Greg Smith is a Goldman Sachs “executive director” and “head of equity derivatives” in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. And, as you may have heard, today is his last day at the firm. Greg had a speech prepared for the big announcement, which he stayed up all night writing and planned to deliver on the trading floor at noon, but assuming security has other ideas, we volunteered to relay his story. A word of advice: brace yourselves.
Why is Greg resigning from Goldman Sachs? To understand why he’s leaving, you have to know what it was like when he got here, twelve years ago.
It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization.
For a while, Greg loved Goldman Sachs! And the feeling was mutual, otherwise they obviously would not have bestowed him the great honor of being “selected as one of 10 people (out of a firm of more than 30,000) to appear on the recruiting video, which is played on every college campus we visit around the world.” Shortly after the cameras rolled and he got his star turn, though, things began to change. And not in a good way. Greg suddenly noticed that the culture that made him “love working for this firm” was gone. He no longer had “the pride, or the belief.” The moment of truth? When he realized he “could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.” It didn’t matter how great a performance he gave in those videos. It didn’t matter that audiences would ask if he really worked for Goldman or if they’d hired an actor, as he appeared to have been classically trained. It didn’t matter that his recruiting DVD had been nominated for several trade awards. It didn’t matter because Greg had seen too much.
He saw Lloyd and Gary shitting all over the beautiful legacies left by Marcus Goldman and Samuel Sachs and Sidney Weinberg and Gus Levy and Hank Paulson and, yes, Jon Stevens Corzine.
When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.
He saw the firm hiring people with unpaid parking tickets.
Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence. What are three quick ways to become a leader? a) Execute on the firm’s “axes,” which is Goldman-speak for persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit. b) “Hunt Elephants.” In English: get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients a product that is wrong for them. c) Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym.
He saw employees not being sufficiently chastened as a result of Matt Taibbi’s article in Rolling Stone. He saw clients being called muppets. MUPPETS!
It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C., Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids? No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding.
Did he see illegal behavior? No. Is he pretty sure it’s happening but cannot say definitively at this time for legal reasons? Yes. Every day, in fact.
I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.
What might sicken Greg the most is what Goldman is teaching tomorrow’s leaders, as evidenced by the questions he gets from junior employees like “How much money did we make off the client,” which grinds Greg’s gears every time he hears it. You know what Greg was asking his bosses as a first, second, and maybe even third year at Goldman Sachs? 1) Sorry, can you tell me where the bathroom is again? and 2) Okay is the bunny ears knot two loops or one? I always get this wrong.
When I was a first-year analyst I didn’t know where the bathroom was, or how to tie my shoelaces. I was taught to be concerned with learning the ropes, finding out what a derivative was, understanding finance, getting to know our clients and what motivated them, learning how they defined success and what we could do to help them get there.
Does Greg say all this to make Goldman Sachs feel bad? No. He says it as a last ditch attempt to get someone at this place to WAKE UP! before it’s too late.
I hope this can be a wake-up call to the board of directors. Make the client the focal point of your business again. Without clients you will not make money. In fact, you will not exist. Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm. And get the culture right again, so people want to work here for the right reasons. People who care only about making money will not sustain this firm — or the trust of its clients — for very much longer.
Bottom line? Goldman needs to take a hard look in the mirror and ask itself: Do I want to come in third place for ping-pong in the U-14 division of “the Jewish Olympics”? Or do I want to be forever relegated to playing in my parents’ basement, with a dad who always juices his balls on service games?
My proudest moments in life — getting a full scholarship to go from South Africa to Stanford University, being selected as a Rhodes Scholar national finalist, winning a bronze medal for table tennis at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, known as the Jewish Olympics — have all come through hard work, with no shortcuts. Goldman Sachs today has become too much about shortcuts and not enough about achievement.
It’s in your court, guys.