TYLER, Texas — Walt Bettinger, Chief Executive Officer of the Charles Schwab Corporation provides insightful lessons for current and aspiring leaders — service to others should always win out over obsessing about our own needs, that we should take time to get to know the people who serve us, to be honest and authentic when discussing your successes and failures, and don’t trip yourself up in a breakfast interview.
Mr. Bettinger, 54, was appointed CEO and as a member of the Board of Directors in 2008. He was featured in Adam Bryant’s Corner Office column in Sunday’s New York Times.
A summa cum laude graduate of Ohio University, Mr. Bettinger holds a degree in finance and investments. He has also completed the General Management program offered by the Harvard Business School.
Shortly after graduating from high school, Mr. Bettinger’s father, a tenured faculty member at a university in his hometown, told his son that he had quit his job. His colleagues, in a dispute with the university’s administration, had formed a union. Bettinger’s father explained to his very surprised son that he had gone into teaching to be of service to others and he concluded that his fellow teachers were more focused on themselves than the students. He didn’t feel that was in keeping with his principles so he quit. His father got another teaching job, Mr. Bettinger explained, but for an 18-year-old, it was a powerful message.
Nearing college graduation, Mr. Bettinger held a 4.0 grade point average. He really wanted to finish his degree program with a perfect average so he prepared long and hard for his final final, a business strategy course. When the tests were passed out — it was only one sheet of paper “which really surprised me because I thought it would be longer than that.” When the students were told to turn over the paper, both sides of the sheet were blank. The professor said, “I have taught you everything I can teach you about business in the last 10 weeks, but the most important message, the most important question is this: what is the name of the lady who cleans this building?”
Like his father’s decision to resign from a guaranteed job, this moment afforded Mr. Bettinger another powerful lesson. He had seen her numerous times as he came and went to class, but he had never taken the time to ask her name or learn more about her.
“It was the only test I ever failed, and I got the B I deserved. …we should never lose sight of the people who do the real work. I’ve tried to know every Dottie I’ve worked with ever since.”
Mr. Bettinger explained that when hiring he likes to ask candidates about their biggest success in life, and their biggest failure. He is looking for whether the candidate’s view of the world revolves around themselves or others. When asking about their failure, he listens for whether the candidate accepts ownership of the mistake or whether they blame it on others.
Mr. Bettinger said that when he meets a candidate for breakfast, he arrives early and asks the manager to mess up the candidate’s food order to see how they will react, how they deal with adversity — how they respond and how they treat the waiter. (He always leaves a good tip.)
“We are all going to make mistakes. The question is how are we going to recover when we make them, and are we going to be respectful to others when they make them.”
This is great information, especially as companies begin to shift their candidate screening processes to focus as much on their values and integrity as they do their performance. Top performers with bad values can do immeasurable harm.
For Mr. Bettinger, it is all about living up to your principles, paying attention to those who do the real work, and giving them respect, even when they make mistakes.
© 2021 John Gregory Self