Citibank and ‘The Sopranos’

There is one immutable truth to life at the top of the corporate world. Sooner or later you are going to get whacked. Nobody really “retires” anymore; almost every captain of industry sooner or later makes someone mad, runs afoul of a powerful constituency, gets lazy or just unlucky and is GONE in a blink of an eye. No, the chief doesn’t end up in a trunk in New Jersey, but the keys to the Gulfstream are gone and the minions who trembled at his or her every word don’t return phone calls. To someone used to the halls of power, he or she might rather be in a trunk.

Last week, many of you may have been shocked to read that Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citibank, suddenly announced he was leaving. He was replaced by one Michael Corbat, who Citi’s chairman described in an interview as having a “single-minded data approach.” (Uh oh, HR). You might have been surprised, but not I, your jaded commentator on the peculiarities of the business world. I was not surprised because I know that life in corporate America is like life in the mafia. As I said at the outset, sooner or later you are going to get whacked.

Friday’s New York Times brings us a colorful, behind-the-scenes snapshot of Pandit’s last day.  According to the front page article, Pandit strode from a triumphant – he thought – earnings release into a meeting where his new boss, Chairman Michael O’Neill, had prepared three letters for him. The letters gave him three “choices”: a) quit now; b) quit at the end of the year; c) get fired immediately and clean out your desk. Kind of like the choices given to the long-term Corleone associate in “Godfather II” after the don lost confidence in him: whack yourself quietly and your family will be well taken care of. He chose the first choice, wisely.

At its highest levels, the human resources practices of the corporate world are very much like those of organized crime, at least the on-screen versions of organized crime. You don’t need to go to business school to learn how things really work; just watch a bunch of “Sopranos” reruns. Nobody ever gives up power voluntarily. You get asked to leave without warning, sometimes for no good reason other than a new boss takes over, like at Citibank. Henry Hill in “Goodfellas” explains it as a McKinsey consultant advising on a corporate merger might: “You got out of line, you got whacked. Everybody knew the rules. But sometimes, even if people didn’t get out of line, they got whacked.”

Everybody, including Pandit, knows the rules.“This is the life we have chosen,” as Hyman Roth said in “Godfather II.”

I speak from experience, as a 20-year veteran of this world who has been on both sides of a hit. The good news is, like Don Corleone’s ill-fated associate discovered, there is a civility to the process. Families get taken care of. Reputations are protected. Nobody sues anybody. Everything is quiet, at least as far as the public is concerned.

There is often criticism leveled at executive severance packages, but it is misplaced. The modern severance agreement is a model of wisdom and civility; it keeps boardroom wars from spilling out into the street, which would be the corporate equivalent of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Society is not well served with shoot-outs in public; innocent people, such as shareholders, get hurt. So, if you are working your way up at work, congratulations. It is a wonderful life, and after a long career, you might very well get crosswise at some point with a superior and be asked to leave. That’s OK. You will be well taken care of, and won’t end up in a trunk.

Vikram Pandit, good luck, and don’t take it personally. This is the life we have chosen.