In Conversation: Smith Barney's James W. Brinkley

In this edition of the Thought Leadership Project, I talk to James W. Brinkley, who is the Vice-Chairman of Smith Barney's Global Private Client Group following Citigroup Inc.'s acquisition of Legg Mason Wood Walker, Incorporated (LMWW). He was previously CEO of LMWW. He talks about leadership, operational challenges, and gives advice to graduating MBAs. As a professor, I could not resist giving him a quiz: I asked him “Say you were to write a letter to Alexander Hamilton explaining the current state of the financial industry, what will you write about?” Go on, read his wonderful response.

About James W. Brinkley

In December 2005, Mr. Brinkley became Vice Chairman of Smith Barney's Global Private Client Group following Citigroup Inc.'s acquisition of Legg Mason Wood Walker, Incorporated (LMWW). Mr. Brinkley served as a Director of Legg Mason, Inc., a holding company that, through its subsidiaries, provides financial services to individuals, institutions, corporations, governments and government agencies since its formation in 1981. Mr. Brinkley has served as a Senior Executive Vice President of Legg Mason, Inc. since December 1983. Mr. Brinkley became Chairman of LMWW, Legg Mason Inc.'s principal brokerage subsidiary, in February 2004. Mr. Brinkley previously served as LMWW's Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer from July 2003 through February 2004, as its President from 1985 until July 2003 and as its Chief Operating Officer from February 1998 until July 2003.

The Conversation

This is a condensed version of Prof. Ram Ganeshan’s interview with Jim Brinkley.

Q:   Tell us about your leadership style.  How has your leadership style evolved over the course of your career?

A. My family were farmers.  Hard work and responsibility was expected.  In college I received excellent training in leadership and became Battalion Commander of the ROTC.  Additional training and experience came from my military training in the basic Infantry Officers course, and in Airborne and Ranger Schools.  Actual experience came with command positions.  This gave me the understanding of the techniques, skills and fundamentals of leadership and the traits and characteristics of successful leaders.

My leadership style is a strong belief in setting the example.  If everyone else conducted themselves like you, what type of organizations would you have?

Leaders need a North Star, a guidance system that drives our virtues and values.

Leaders should act, do and perform in such a way that their clients, customers, firm, shareholders, employees and their family are advantaged because of what we do and how they do it.

Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to a higher level and helping them improve their proficiency and performance.  It’s showing appreciation, recognition and respect.  Leadership is caring, sharing, giving, and leading.

Q:   When you were the COO, and eventually the CEO of LMWW, what were the top three challenges you faced?  How did you overcome them?

A: Challenge 1:  Competing with larger National Firms with greater resources.  You compete by providing a passionate commitment to placing the client’s interest first.  Believing that the client would be better off with you and your firm.  Pursuing Investment Excellence with strong relationships and service.  Striving to be the best in your space.

Challenge 2:  Building market share.  Focus building a client first culture that results in keeping clients, building the relationship and receiving referrals and introductions of other nice wealthy clients.  Building productivity through personalized training and incentive ownership for outstanding performance.

Challenge 3:  Keeping your best, most productive and proficient employees.  The industry competitors provide high compensation incentives in proselytizing highly successful employees.  The answer was to provide a culture, environment, recognition and rewards that convinced your best performers that they were advantaged, appreciated and in the most professional caring firm.

Overcoming:  Skills and Values necessary to operate a successful firm.  The important virtues of integrity, justice, courage, discipline, good judgment, moderation and insightfulness are essential.  Your competitors are smart, so you must be a perpetual student, seeking and embracing change and consistently working harder and smarter than others.  It’s important to follow the advice of the Ancient Greek from the Oracle of Delphi:  follow two maxims for a successful, happy life and enduring reputation:  “never be excessive and know thyself.”  Don’t use excessive leverage and don’t be greedy.

Q:  What career advice would you give to MBA’s graduating from Business Schools?

A: Know thyself.  What are your natural advantages and skill set?  What is your passion?  Where can you excel?  Understand that the fundamental law of life is uncertainty.  Therefore learn the probabilities, where the odds are in your favor and time is on your side.  Associate, partner and do business only with honest ethical people whom you like, trust, and will be advantaged.  Understand the continuum that virtues determine values, values determine beliefs, beliefs determine behavior, and behavior determines results.  Make certain that you appreciate their virtues and values.

Q:   Say you were to write a letter to Alexander Hamilton explaining the current state of the financial industry, what will you write about?


Dear Mr. Secretary,

Thank you for the direction that you gave our country in establishing a National Bank and providing the guide for a strong central bank, and sound fiscal and monetary policy.  Your shared your beliefs in the importance of being accountable, responsible, respectful of property rights, the rule of law and being self-reliant.  Your belief in meritocracy vs. seniority and free markets vs. protectionism is equally important today.

With entrepreneurship and the free market, America became the most prosperous nation in history, through the creativity and drive of our entrepreneurs operating in freedom.

We need your help in reinforcing policies that reduce the cost of capital, increase returns on savings and investing and increasing real wages for workers.  These policies should strengthen the economy and increase employment.  A strong economy produces greater tax revenues and provides a greater security and prosperity to our fellow citizens.

You believed that a nation’s standard of living will grow more quickly if the nation’s citizens own the capital that raises productivity.

Please communicate with our President, Congress and leaders to encourage the pursuit of a system that is fair, simpler, and will promote economic growth, a growing middle class, and reduce the burden of compliance.

Help us have a government that is strong enough to protect us but not so powerful that it can oppress us.

Thank you Mr. Secretary,

James W. Brinkley

Q:  What is your idea of a relaxing evening?

A: Going to dinner with my wife and family/friends.  Coming home and reading the op/ed page of the WSJ and a couple of chapters of a good historical novel or current nonfiction.

About Smith Barney's Global Private Client Group

Built on more than 130 years of experience, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney is recognized as one of the industry's premier global wealth management firms. They focus their worldwide resources on serving a wide variety of clients, from corporations, institutions and foundations, to private businesses and affluent individuals.

They have more than 1,000 offices in countries around the world-giving clients the benefit of a broad global presence and a deep understanding of local markets that can affect investors thousands of miles away.