Goldman’s CEO got dragged in the press. What did we learn?

By September 6, 2023No Comments

A few weeks ago, there was a minor storm in the banking world when New York magazine published a brutal profile of Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon. The tone of the piece is captured in the headline: ‘Is David Solomon Too Big a Jerk to Run Goldman Sachs?’

For a few days it was hard to find comms professionals who didn’t have a take on the excoriating read. On the surface, there are two key takeaways: it’s very easy to get master-of-the-universe investment bankers to get very bitchy off the record, and these same masters of the universe don’t like David Solomon very much.

What can we take away if we look a little deeper?

One thing that leapt out to us was the mention of the bank’s ‘image specialists’ – ie comms team – advising Solomon on how to be more approachable to staff. Their advice to ‘walk the floors more often and create opportunities for small talk’ apparently was not a success.

There’s a lesson here about authenticity when managing comms for senior leaders (ironic as Solomon hosted a panel on precisely this in 2020). You can’t cram a square peg into a round hole. People have finely tuned antennae for authenticity: presenting a stiff, numerically oriented detail person as a laid-back creative won’t work, and neither will presenting your seat-of-the-pants leader who was shaped by start-up land as a member of the old City establishment.

We can spare a moment of sympathy, then, for Goldman’s comms team as they attempted to mould a man who was himself moulded by the cutthroat world of 1980s bond trading into a figure suited for today’s cuddlier corporate culture. Is it really such an issue that the CEO of Goldman Sachs – not a firm known for its low-intensity vibe – can be abrupt?

Being a pro will only get you so far, and the passing reference to image management in the New York piece is suggestive of a much broader effort in addressing relationship issues in the C suite through reputational positioning.

But what if this effort is redundant?

It’s difficult to look at Goldman and see a business in crisis. At the time of writing, the bank’s share price is up more than a third on the beginning of Solomon’s tenure five years ago, comfortably outperforming competitors in both the US and Europe. ROE is solid, there has been enviable growth in book value per share, and its core global banking and markets businesses have maintained solid market shares, particularly in equities trading and fixed income, currencies, and commodities (FICC) revenues. The tentative move into retail banking may have faltered, but Goldman’s core operations are in rude health.

These fundamentals are probably why the board and key investors are backing Solomon and not bowing to media chatter. Money talks on Wall Street, and it’s saying that Solomon stays (for now).

It’s too early to say if there will be any lasting damage to Goldman’s ironclad brand as the biggest player in American investment banking. We’d wager not – this is very much a dog-bites-man story, rather than man-bites-dog.

That said, do check out the article – it’s pretty juicy.

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