Tidjane Thiam is the first black person to head a FTSE 100 company. He has served as chief executive for two of Europe's biggest companies: Prudential UK and Credit Suisse.
The term ‘charismatic leader’ is often associated with powerful political figures like V. I Lenin, who ideas may have had the greatest impact in altering the landscape in international politics in the 20th century or Fidel Castro Ruiz, who, despite sanctions, would survive as leader of communist Cuba for over 5 decades, or Nelson Mandela, who would come out of 27 years of imprisonment to lead a multi-racial South Africa, or Thomas Sankara, who in his short tenure as President of Burkina Faso implemented policies that were way ahead of his time.
Rarely is the term associated with individuals in the business arena.
But with the rise of superstar businessmen like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Jack Welch, Sergey Brin or Lee Iacocca, possessing some level of ‘charisma’ and to be a ‘leader’ rather than just a ‘manager’ seems to be what is expected of CEOs.
Charisma, which may be interpreted as that force of personality that combines charm, passion and ability to persuade can be a huge asset in leading a successful business. Many CEOs today stress leadership abilities as opposed to the usual managerial skills.
In the current competitive world, leading companies who are recruiting CEOs are now looking beyond the usual requirements of industry knowledge, experience, an MBA degree, or ability to think strategically.
Businesses now require that their CEOs are leaders!!!!!!
So, it was little surprise that Switzerland’s second-biggest bank, Credit Suisse, announced the appointment of the charismatic Ivorian, Tidjane Tham as their CEO in June 2015, despite him having relatively little prior experience in the banking industry. But this is not the first time that the redoubtable Ivorian had been called upon to head a major company in an industry that he had had relatively little experience in. In 2007, he became CEO of Britain’s largest insurer, Prudential Life UK, after working just a few years in the insurance industry at Aviva.
But who exactly is Tidjane Thiam? What is responsible for his meteoritic rise?
His personal life is something of an enigma. He was born in Cote D’Ivoire, raised in Morocco, and educated in France. He was the first Ivorian to pass the entrance examination to the prestigious École Polytechnique, eventually graduating at the top of his class. It is said that when he received his Baccalaureate he wept because he had not attained the highest possible mark. He would later earn an MBA from INSEAD, another prestigious French institute
He was trained as an engineer, but has built an illustrious career in financial services. He worked with the consultancy firm McKinsey for seven years before returning to Cote D’Ivoire in the 1990s to work as a Senior official in the government of President Henri Konan Bedie.
His leadership abilities have been recognized beyond his areas of training or professional experience. After leaving the public service in Cote D’Ivoire in 2000, he joined Aviva in 2002 and quickly rose through its ranks, and within four years was appointed the Aviva Group chief executive and an executive director sitting on the Board.
He later joined Prudential in 2007 and within two years, he became CEO of the insurance giant.
The announcement of Thiam as CEO of Prudential UK meant that he became the first (and so far, only) black chief executive of a FTSE 100 company.
He is a forceful individual with an exceptional learning curve. Despite his relative inexperience when he became head of Prudential, Kevin Ryan of ING Insurance pointed to Thiam’s exceptional intellect and ability as a fast learner as his asset. Prudential Communications officer, Stephen Whitehead, insisted that Thiam “is very good at building consensus and adept at persuasion," while Robert Greenhill, managing director of the World Economic Forum (Davos), also indicated Thiam’s ability to combine his brilliance with his passionate interest in people couple with the fact that he has exhibited courage in doing what he believes.
Thiam is noted for being very decisive and hates wasting hours mulling over deliberations. This trait was tested when he pushed Prudential to buy AIG’s Asian Insurance Business for $35.5bn.
Despite an outcry from shareholders claiming the amount was too much, Thiam stuck to his decision. When the deal collapsed, many feared he would be sacked or that Prudential will split. On the contrary, he was re-elected as CEO by a whopping 99.3% in 2011.
Thiam’s valuation of AIG’s Asian arm (AIA) was proven to be correct as the company was valued at 66 billion in 2014, which is more than what he had wanted to purchase the company for.
Under his leadership, Prudential continued to grow. He is credited for turning Prudential into Britain’s most successful insurance company, with huge returns for shareholders and the company’s rapid expansion in Asia and the USA.
His appointment to Credit Suisse was received with high hopes in 2015.
But revamping Credit Suisse will be a more challenging task. The bank has been faced with losses and a huge fine from the US Department of Justice for allegedly selling toxic mortgage backed securities in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. Like many European investment banks, Credit Suisse has had to rejig its business model to address multiple challenges like low interest rates, low economic growth and increased regulation. Shares in Credit Suisse touched record lows in June 2016, after plunging more than 50 percent since he took over.
But despite the challenges, he has shown his decisiveness and his mettle for working under pressure. In his bid to reform the Swiss giants, he has not been afraid to swing the axe. For example, he is reportedly planning to cut between 5,500 and 6,500 jobs this year.
It should be noted that despite these challenges, shares of the company are now on the rise and the bank is reporting a stronger capital position than investors had anticipated with analyst suggesting that the progress is indicative of the results of the restructuring prompted by Mr. Thiam.
Thiam is a trailblazer, and when he was named the second most influential black person in Britain in 2008 behind Mo Ibrahim, it was testament to the potential that the Ivorian possesses. Since 2008, he had risen to head two of the most powerful institutions in the Europe: Prudential and Credit Suisse.
Header Photo Credit: World Economic Forum (Tidjane Thiam at World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 20/01/2016, Davos, Switzerland by Michael Buholzer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)