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  Alan J. Weber
  ©David Neff
Alan J. Weber '71

Alan Weber helps the 'virtuous circle' go around

by Matt Golosinski

By his own estimation, Alan J. Weber has done well for himself: The 1971 Kellogg School graduate says he has a great family, a career studded with prestigious leadership roles, ample opportunities to travel, and has earned a comfortable living.

His one lingering gripe is his golf handicap. "The only thing that gets me is I can't hit the little ball where I want it to go," Weber says, laughing.

But excepting the tyranny of the back nine, the chairman and CEO of U.S. Trust Corp., a venerable 151-year-old wealth management firm based in New York, with offices in more than a dozen states, knows his success owes something to good fortune as well as his own hard work.

"It's not like I can say I worked 40 hours a day and that's why I'm a success," says Weber, 56, who assumed his current role in 2002. "I had the right boss once, I was in the right country once, they gave me the right business once. A lot of things happened. When you develop an understanding that there's no direct line up the ladder of success, you begin to reach out in different directions and plant seeds. And one of these seeds entails helping others, because people have helped you."

That karmic attitude — Weber calls it "a virtuous circle" — motivates the longtime member of the Kellogg Alumni Advisory Board (KAAB) to contribute his expertise, time and financial support to initiatives that build the reputation and effectiveness of Kellogg. In so doing, he helps the school offer others a chance at the same top-flight leadership education that has helped shape his career.

Weber's actions also have contributed to strengthening the Kellogg alumni network. Through his participation in the Kellogg School Executive Leadership Circle (ELC), an ongoing initiative designed to bring together senior alumni for special lifelong learning and social experiences, Weber was among those instrumental in organizing a recent ELC ethics panel in New York City, attracting dozens of alumni and Kellogg Dean Dipak C. Jain. The "very successful" event involved role-playing to dig deeper into ethical issues. (Weber says he adopted the guise of a "bad guy" for the day, but given his amicable, down-to-earth demeanor, one wonders how convincing he was in this role.)

"I chose nonprofit management as a career because I wanted to make a difference in people's lives. This field is the ultimate management challenge, involving all elements of leadership: strategy, analysis, consensus-building, making decisions with imperfect information, taking risks and balancing ethical considerations. Whether you do this as a paid staff member or volunteer, you know that what you do really matters." Julie Tye '78, president and CEO of The Cradle Society, Evanston, ILl.  

Over the years, Weber has also opened his homes to the Kellogg School, hosting special events for its alumni and senior administration, including gatherings worldwide when his job — particularly the 27 years he served in senior leadership roles at Citibank N.A. from 1971 to 1998 — had him occasionally living abroad in Europe and Asia.

The Kellogg MBA grad and Wharton economics major seems to view these efforts as something any grateful alum might do to help out.

"I get involved with the school because I got a lot out of my Kellogg education and from being associated with Kellogg, especially as the brand has done so well over the years," says Weber. "That success enhances my own reputation, so I feel that I should participate in these affairs to the extent that I can help perpetuate this dynamic."

Weber also notes that his Kellogg involvement allows him to meet a variety of extraordinary peers whom he might not otherwise see.

One might well excuse Weber from devoting much time to activities that take him away from his corporate responsibilities, considerable as they are. Indeed, as CEO of U.S. Trust, a firm founded in 1853 by John Aikman Stewart, an actuary who would go on to serve as Abraham Lincoln's treasurer during the Civil War and who logged some 70 years with the company, Weber oversees a host of sophisticated financial and fiduciary services for U.S. Trust's affluent clientele.

Given the firm's rich history, does Weber ever feel special pressure to keep the founder's ghost happy?

"You do have that sense of history, and you have a huge responsibility," says the Kellogg alum. "You're responsible for people's wealth, and even though financial markets are not always predictable and you have bad markets occasionally, you feel personally responsible. You are the fiduciary. Whenever you're involved in a company, especially one that's 151 years old, you want to be sure you can pass the baton."

For a man shouldering this responsibility, Weber exudes — not arrogance — but the quiet confidence of someone who has built a long career and benefited from years of experience and insight. He describes his leadership style as more collaborative and subscribes to the school of thought that says people must have the opportunity to learn by doing.

"You have to find very talented people and give them the opportunity to make their own mistakes," says Weber. "You have to give them direction, but you can't be involved in the decisions that they need to make day-to-day. They need to develop."

Craig Walling, president and CEO of U.S. Trust Company, N.A., has worked with Weber since 1991 and had the chance to observe him in action. "Alan has the amazing ability to sift through issues very objectively," sorting them down to a few critical levers and "eliminating all noise," says Walling.

"He's the best I've seen," he adds. "Alan gets people to focus on the things that matter. He's calm under fire and can marshal the necessary resources to rationally address those critical underlying issues."

Weber's effectiveness may have something to do with his conviction that leaders should not "delegate down" jobs that they themselves don't know how to do, and that executives should continually build employee confidence when those colleagues do things right. But the leader must also be able to handle bad news.

"That's very important," he states. "You have to be able to tell people when they've made a mistake that you will work together to get out of a jam."

Indeed nothing gives Weber more professional satisfaction than meeting an "unbelievable business challenge" and accomplishing the goal with a team.

This sense of mentorship and team leadership informs Weber's service to the Kellogg School, where he continues his service on the KAAB and looks forward to participating in future ELC events.

"I'm proud of Kellogg," says Weber. "I feel good when I write down what school I attended, and it's up to us as alumni to enhance that reputation, not only because Kellogg has helped us and continues to do so, but to give back and help secure the school's future."

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©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University