face that Citi presents to the world is important to Corbat. He talks eloquently and with some passion about improving diversity in the workplace and eradicating a gender pay gap that mostly reflects a current lack of women in higher executive positions.

“You cannot address this through external hiring. It is about how you bring people up through the organization,” he says.

Right now, he’s particularly focused on Citi’s next generation of leaders.

Corbat, who took over as chief executive in 2012 at the firm where he has worked for 36 years, has spent the last nine months dealing with a string of senior departures among his direct reports at Citi – most of them due to retirements. CFO John Gerspach, regional heads Bill Mills and Jim Cowles, Citibank chief executive Barbara Desoer and the firm’s president and head of institutional clients group, Jamie Forese, have all called time on their Citi careers. Asia head Francisco Aristeguieta was a surprise departure to State Street.

New challenge

Suddenly Corbat, who managed down Citi Holdings – the bank’s mountain of non-core assets – before rising to the top, has found himself dealing with a new challenge. He thinks back to his own career.

“When I started, the mentality was that you come in, get on with your job and basically shut up and suffer, until maybe someone comes and taps you on the shoulder and says: ‘You’re the best trader, we need you to step up and manage the other traders.’ These were often battlefield promotions.”

But the Salomon Brothers he joined in the 1980s was, like the rest of the industry, a fast-growing organization that then had 2,600 people and was about to go on a tear before being rolled up into Travelers and eventually Citigroup. The group he leads today has 200,000 employees.

“When I think of our leaders of today and tomorrow, their career will not be a straight ladder up the ranks of seniority, it will be more like a jungle gym, with a series of experiences that will be curated by the company.”

Corbat cites the example of the bank’s new CFO, Mark Mason.

“We went to Mark several years ago when he was running the private bank and suggested that he had the potential to be CFO of the whole group one day, but that he would need different experiences than running the private bank. So, we made him CFO of the institutional client group and gave him other tasks such as planning for CCAR [Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review].”

'Career momentum'

Doing this properly across the company is a big task.

“I spend much of the spring each year looking at our human talent: where are we moving our people; who are we designating our high potentials; who are our ready-nows and our likely-to-be-readies in two or three years for senior roles? And we also ask: who are the blockers in the organization who may have a strong bench beneath them ready to step up and that might leave if we don’t promote them,” he says.

“In a company where the headcount is fairly static, you have to give people a sense of career momentum,” suggests Corbat. “We know with our millennials that they expect engagement in their careers. If you are not engaged with them, they may become engaged with somebody else.”

Corbat presents an interesting take on the challenge of promoting talent.

“In general, people don’t take enough risk with their own careers. They may have a vision for their future when they are young, but they have to be ready for it not to quite work out that way. And banks perhaps don’t take enough risks on people.”

He has also noticed another change to the role of a bank chief today.

“As CEO of a big organization, I also need to speak out on issues today that we didn’t in the past, because our employees want to see us reinforcing what our company stands for and believes in.”