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Striking the Right Chord Is Tough Even for the Best

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You don't often see someone truly mesmerize a crowd through sheer force of personality. But that's what happened when Bob Benmosche, chief executive of AIG, took the stage at the Bank Insurance & Securities Association annual conference last month.

Make no mistake, it was an amenable crowd. A room full of journalists probably would have jeered. But the crowd at BISA was more professional, rapt at his speech entitled "Bringing On Tomorrow." (To be fair, "yesterday" is probably not a favorite topic at AIG these days).

He was every bit as charismatic and profane as you've heard. He was also funny. He cracked the crowd up four or five times; not just polite conference chortles, mind you, but genuine belly laughs. But the nagging, journalistic part of my mind kept wondering: Is this guy serious?

The nicest way to sum up my takeaway of him would be tone deaf. While the delivery was entertaining, the underlying message struck a defensive chord. And one, I think, that was out of tune with the public.

He noted, with a bit of exasperation, that AIG never got the credit he felt it was owed for making the government whole on that $182 billion bailout (with $22 billion in interest for good measure). But it was the way in which he made his point that was most telling.

"One fact remains," he said at one point, interrupting himself. "They gave us the money." Then, with the slight pause of a trained actor, he asked, "Is that too deep for everyone? Because it seems to be too deep for everyone in Washington."

Even if it was an unplanned, off-the-cuff comment, it was a strange thing to say. They gave us the money. As if it were an unexpected house-warming gift.

Granted, many people thought AIG was a lost cause in 2009 and never expected to see that money again. And the fact that it exists today at all is an accomplishment, which, to a large degree, Benmosche is responsible for.

But he had the aid of a massive bailout and to ungraciously dismiss that now is, well, tone deaf.

It got even more interesting, though, when he discussed (read: boasted) just how important AIG is to the global market. So important that the world would not allow it to fall into bankruptcy. Even the naysayers didn't want to see it go into bankruptcy because of the fallout. (To help bring it home to the BISA crowd, he said that if AIG had slipped into bankruptcy, "you all wouldn't be here today.")

Fine. Although the company may have been the recipient of fortunate timing because I have to wonder if today's Congress would spend $182 billion on any single company. But then came a bit on the sanctity of the shareholders. Shareholders' interests drive the big decisions. I know that's the natural order of things in a capitalistic system. The owners take the risks and reap the rewards.

But I also know the business schools that teach finance usually have one "citizenship" class that teaches the broader concept of stakeholders. How companies are at least somewhat beholden to this larger group of interests in addition to their shareholders. Interests like, say, the surrounding community, or the government, or, if the company is large enough and important enough, the global markets of which it's a crucial component.

So when I put his comments together with my perceptions, and shake well, here are my conclusions: You saved us because we're more important than you, but now that we've survived my shareholders need theirs.

To be sure, Benmosche didn't create this mess. He was brought in to fix it. And according to some reports, he was one of only a handful of people qualified to do so. So maybe his brash personality is the price we pay to fix that mess (plus whatever he's actually getting paid).

Your situations with clients will require a more delicate approach, more nuance. You're not turning around one of the systemically important companies in the world. You're dealing with flesh-and-blood people, one a time. Some of them are dealing with their own small businesses and may not be focused enough on their personal finances, opting to put every last cent into their companies. That's just one of the aspects of this month's cover story, "Small Business: Big Rewards" by freelancer Lauren Barack.

You also need a light touch in dealing with your internal banking partners. One of the perennial issues in this channel is facilitating referrals. The fact that banks still have not gotten this right indicates that something is lacking in the "people skills" component. You can read our latest tips from contributor Todd Colbeck in "Want Referrals From Bank Employees? Be A Leader."

One of the best reads this month is our Producer Profile by freelancer Dave Lindorff. He writes about Keith Laterrade, an advisor in New Orleans who details the effects that Hurricane Katrina still has on life and business in his city.

The lesson extends beyond these stories and these issues, though. Whether your clients are dealing with their own retirement planning, small business or elderly parents, it will likely require a light touch from you and a sense of their psyches. You can't be tone deaf and spend an hour telling them how important you are. Even if it's true.

Save that for us. Tell us about your light touch and how vital you are. Call, email or check us out on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.

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