OLD Media Moves

Rethinking the executive profile

September 21, 2012

Posted by Liz Hester

William D. Cohan’s exceptional profile of Robert Rubin in Bloomberg Businessweek should be on everyone’s must-read list, especially younger journalists and students. Not to gush too much, but it’s balanced, fair, critical and interesting. And anyone who’s ever had to convince someone to say something less than glowing about an executive as well connected as Rubin – much less on the record — can appreciate the work behind the story.

Writing a profile, especially one as comprehensive as Cohan’s, requires a lot of interviews, skill at asking the right questions at the right time and research. It’s easy to find the person willing to praise a friend, colleague or client. In a world where it’s hard to know who is a potential client or could be in the office next door, saying the wrong thing could be costly.

But after reading the story, I impressed not only with who was quoted, but how substantive their on-the-record comments were. Cohan told Rubin’s side of the story and also called to question some of the less-flattering aspects of his record. From the story:

This legendary stillness, combined with decades of economic and market expertise, keeps Rubin in constant demand. Since 2007 he’s been the co-chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, where he maintains a disheveled office and employs his longtime assistant. He’s considered the intellectual father of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, which examines the relationship between government spending and unemployment. He’s a regular participant at the annual Bilderberg Meetings (so secretive they make Davos look like an American Idol taping) and a member of the Harvard Corporation, the discreet board that runs his alma mater. He also meets regularly with congressmen and foreign leaders and has access to the Obama administration through Timothy Geithner and other protégés. In 2010 he joined Centerview Partners, an advisory investment banking boutique, as a counselor to founders Blair Effron and Robert Pruzan.

It’s enough to keep a 74-year-old plenty busy. But not enough to shake questions about just how wise and thoughtful Robert Rubin really is, especially on the fourth anniversary of a financial crisis in which he played a pivotal, under-examined role. Rubinomics—his signature economic philosophy, in which the government balances the budget with a mix of tax increases and spending cuts, driving borrowing rates down—was the blueprint for an economy that scraped the sky. When it collapsed, due in part to bank-friendly policies that Rubin advocated, he made more than $100 million while others lost everything. “You have to view people in a fair light,” says Phil Angelides, co-chair of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, who credits Rubin for much of the Clinton-era prosperity. “But on the other side of the ledger are key acts, such as the deregulation of derivatives, or stopping the Commodities Futures Trading Commission from regulating derivatives, that in the end weakened our financial system and exposed us to the risk of financial disaster.”

 As Cohan himself points out, it’s hard to find an unflattering profile of Rubin. The story, although not glowing, does point out some of Rubin’s good qualities, such as being a good mentor, according to Sheryl Sandberg. But:

It’s not his personality that riles critics of Rubin’s four-and-a-half-year tenure at Treasury. It’s his failure to tame the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall and the wild expansion of over-the-counter derivatives, which were traded between banks, out of the public eye. “The changes that Robert Rubin drove through in the 1990s certainly helped plant the seed for [the] collapse,” says Angelides. (That’s Phil, the co-chair of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.)

And it’s exactly quotes like these from Angelides that make the profile so strong and a good primer for students. Often it’s hard to write something critical when covering a beat, especially if that person is, say the CEO of the company you cover. But all executives should be held accountable for their actions and Cohan’s story does just that.

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