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Post Leadership
Posted at 12:07 PM ET, 10/13/2011

With Occupy Wall Street, what’s a bank CEO to do?

The “Occupy Wall Street” movement's momentum has reached many similar protests across the US and the world. (EMMANUEL DUNAND - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Who knows just what bank CEOs think of the growing Occupy Wall Street movement? BlackRock CEO Larry Fink says the protests are understandable. Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein has cancelled a speech at Barnard College, where students were planning events to coincide with the CEO’s talk (company spokespeople say he had a scheduling conflict). One major bank CEO apparently asked a New York Times reporter if he should be scared. And Citi CEO Vikram Pandit said at a breakfast event Wednesday morning that “trust has been broken between financial institutions and citizens” and he’d be happy to talk to the Occupy Wall Street protestors “anytime they want.”

It’s fascinating to think just how such a conversation might play out. (Protestors: “You make millions despite running a bank that needed a bailout!” Pandit: “But my salary was just $1 a year until I got a little raise to $1.75 million!”) But how should it? If you were the CEO of a major bank and there were crowds of protestors outside your door, what would you say?

Pandit’s not, after all, likely to say that he’d stop paying out bonuses to his employees. He’s probably not going to stop giving political contributions to push his cause (even if some CEOs are doing so). And something tells me he’s not going to start agreeing that some of his current or former compatriots should be in jail

His admission that trust has been broken is a start. The fact that he says it’s Wall Street’s job “to reach out to Main Street and rebuild that trust” sounds good, at least. And his statement that the protestors “should hold Citi and the financial institutions accountable for practicing responsible finance” may mean he gets part of their concern.

But doing something about it is another thing entirely. Pandit—or any other major bank CEO—can have all the talks he wants with the people in the streets. The anger and frustration fueling these protests is not driven at one single institution or one leader (though some are getting a larger share of the ire) but at a system that puts profits before all else and seems entirely devoid of basic humanity at times.

Until business leaders become truly accountable for their actions, pay out reasonable rewards only in return for successful performance, stop using their hordes of cash to inappropriately sway political action, and see the bottom line as creating something with purpose rather than solely a tally of profits, any such hypothetical conversation is going to go nowhere fast. Pandit saying he’ll talk to the protestors goes further than his peers, and it will be interesting to see what happens if they do. I, for one, won’t be holding my breath.

More from On Leadership:

Occupy Wall Street and the history of leaderless movements

Occupy Wall Street and ‘The Decline of the West’

What the Occupy movement demands of our leaders

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By  |  12:07 PM ET, 10/13/2011

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