How does a 200-year-old institution embrace the future, embrace change, and continuously innovate? “It’s in the DNA,” said Michael Corbat, CEO of Citigroup. “Necessity is the mother of invention, but we like to be inventive.”
Corbat spoke to students, faculty, and staff at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business on February 6 in Lohrfink Auditorium. The conversation, facilitated by Dean Paul Almeida, was part of the Stanton Distinguished Leaders Series. During the talk, Corbat shared his thoughts on the geopolitical climate, technological advances within the banking industry, and his path to becoming Citi’s CEO.
Corbat attended the 2018 World Economic Forum in January, where he was inspired by the positivity among the participants. “Everybody came in optimistic, and I’d say people left even more optimistic,” he said. When asked about the roots of the next financial crisis, Corbat argued that the crisis is more likely to be driven by geopolitical challenges than by challenges coming out of the financial system.
Industries have to deliver to three generations of digital competence, according to Corbat: the digital-immersed millennials, the digital-literate of Corbat’s generation, and older clients who are largely digital-illiterate. “We have to stay just ahead so we’re giving you the things that you want, you’re excited about the things that we’re offering you, but we’re not losing you,” Corbat explained.
The CEO is enthusiastic about the new challenges technology poses. “There is not a more interesting time to be in banking, because right now we are just at the start of truly rewriting the next chapter of banking. Technology is going to dominate that story, and it’s going to be incredible,” he said.
The majority of the conversation focused on Citigroup’s success as an institution and Corbat’s individual success. Corbat attributes his accomplishments in part to his work ethic: “Oftentimes, the things I took on were broken or suboptimal, but I enjoyed taking a shot at fixing them and making them better.”
He encouraged his audience to embrace change and to focus that change within a single firm. Instead of moving to a different company, he advised taking your reputation and moving it within the same place. Corbat has worked at Citi for 35 years, since his graduation from Harvard University. During those years, he has held about a dozen positions within the organization, affording him the opportunity to explore new skills.
Corbat urged students to keep an open mind about the future. “You probably have very specific things or jobs that you ultimately want to get to,” he began. “I would tell you that those aspirations are phenomenal, but I’m going to ask you to fight that urge for now.”
Rather, Corbat recommended a more flexible approach: “Build your foundation around all the skills that you need. Your life and your career will very naturally narrow, and those of you who have the best foundation will have the most flexibility in your careers.”