Ex-Wells Fargo CEO Imparts Leadership Lessons to Rotary

Tim Sloan, who served Wells Fargo for more than three decades, speaks at a Rotary Club of San Marino meeting at San Marino Community Church.
Photo by Zane Hill / OUTLOOK
Tim Sloan, who served Wells Fargo for more than three decades, speaks at a Rotary Club of San Marino meeting at San Marino Community Church.

Now on month three of retirement, Tim Sloan spent some of his time at the Rotary Club of San Marino luncheon last week reflecting on his banking career, but mostly focused on his five lessons in leadership.
Speaking frankly on his retirement, which took effect at the end of June, the former Wells Fargo CEO expressed affection for the company he called home for more than three decades, often using “we” and “us” when referring to the institution. His departure from Wells Fargo occurred amid continued scrutiny of the account fraud scandal, though he was never directly linked to it — he was chief financial officer at the time it was unfolding.
“It just got to a point where I was becoming a liability for the company,” San Marino resident Sloan told Rotarians at San Marino Community Church. “Even though I was 100% confident in our ability to execute the fundamental changes that we were making at the company and I was very confident in our ability to be successful, because I had become a burden it just wasn’t right for the company. It became very clear to me that we needed to have different leadership. It was a very hard decision, but a very good one for the company.”
Sloan took the helm at Wells Fargo after then-CEO John Stumpf resigned in 2016 because of the scandal, which continues to mar the financial institution that escaped the Great Recession relatively unscathed. It wasn’t Sloan’s first redemption project at a bank: He discussed working at Continental Illinois National Bank when it became insolvent in the late 1980s after taking on a host of bad loans from Penn Square Bank. He also was part of Wells Fargo’s group that worked to reconcile bad loans from the California commercial real estate recession in the early 1990s.
This was Sloan’s first lesson: Run toward, not away from, a challenge.
“Made a lot of mistakes initially, but it was an incredible learning experience because I ran to a challenge,” he deadpanned. “Just think about how exciting it can be — instead of looking at a situation and saying that’s just too hard, that’s just too difficult, I don’t want to be involved in it — when you actually run toward it.”
Sloan also advocated taking on responsibilities that “terrify you” — he discussed going from chief administrative officer to CFO at Wells Fargo in 2011, with an accounting background and no financial experience.
“It’s a really interesting experience when you read about how you are not going to be successful in outlets like the Wall Street Journal,” Sloan said, drawing chuckles.
The banker then recalled the time prior to the Great Recession, when he said as CAO he became gun-shy about making the risky investments that other institutions embraced and that ultimately helped precipitate the recession. Indeed, Wells Fargo was lauded in the aftermath for its stability compared to others’.
“I can remember a time in 2007 when I told a bunch of people who were reporting to me, ‘Put your pencils down. We are not going to be a part of this,’” Sloan said he recalled.
The lesson here was to stand up for what you believe in. Sloan also said a leader should take responsibility for failure — he talked about an internal message to Wells Fargo employees he gave upon becoming CEO — and that it’s impossible for anyone in an organization to be successful if they don’t know the organization’s vision.
Sloan spoke frankly on his related experiences.
He advised Rotarians to never testify before Congress — it is akin to being “a prop in a TV show,” he said. His own testimony involved a grilling by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that made the rounds on social media, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — now a frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primaries — specifically targeted Sloan in a series of tweets upon his resignation.
In retirement, he said he was working on his golf handicap and participating in Los Angeles-area charities addressing homelessness, and added that he might consider working in private equity or hedge funds in the future.
Sloan got started as a bank teller for Standard Federal Savings and Loan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while attending the University of Michigan — “I was there when the first ATM was wheeled into the branch,” he noted — and moved on to Continental after college. He joined Wells Fargo in 1987, around the time he moved to San Marino.
“The transformation that I’ve seen in banking over my career — which spanned about five decades — has just been incredible, similar to other industries in that same time frame,” he told Rotarians last week. “There has been a relentless pace of innovation with how products are provided and how technology impacts the products that you use.”
Innovations weren’t just limited to the companies making product — indeed, criminals targeting banks became more sophisticated in the same time frame, Sloan said.
“Literally 5,000 times an hour, somebody tries to break into Wells Fargo. Not the old way, where you go to bank and rob it. They still do that, by the way,” he said. “The cyber risk is probably the biggest risk that the industry and the country faces today.”

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