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Banking on talent to deliver results

WS talks to the ex-chairman of Citicorp, Walter Wriston

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Hiring,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Office Politics,Workplace Communication

Walter B. Wriston is among the most influential American business figures of the 20th century.

Wriston, who retired as chief executive and chairman of Citicorp in 1984, led a huge financial institution through revolutionary changes. The way you bank today—such as using an ATM—largely came about as a result of Wriston’s vision and leadership.

In this interview with Working Smart, Wriston reflects on the lessons he has learned about managing people.

WS: You’re known for consistently hiring winners. What’s your secret?

Wriston: We paid no attention to race, gender or the color of a person’s passport. We looked for high IQ and high motivation. Problem is, the brighter people are, the more difficult they are to manage. The real geniuses have a problem with multiple-choice questions because they can think of reasons why all four choices are right.

WS: It must be tough to fill an organization with all these sharp people.

Wriston: Well, we struck a balance. You don’t want everyone to worry about the big picture and think so hard about everything. There’s a place for people who are not quite as bright but who’re motivated. They don’t insist on always thinking of all the ways something can be accomplished. But they get the work done.

WS: What’s the hardest part of hiring?

Wriston: The trick is to fit the right people in the right spot. I made mistakes over the years. I remember a trader who made us a barrel of money. We tried to turn him into a branch manager. That didn’t work. We didn’t think about the difference between what makes a successful trader and a successful manager. A trader makes decisions in split seconds, just the reverse of a good manager, who needs more than two seconds to think. We learned that the skills of traders are totally different than the skills that make good general managers.

WS: If you had to isolate one trait of a successful manager, what would it be?

Wriston: You want someone who can confront problems and solve ’em. Don’t put ’em on the side of the desk. Just dive in and get it done.

WS: You’ve spent your career talking to world leaders and other top executives. Do you notice any similarities in how the most powerful people speak?

Wriston: I think most of them realize a simple truth about how human beings listen. The ordinary person can remember about three things. That’s about it. At GE, I was a director. I told Jack Welch [GE’s chief executive] about having three simple, clear points. So he said, “At GE, our goal is for each of our companies to be No. 1 or No. 2 in our markets. If we’re not, we will sell them or liquidate them.”

WS: In your book, Risk & Other Four-Letter Words, you quote Buddha: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Is that philosophy also relevant to planning your career?

Wriston: Most people’s lives are a series of accidents. Whatever you’re doing, do it the best you can, and you’ll be on the corner when the next bus comes along.

WS: But isn’t that a bit passive?

Wriston: When you engineer your career, it gets into office politics and all that nonsense. In my case, every good job I ever had didn’t exist the day I joined. Technology is moving so rapidly, the idea that you can look ahead and say where you’ll be in five years is a nonstarter. It’s better to understand the basic tools you have to work with, like logic and fact gathering. Sharpen those skills and you’ll thrive.

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