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Power Sheet: Dissecting Wells Fargo’s John Stumpf’s Apology

Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf is scheduled to testify to the Senate Banking Committee today about his bank’s recently disclosed egregious misbehavior – creating some two million customer accounts that customers didn’t ask for or even know about, so that salespeople could earn bonuses. The New York Times and other news organizations obtained an advance copy of his prepared testimony, and it shows how Stumpf is recovering from an early blunder in this classic leadership moment.

Last week, after the bank had agreed to pay regulators $185 million to settle investigations, Stumpf appeared to blame the employees, not leaders, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “There was no incentive to do bad things,” he said. Referring to the 5,300 employees who were fired over five years for improper sales practices, he said that “if they’re not going to do the thing that we ask them to do—put customers first, honor our vision and values—I don’t want them here.”

That’s not leadership, and Stumpf seemed to realize it quickly. Later that day he said through a spokeswoman, “I feel accountable and our leadership team feels accountable—and we want all our stakeholders to know that.” In his prepared testimony for today he goes further, entirely reversing the impression he gave in his WSJ interview: “I accept full responsibility for all unethical sales practices in our retail banking business, and I am fully committed to doing everything possible to fix this issue, strengthen our culture, and take the necessary actions to restore our customers’ trust.”

Fully accepting the blame is a leader’s first step in responding to a scandal, but it just clears the way for Stumpf to start dealing with the real issues, which are major. If 5,300 employees were doing something unethical, it’s impossible to imagine that managers didn’t know. How high up did the rot extend? A group of Democratic senators headed by Banking Committee member Elizabeth Warren is already pressuring Stumpf to claw back bonuses received by Carrie Tolstedt, the since-retired executive who oversaw the unit in question.

The scandal also threatens the heart of Wells Fargo’s success in becoming America’s most valuable bank (until the stock tanked in response to the scandal). Cross-selling is a religion at Wells Fargo. The average customer has about six products, such as a checking account, brokerage account, mortgage, or insurance, and that’s far more than the industry average. Cross-selling morphed into a monster, and Stumpf must slay the monster without damaging the business.

More broadly, the scandal threatens what may be Wells Fargo’s most valuable asset, its image as the giant bank that ordinary people can relate to, the heavy hitter based 2,900 miles from Wall Street, the down-to-earth bank that came through the financial crisis in glowing health under Stumpf’s leadership because it shunned flashy, high-risk strategies. If hearings and investigations portray it instead as a scheming profit hound, contemptuous of customers, the damage could be profound.

Stumpf is one of America’s most esteemed business leaders. He’s scheduled to retire in 2018. For him, this scandal poses a reputational risk that’s more than corporate. It’s personal.

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Produced by Ryan Derousseau