Tim Geithner’s Biggest Problem

Posted 03.19.2009

Geithner1 It’s just seemed too easy to join the chorus of people piling on about the AIG bonus story and the questions around what Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner knew and when he knew it.  As I’ve been on spring break with my family this week, I’ve kind of, sort of been paying attention to the story and honestly concluding that I didn’t have anything to add to the commentary other than a slightly different version of what others have already said.

Alarmclock1 Until today, that is. In skimming the major headlines this morning, I think I’ve hit on the biggest problem Tim Geithner has as a leader.  It’s his alarm clock. 

I don’t mean to be flip or facetious. The guy obviously has an overwhelming amount of challenges to deal with and not enough people to help him.  That said, it seems clear based on reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post, that he’s not doing himself, the President or anyone else any favors by the way he’s managing himself.

This line from the Times was the tell tale clue for me:

“At 47, the same age as the president, Mr. Geithner works out at 5:30 a.m., gets to his desk by 6:30 and leaves 15 hours later.”

Having read elsewhere that Geithner is working seven days a week at his job, I have to conclude from the reporting that he’s getting around 5 to 6 hours of sleep a night or about 35 to 40 hours a week.  That’s not enough down time and the results are plain for everyone to see.

Part of the controversy with AIG paying out $165 million in bonuses is that the White House wasn’t aware of the move until just before the news broke and everyone is asking, “How could they not know?”  The answer is pretty simple actually.  It wasn’t on Geithner’s radar screen.  As the Washington Post reports:

“Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, a central figure in the decision to bail out AIG last fall as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said in an interview yesterday that he had not been aware of the size of the bonuses and the timing of the payments.

‘I was stunned when I learned how bad this was on Tuesday [March 10],’Geithner said. ‘I shouldn't have been in that position, but it's my responsibility and I accept that.’

Two days later, Geithner told the White House. The last-minute disclosure irked some of the president's senior advisers, but they refuse to point fingers now, saying the timing had little impact on the outcome or the president's public statements this week.

The key sentence for me in that excerpt is “Two days later, Geithner told the White House.”  How could he wait two days to tell the White House something that he said “stunned” him?  As you consider that question, I’d like to ask you to think back to the last time that you burned the candle at both ends for weeks at a time and what that did to the quality of your decision making. If you’re honest with yourself, it’s probably not a pretty picture.

Most of my company’s work is with talented executives who are taking on next level roles. Granted, none of them are charged with saving the global economy, but Geithner’s situation is the same in some ways.  Right now he’s sharing in the same two behaviors that are usually the lowest ranked when we run 360 degree assessments for rising executives:

  • Paces himself/herself by building in regular breaks from work.
  • Manages one’s schedule to leave time for unexpected problems or issues.

The only way to make sound, wise decisions over an extended period of time is to allow yourself the bandwidth to refresh your perspective and your energy levels. Otherwise, you’ll run yourself flat out until you crash. Since a crash is not the outcome we’re looking for these days, let’s all hope that Secretary Geithner resets the alarm clock for a little bit later wake-up call and gets out of his office before 9:30 pm a few nights a week.