How Walt Bettinger works to make himself and those around him better leaders at Charles Schwab Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

When Walt Bettinger was finishing his last quarter of college, one

business strategy class required many late nights. The class met

two nights a week from 6 to 10 p.m., and throughout those 10

weeks, he and his classmates often bonded in the halls over

snacks as they dreamed of how they would take on the world after

graduation. On the day of his final, Bettinger and his classmates

felt pretty confident that they would ace their final exam after

doing so many business case studies.

“We were ready to graduate,

thinking we were going to go out and change the world and all be

these successful businesspeople,” he says. The professor handed

each of them a blank white sheet of paper and told the students

their final assignment. “I’ve taught you everything about business

strategy as you go into the real business world,” he said. “Your final

exam is, ‘What’s the name of the lady who cleans this building?’”

Bettinger had no idea.

“We had spent four hours a couple nights a week there for the

last 10 weeks,” he says. “We had taken two or three breaks

every evening to get a soft drink or use the restroom, and she’d

been there every night. I often say to people that I didn’t know

Dottie’s name — her name was Dottie — but I’ve tried to know

every Dottie since.”

That message stayed with Bettinger as he started The

Hampton Co., a retirement services provider, after college and

grew it until The Charles Schwab Corp. acquired it in 1995.

He worked his way up the Schwab ranks, and last year, he

took over as president and CEO of the $4.99 billion financial

services giant. Despite his position, he still remembers to focus

on the people — both himself and his team.

“That’s a powerful message because it reminds us that business and the decision-making is a part of it, but people are the

biggest part,” Bettinger says. “ ... If we fail as leaders of people,

we will fail as business executives.”

Know your role

After Bettinger’s business got acquired by Charles Schwab,

he took on a new role in the larger organization and had a performance review with his new manager.

“When you were running Hampton, you were the most capable person in the firm at sales, marketing, accounting ... but

now that you’re at Schwab, you’re not the best at any of

those,” the manager said. “You may be competent in all of

them, but you’re not the best at any of them. Your job now is

to go out and find and recruit and recognize those people that

are better than you at each of those things.”

The honesty felt like a slap across the face, but Bettinger

realized that the job really had changed and he needed to

change with it.

“As you move up in the organization, you become less of the

person who does something and more of the person who actually invests in building the team who will go out and actually

do the work,” he says.

If you don’t accept this as your personal role, you’ll likely

squash your organization’s growth. As your role or your organization changes, you need to recognize how you should

change, as well.

“Each time I have moved into a broader range, I’ve had

another (personal assessment) done to try to align the dynamics of the new broader role with my strengths and my long list

of weaknesses,” he says.

This constant re-evaluation of yourself as it relates to the

position you’re in is crucial in business.

“It really begins with emotional intelligence ... and at the

core of emotional intelligence is the ability to look in the mirror and be honest with what you see back,” he says.

Often it’s hard to see your own weaknesses, so that’s why

having a third party do the evaluation can help in seeing yourself in the proper light.

“It’s easier for that independent organization to do,” he says.

“They’re not contingent on that leader for their job. They’re

open, and they’ve done this before with hundreds and thousands of executives.

He says once they paint that picture for you, it can be very

telling and accurate.

“Then it just comes down to how motivated are they to

change, because now they have someone holding the mirror

up to them,” Bettinger says. “What they do with that mirror

then will really be the determinant of whether they want to

change, because they believe their organization will be more

healthy and they’ll be better able to serve their employees and

clients and shareholders.”

The ability to be humble and see yourself for what you really are will ultimately dictate how successful you are.

“Success is never permanent,” Bettinger says. “Failure is

never permanent. Career success is attributable to many factors — not just the leader. The leader plays a role but only a

part of it. When you emphasize that if you choose to be a

leader, you’re really choosing to serve others as opposed to be

served yourself, it helps ensure the level of humility that is

needed to both be honest with what you see back in the mirror as well as attract people around you who are highly capable themselves.”

Build a team

Once you know where you stand as a leader and what your role

is, then you can focus on the people surrounding you. Bettinger

says it’s vital to establish a strong team, and one of the keys to

doing that is balancing your strengths and weaknesses with those

around you. He suggests using an outside organization to help you

with that, as well. He used a large, global organization that

worked with hundreds of Fortune 500 CEOs to make sure he had

someone with experience helping him.

