Few contemporary business leaders have been tested like Hank Paulson, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary who helped steer the U.S. through the darkest days of the global economic crisis of 2008.
And few have undergone the scrutiny he has had, from supporters and critics alike. This month, a new movie is premiering in theaters about his role in the rescue, called Hank: Five Years from the Brink. As part of the film's rollout, I'm interviewing him in front of audiences across the country, including the New York members of the Inc. Business Owners Council Feb. 20.
Paulson already had a reputation as a financial-crisis manager before going to Treasury. While he admits to not foreseeing the looming crisis, he credits the year building strong relationships and trust with former President Bush, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and New York Federal Reserve President Tim Geithner, along with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, as critical to the success of the rescue effort.
Here are excerpts from a recent conversation about leadership, teams and heading off the next business bubble.
A condition of your accepting the Treasury Secretary role was the chance to choose your own team. Why?
Paulson: The key to successful leadership is assembling management teams with complementary skill sets that can help leaders use their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses.
I found some very talented professionals at Treasury and elsewhere in the Federal government who knew how our political system and government work and who were good at getting things done. I also was able to bring in people from the private sector with real-world business and financial experience.
I wanted to ensure that the team I assembled would be a complementary group of people to help me execute on the priorities I was setting for the Treasury and to deal with the challenges we confronted.
Ultimately, the team was talented, loyal and had a wide span of expertise--from Wall Street to Capitol Hill.
As the crisis unfolded, we were successful in acting quickly to identify and fill gaps to ensure that we had the expertise necessary to address the crisis in which we were engulfed.
What's important when responding to a crisis?
Paulson: When dealing with big, messy problems, you rarely have perfect, elegant solutions. And as every CEO knows, if you want to have all the information you'd like before you make a big decision, you risk being too late and looking in the rear-view mirror.
This problem is compounded in crisis decision-making, where you are forced to weigh the consequences of making a decision based on incomplete information against the consequences of doing nothing, which can be disastrous.
If and when you get new information or you learn you've made a mistake, you need to be prepared to admit it and adjust.
Fortunately, I am decisive by nature and not afraid to make decisions or reverse course when I'm wrong, as we did when we decided to put capital into the banks. Consequently, when people ask me to assess the mistakes we made with 20/20 hindsight, I believe we made plenty. But we successfully made corrections on the big ones in real time. The result is that we made the right decisions that will stand the test of time.
Are business bubbles, and their disruptions, a fact of life or can something be done to ease their ferocity
Paulson: As long as we have financial markets, there will always be excesses and bubbles. By definition, a bubble is never fully understood by the market until after it has burst.
The crisis we faced in 2008 was a once-in-75-year financial storm. The excesses had been building for many years through both Democrat and Republican administrations as Americans borrowed much more than they could afford to maintain unsustainable standards of living.
The key is to mitigate the next crisis by identifying the excesses before they build up, excesses which are always rooted in flawed government policies.
What area is most important--most instructive--for study from this period?
Paulson: The most instructive aspect of the response to the 2008 financial crisis is in the importance of being willing to be bold and to act quickly with force.
I also believe our success in avoiding economic collapse was the combined result of presidential, executive and legislative courage and bipartisan cooperation, combined with extraordinary continuity in policy response between the Bush and Obama administrations. When you look at all the dysfunction in Washington today, I recognize what an accomplishment it was that Congress twice acted to give us the extraordinary authority we needed, allowing us to avoid economic catastrophe.
How far are we from another global financial crisis today?
Paulson: We have come a long way in five years. The U.S. economy is in much better shape. And while we need faster growth to fully recover, it is no small accomplishment that our economy has been growing at roughly 2% since late 2009.
Our markets are functioning normally and the U.S. financial system is the best in the world in terms of its breadth, depth, transparency and efficiency. This is a core strength and competitive advantage of the U.S. economy.
While the banking system is not without problems, it is better managed, has better risk controls, and is better regulated. Most importantly, banks are better capitalized with greater liquidity cushions, which is the ultimate defense against failure.
Still, more needs to be done. We need to continue cleaning up what’s left of the messes that caused the last crisis.
Top on the list is fixing Fannie and Freddie, which were at the epicenter of the 2008 financial crisis. We also need to tackle the big issues that threaten the long-term economic growth of our nation.
As long as there are financial markets and humans who have periodic bouts of panic, there will be financial crises. The key is to avoid massive disruptions by addressing manageable problems before they become unmanageable.