Is Citi's CEO Playing Blind Man's Bluff?

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Our eyes tend to start reading when we hear a business leader start talking about “vision.” It’s a term that has been over-used to the point where it is all-but meaningless. The little wall-hanging plaque describing your corporate vision belongs in the circular file with your mission statement. So it was a bit of relief when we read in this morning’s Wall Street Journal that Citi chief executive Vikram Pandit isn’t too big on the vision thing.

Asked about his vision for the company, Mr. Pandit says first it needs to fix the little things. "Only after we get those foundations right do we earn the right to talk about vision," he says.

And yet there’s something unsettling about too much resistance to vision. We can’t help but recall how badly things worked out for President George Bush (the first one!) who famously admitted he lacked the vision thing. Pandit had to expect that Journal reporter David Enrich would ask him about his vision because the allegation that Pandit lacks a vision for Citi has been one of the loudest and most frequently heard complaints about his leadership. This version of “God is in the details” must be understood as a prepared-in-advance response.
Which makes it all the more striking how underwhelming it is. We see what he’s trying to do—flip the question on the questioner to say “that’s the wrong question, novice”—but it’s so understated that it doesn’t really work. It leaves us wondering whether Pandit too resistant to formulating a vision of what sort of financial institution Citi should be in the post-Sandy Weill, post-Chuck Prince era. Is Pandit willfully blind?
Felix Salmon thinks he’s behaving too much like a chief operating officer and not enough like the chief executive. “Pandit doesn't think he has the right to talk about vision? Pandit has the obligation to talk about vision. That's the CEO's job,” he writes. “Right now he's behaving much more like a COO than a CEO, and that needs to change.”
Vikram Pandit, COO of Citigroup [Portfolio]

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