AIG plumps for Willumstad: What took them so long?

July 14, 2008

Update

AIG came to the brink of disaaster in the credit crunch of September 2008. Its newly appointed leader Bob Willumstad may be just the sort of person to steer them out of the current crisis. But will he be given the opportunity?

Original post follows

Bob Willumstad at 62 seemed to have missed out on his dream of running a major corporation. Now he heads the troubled giant AIG. His track record is admirable. Which raises the question: what took appointment boards so long to pick him?

Robert Willumstad was one of the names in the hat in the leadership merry-go-round at City Group with Chuck Prince and Vikram Pandit. He then became part of AIG, another company with leadership difficulties, but still not in the top job.

The Economist

The Economist picks up the story

On June 15th [2008] Mr Willumstad was hastily installed as chief executive of AIG, following the forced resignation of Martin Sullivan after only three years at the helm. He comes with a pedigree few can match. He played a big part in assembling Citi, smoothing over difficult takeovers…But he was also good at the less glamorous stuff largely thanks to tight cost control.

He seems to have ruffled very few feathers along the way. Former colleagues put this down to a combination of unobtrusiveness and honesty. “He’s quiet but very effective,” says Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, who worked alongside Mr Willumstad at Citi. “You get the truth with him. There’s no political agenda.”
Many Citibankers had hoped he would return to take the top job when Mr Prince resigned [November 2007 when]the board approached him but eventually plumped for Vikram Pandit. These qualities set the “quiet giant”, as the six-foot-three Mr Willumstad was once dubbed, in contrast to the blokeish Mr Sullivan and the imperious Mr Greenberg

What took them so long?

One possibility is that quiet competence is often trumped by the more visible characteristics and extraverted style associated with so-called charismatic leaders.

Leaderswedeserve has from time to time returned to the idea of the non-charismatic leader, modest and of fierce resolve. These features were considered to be under-appreciated in many successful leaders, who remained relatively invisible in the heroic accounts in the business press.

Willustad, the quiet giant, may be one more exemplar of the fifth level leader, (Jim Collins) who eventually succeeds, where more blokeish or imperious figures fail. If he does, he also illustrates how so often boards acquire the leaders they deserve.