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Citi's CEO Leadership Belief: "We've Got To Serve The Greater Good"

August 11, 2019 00:00 AM UTC
- Updated September 02, 2020 11:46 AM UTC

Mike Corbat explains how the violence of the Charlottesville riots influenced his CEO leadership.

Mike, as you know, for years, our business leaders were very reluctant to speak up and take a stand on social problems, social issues. But all that's changed. And actually, there is an expectation that CEOs talk about this kind of stuff. When did you realize that this is the good thing to do? If you think about the world today and really what's going on, and importantly, the expectations of the future of the firm, they want to work at a place that stands for their values and what's important to them. So in issues that have been out there and whether it's sustainability in the climate, whether it was the stance that we took in the US in terms of the commercial firearms policy, around gender equality, those are things that we actually really focused towards our people. Because, you know, when you look at the world today, people want to join and be part of companies that they can be proud of. You also spoke up during the Charlottesville protests, and it was kind of a first for you. It was a terrible time. And you ended up writing a memo to your Citigroup employees. And you said, hatred, bigotry, and racism that was on display can never be tolerated. Why did you decide to speak up? What changed for you? I, candidly, I struggled a bit around those things that you just referenced. I would hope within our company that it's obvious that we don't stand or tolerate any of those. But I think in today's age, it's important for your people to hear it and to be reminded, and for them to have the ability to say, I know this is the way my company comes to work. I know the people I work with. This is what they stand for. And so, in many ways, I just wanted to be out there, taking any questions off the table around a reaffirmation of who we are and what we stand for. You said you struggled with it. Was there someone who talked to you, said something that changed your thinking? Yeah, it was my leadership team. You know, I took and said, boy, I sure hope our company knows our values. And, you know, in these really trying times, the message came back from the team that said, you know what? Say it again. Go out there and put it out there. Put it out to our people and just take any questions of exactly where we stand off the table. And it was good counsel. That was a few years ago, and now you are leading the way on so many social issues, whether it's about diversity, pay equity, financing affordable housing, what's your thinking behind all of this? Well, I think in today's age, there's an expectation of society. There's an expectation of your employees, of your people, that we've got to serve the greater good. It's not just come to work and it's not just all about the bottom line. And if you go back, our company is 207 years old and we're founded on the principles of enabling growth and progress. And that's just not simply economic growth and progress, but it's societal progress in the things that we can do. And when you look at the challenges in the world today, whether that's environment or whether it's affordable housing, we've got a role. We've got a position that we can play. We're in a privileged position of being able to influence that conversation, and hopefully the outcomes. You've been with Citi for 36 years, right out of college. It was a very different time when you joined the bank. And you became CEO in 2012. Your job is very different than what your predecessors were like. How has it changed? You go back and think of the company that I joined 36 years ago, it was a fairly-- not to take away from it-- fairly simple in terms of the way you came to business. I often described my career as one where it's shut up and suffer. Come in, put your head down, do your job. And, you know, as things occur, you go up through the company. Today, we've got 200,000 employees in 100 countries around the world. We've got a world, geopolitically, economically, that's much more complex. When you go back and think of history, think about CEOs 20, 30 years ago opining on policy, getting involved in terms of public pronouncements or internal pronouncements in terms of issues in the world, whether it's taking an active voice in terms of what's going on from a commercial firearms policy. And those are things that CEOs just didn't get involved with back in those days. And so I think there's just more out there to deal with. So do you think the expectations are more, for you as a CEO, that you're expected to weigh in on these issues? I think our employees absolutely have that expectation, because they want to come to work and feel proud of the company they're at. And I think society has that expectation that we, you know, we're often involved in terms of providing financial advice, of providing capital, of providing lending into situations, and they expect us to approach those challenges responsibility, and they want to know where we stand.