It's not the colour of Tidjane Thiam's skin which makes his appointment as head of the Prudential so special, but that he is a French national with an exotic Graham Greene-style background. As Thiam himself says, he doesn't consider himself different because he's black, or even that he is from a minority. As he said in a recent interview: "I spent a lot of my childhood in Africa and I just cannot see myself as a minority. I see myself as a human being." He's right, and we shouldn't categorise him.
While I understand why his elevation is being hailed as some sort of magic milestone, it would be wrong to make too much of his colour. First, because it's not the right judgement on his obvious talent, but also because of the pressure it puts on him.
What we should focus on instead is that Thiam is one of a growing number of FTSE 100 bosses who were educated abroad and have worked overseas. At the last count, more than a third of the chief executives of Britain's biggest companies were foreign, reflecting the international outlook of the businesses and the desire to employ chiefs from more diverse – not in a politically correct sense – backgrounds.
You won't find a more unusual life than Thiam's. Educated as a civil engineer in France at one of the grandes écoles, he worked for the management consultancy McKinsey before being asked to go back to help his native Ivory Coast by its president. It was a perilous situation, the country reeling from financial crisis. He worked for six years with the government – helping to build power stations, among other tasks – before it was toppled by a military coup in 1999. Back in Paris, he returned to McKinsey before being headhunted by Aviva and then joining the Pru as finance director.
Thiam's success comes down to another couple of traits that are fast becoming a prerequisite for reaching the top: he's got a classy MBA from Insead – letters which more than a third of all Europe's company chiefs have to their name; and he has worked overseas, as have about 80 per cent of the UK's top leaders. There's another trend he's part of – working in finance. Nearly 40 per cent of FTSE leaders have risen through that post.
I'm loath to make hasty judgements but it's interesting that so many overseas bosses are French-educated. Is this a fluke or is there something about the French – and their challenging, highly mathematical training – which produces good, certainly ambitious, chiefs? Or is it, perhaps, that many top UK industrialists are choosing to work in the non-listed sector because the demands of running a public company are growing greater by the day?
Whichever it is, the best news for Thiam was that on the day it was announced that he succeeds Mark Tucker in September – which coincided with the release of decent results – the company's shares rose 13 per cent. Both Tucker and Thiam must take credit for this as they have worked hard to keep the Pru on an even keel.
Gossip that Thiam and the new chairman, Harvey McGrath, plotted Tucker's departure following the indecision over buying AIG's Asian business looks far-fetched. The truth may be more prosaic, as it is no secret that the passionate Chelsea supporter wanted to leave relatively soon and he may even pursue work in football. Or is it fanciful to suggest he may be headed for a bigger AIG job?
Thiam should enjoy his honeymoon period. It won't be long before investors will be grilling him over how he'll get the Pru moving again – whether to break it up by selling the UK business, or to expand in Asia or, who knows, maybe even Africa.
We've punished bankers long enough. It's time for them to get back to work
Is it time for a truce in the war on bankers? I ask this because they are not just a vilified breed but in danger of becoming a disappearing one too. In the US, tempers are reaching fever pitch: some bankers involved with the $165m (£114m) bonuses being paid by AIG have received death threats – execution by piano wire being one of the more vivid. The press is hamming it up too, with the New York Post publishing a damning front page – "Not so Fast, You Greedy Bastards". Other pundits are predicting civil disquiet if the bonus row is not quelled.
The heat is on the lawmakers to come up with a way to take out the sting – namely to find ways of clawing back the bonuses. They are moving quickly, forcing through a Bill last week that says those who receive bonuses from companies involved in bailouts are going to be taxed at 90 per cent.
All this is making it even more difficult for President Obama to find financial experts to take on the jobs still open at the Treasury. US bankers I have been talking to say there are real fears that some positions won't be filled until the end of the year.
Here in the UK the mood is just as gloomy, particularly at the nationalised Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds. Morale is rock-bottom, with bankers saying privately that restoring spirits internally is becoming as crucial as getting the funding if they are going to start lending again. There's no doubt that the bankers should take the blame for the crisis we are in, but they didn't walk alone – they were aisded and abetted by an incompetent Government and inadequate regulation from the Financial Services Authority. They shouldn't carry the can for the whole mess.
If we are to get banks lending to companies going again – the lifeblood of the world's economy – then it's vital to bring good bankers back into the business.Reuse content