“Leadership is a subtle mix of elements.”
When Roger Altman arrived on campus in 1967, the war in Vietnam was at its height. Shortly thereafter, the antiwar organization Students for a Democratic Society seized administration buildings on the campus.
“When it came to getting a transcript or applying for a student loan, the buildings weren’t available,” Altman said. “The university leadership and the provost at the time, Edward Levi (who went on to become US attorney general), came under tremendous pressure from then-Mayor [Richard J.] Daley to allow the Chicago Police to come onto the campus and ‘clean it up’.”
The provost’s composure, “extraordinary” judgment, and resolve to protect students’ rights to protest resonated with Altman. It was part of what inspired his commitment to public service and philanthropic pursuits.
“The benefit of going to graduate school is about 50 percent in the classroom, and about 50 percent the ecology of the graduate school and what you’ll learn by just being there.”
Altman began his investment banking career at Lehman Brothers, becoming a general partner in 1974. Beginning in 1977, he served four years as assistant secretary of the US Treasury. Returning to Lehman Brothers, he later became cohead of overall investment banking, a member of the firm’s management committee and its board.
“I was prepared intellectually for finance, but not practically. Looking back on it, I knew nothing about leadership. I had to learn it on the job. I don’t think there is one formula for leadership.”
In 1987, Altman joined The Blackstone Group as vice chairman, head of the firm’s advisory business and a member of its investment committee with primary responsibility for Blackstone’s international business.
Beginning in January 1993, Mr. Altman returned to Washington to serve as deputy secretary of the US Treasury for two years.
“Leadership in my own experience is a very subtle mix of elements. I don’t think you can lead entirely by consensus just taking a vote on any issue. On the other hand, elements of consensus are very important. There’s a fine line between waving a sword and saying we’re going up that hill and having an approach which builds support among your employees and your teammates, so that you’re not an autocrat. Autocrats—at least in what I’ve ever seen—don’t last too long.”
Growing up in a “classically progressive” Massachusetts family, Altman embraced the civic-minded attitude, and it has deeply influenced his commitment to giving back. “Public service remains my greatest interest,” he said. Altman is a Trustee of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, serving on its Finance Committee, and is a Trustee of MIT. He also serves as Chairman of New Visions for Public Schools.
“The only way that we’re going to enable living standards in this country to begin climbing again is through better educating our population. The pressures of technology and globalization require certain skills that in turn require higher education to achieve. If we don’t get our high school graduation rate up and our college completion rates up, we’re not going to be able to get living standards in this country moving forward again. Education is, more than ever, the doorway to opportunity. And there are too many Americans who don’t go through that door.”
With a unique vision, Altman launched Evercore in 1995, guided by the idea that clients would be better served by advisers who were not tethered to the demands of a multi-product financial institution. Today, the firm has more than 80 partners, 1,400 employees and has handled over $2 trillion of merger, acquisition, recapitalization, and restructuring transactions.
“The most meaningful thing I ever did in business was found and build up Evercore,” Altman said. His appetite for constant growth coupled with his continued ability to succeed in new directions is proof of his resiliency, curious mind, and entrepreneurial acumen. Throughout a long career now stretching into its fifth decade, he remains invigorated by his work.
“I have never had a boring day in this field. One is constantly taking on new assignments involving different types of businesses with different types of challenges. And, even the same client, two years later, often faces a whole new set of issues.”