CEOs at Citigroup: Authenticity Desperately Needed

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on BNET Insight | BNET Blog

I’ve long been a critic, at a distance, of Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit‘s apparent leadership style. Cerebral and technocratic, he doesn’t radiate inspiration and vision.

Naturally Citi’s troubles during the financial meltdown  while clearly not all Pandit’s fault  have frequently given rise to speculation about how long he’ll last, and who will succeed him in running the banking behemoth.

If a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal about the promotion of a possible successor, Manuel Medina-Mora, is any indication, the board may be making yet another mistake. Medina-Mora, a banking star from Mexico, has been given responsibility for Citigroup’s consumer-banking operations world-wide. From my vantage point of assessing prospective CEOs for boards and private-equity firms, personality and behavior ultimately play more of a role in the success or failure of a CEO than any other qualification.

The Journal story provides some choice details, and food for thought:

Mr. Medina-Mora has carefully tended his personal image. Several years ago, he hired an assistant to help overhaul his appearance, shed his eyeglasses, bought a wardrobe of expensive suits and started working out with a personal trainer, according to colleagues.

OK, plenty of CEOs in big companies invest in their appearance. Nothing unusual, yet. But wait:

The executive also devoted himself to becoming a better speaker. He carefully rehearses speeches and important phone calls.

Again, maybe a little too polished and unnatural for my taste, but lots of senior executives hire speaking coaches. Nothing wrong with that. But then:

At employee meetings, Mr. Medina-Mora tends to arrive a few minutes late so his deputies can make sure participants are seated before he enters. He is known for delivering elaborate, intricately choreographed PowerPoint presentations.

Now we’re getting further out there on the bell curve. I don’t know Medina-Mora, so these could be minor quirks. But this is starting to sound so controlling and perfectionistic that I’m wondering if anyone knows the real Medina-Mora. Does he come across as authentic, displaying genuine human emotion and some degree of spontaneity? These traits, I would argue, are essential to being an effective CEO.And then this:

“He’s a complete show,” one longtime associate said, “and there’s a whole apparatus behind putting the show together. He prepares for everything.”

While many people would be surprised by the amount of behind the scenes choreography that goes into the daily doings of a CEO, this is above and beyond. Will the real Mr. Medina-Mora please stand up? Your own staff can sniff out an overly orchestrated persona long before the Wall Street Journal writes about it. And if employees don’t feel that their CEO (or any boss, for that matter) isn’t the real McCoy on a human level, they won’t respond very well. They react with distrust, disengagement, and even despair at the prospect of an automaton at the helm. Just as children require emotional attunement from real, caring, nurturing adults, employees need something akin to the same from their CEOs.