“It can help you identify areas of strength and areas that you

need to build out your team with certain personalities and skill

sets and capabilities so you have the most effective functioning

team possible,” he says.

Another key to assembling a good team is to take people with

different experiences.

“To the extent that you can, build a team and be surrounded by

a team of people that have different experiences in life and different environments they were in, whether it’s different businesses

or different geographies — just different life experiences,” he


When people have different experiences, they will bring different views to their decision-making process. He says you also need

to have people who share the same core beliefs as you.

“If you have fundamental agreement on the core beliefs, there’s

lots of room for debate and differing views,” Bettinger says.

For example, at Schwab, everything centers around the fact that

team members want to be the advocate for their client. The belief

is that if you do right by the clients, they will choose to do more

business with you. If people don’t agree with this, they won’t be a

good fit. If they do, then he can sleep easy knowing he won’t

waste time simply trying to get people to buy in to a decision that

aligns with the organizational values.

“Talk about the philosophies that you have of leadership,”

Bettinger says. “Ask the other person about their philosophy of


He often asks people to talk about what they have viewed as

their greatest failures and successes in life. Doing so allows him

to learn more about their psyche.

When he’s interviewing for a senior team member, he also likes

to gain more insight into that person’s character. One way to do

that is by taking the person to lunch or dinner.

“It’s less of because of what they’re going to say to me, but I like

to see how they treat the waiter or waitress,” he says. “I know

how they’re going to react around me — they’re trying to get me

to hire them for a job. What I want to see is how they treat those

who maybe they view can do very little for them or they’ll never

interact with again. That gives me a glimpse into the character of

that person.”

Build trust

Once you have your team established, then you have to foster trust among the team members so that you can collaboratively move the organization forward. He says it’s crucial to

have confidence in each other and promote openness, transparency and vulnerability.

“You have to encourage the team to have healthy debate,” he

says. “I always feel like if my team can’t have healthy debate,

it’s my fault. It’s not their fault. It’s I haven’t created the environment to ensure that can occur.”

The first part of this involves listening more and talking less.

He says that in order to be an effective listener, you have to

have a dose of humility.

“If you begin from a position that you’re right with a capital

R, it’s very hard to set aside the views that you might have at

that point in time and listen as actively as you should to other

people’s views,” Bettinger says.

You can’t listen if people don’t talk, so make people comfortable voicing their opinions.

“Make as clear as they possibly can that it is not only safe for

the people on their team to have differing views from the

leader but actually an expectation,” he says.

Part of that comes from criticizing yourself.

“You have to be, to a certain extent, self-deprecating, self-critical, so people recognize that you would be the first to recognize if the king walked into the office one day without any

clothes on,” he says.

You also have to admit your mistakes to everyone in the

organization — all the way down to the lowest levels.

“They have to recognize that when they put together a team,

they own that team’s mistakes,” Bettinger says. “You can’t take

credit for the successes as a leader, nor can you pass off the mistakes. You have to attribute the successes to your team,

and then you have to personally own the failures.”

This trait is the fine line that divides successful leaders from

average ones.

“Both probably make 50 percent good decisions and about 50

percent of decisions they make aren’t as good,” he says. “But

the difference is that the better executives are more open and

willing to admitting the half that they made that maybe weren’t

as good and are willing to do something about it. The executives that are more mediocre struggle to understand which 50

percent were which and maybe don’t have the humility to

admit that they were wrong and reverse course.”

Your people will help you identify the wrong 50 percent, but

you have to leave room for people to counter you.

“When a leader makes a point, they also have to always wrap

around that this is not necessarily the correct answer, but this

is how I see it right now,” Bettinger says. “You have to give

those openings — that room for people to maybe say, ‘Well,

you know, Walt, I agree with you — I think your point is

wrong.’ You have to create the openings. If you make a series

of definitive statements, it’s very hard for people in an organization to voice their opinion if they’re contrary.”

Bettinger also makes it a point to thank people who counter

him so they know he appreciates their feedback. That humility

acts as glue, and it makes you, your team and, ultimately, your

organization stronger.

He says, “If the leader doesn’t leave room for the capabilities

and the competencies of the people on their team, it’s very

hard to keep a team together.”

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