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Pages from World Bank History: Mr. Wolfensohn Arrives at the Bank

A presentation of historical events by the World Bank Group Archives

June 1, 2003, marked the eighth anniversary of the arrival of James D. Wolfensohn to assume his duties as President of the World Bank Group. Anniversaries are a good time to look back and see from where we have come. In that spirit here are excerpts from an article written by Jill Roessner that appeared in the July 1995 issue of "Bank’s World."

June 6, 2003—Jim Wolfensohn officially arrived at the Bank June 1 and, on that first day, in addition to meeting the Board of Directors and holding a press conference, the new President and his wife, Elaine, hosted a reception for some 150 staff. And they held another the next day. Bank’s World was there.

I’ll avoid writing things like "one sensed" the President felt this, or "got the impression" he believed that. There was no need for extra-sensory perception. Mr. Wolfensohn—with enormous charm and tremendous charisma—laid it all on the line. No one who was fortunate enough to be among the guests (chosen at random by the computer) was left in any doubt about the new President’s direction and values.

Our new boss doesn’t mince words. He’s dynamic, he’s forthright and he believes in family, integrity, excellence, and teamwork—values most of us share. He had already made this clear in his June 1 letter to all staff [see below].

Since his appointment was announced, he has been disturbed by the volume of mail he’s received, much of it anonymous, criticizing the Bank. While he’s all in favor of constructive criticism—the kind that includes suggestions to improve the way we do our work—he does not take kindly to disloyalty, nor to those among us who peddle rumors and speak ill of the institution.

Mr. Wolfensohn said that he doesn’t yet have a specific vision for the Bank’s future direction. "I think what we need is to say, ‘What are the areas where we do best and, within the resources we have in the Bank, where are our priorities?’"

Together with his wife, he’s going to meet and talk to people, listen, learn, and immerse himself in the Bank’s activities. And then—only then—will decisions be taken.

We’ve all read about Mr. Wolfensohn’s achievements and accomplishments, and we know about his distinguished career and remarkable background. That didn’t just happen. He’s obviously dedicated, driven and tough. But at this gathering, it was apparent that he’s caring and concerned and that he can be rather gentle, too. Surely it must have seemed a little bit daunting for him to be surrounded by so many people he’d never met before, each of us listening raptly, dying to discover for ourselves what he’s really like. He joked with us, saying he’d give us a glass of wine and a bit of cheese and try to get us on his side. He let us know that he really wants us on his side. And when he talked about family, he wasn’t speaking only of Elaine and their three children, he was talking about all of us. He has given up quite a lot to become the ninth President of the World Bank—and he’s given it up willingly because he sees the job as a privilege. It’s challenging, exciting, and a chance to make a real difference. We’ve all got that same chance. He knows he can’t do it alone, and he’s counting on us to help him, and to help each other. His energy and enthusiasm are compelling, and it was inspiring to have him remind us: "Together, we can change the world."

On the day of his arrival at the World Bank, June 1, 1995, Mr. Wolfensohn sent a letter to all staff, excerpts from which appear below:

I feel greatly privileged to join you today in your work at the World Bank Group. The achievements of the Bank, IFC and MIGA have been considerable; you have every reason to be proud of the contribution you have made to the causes we all cherish.

There has been much commentary in the press about my plans for the Bank Group, little or none of it originating from me. Let me then set forth as simply as I can the structure of my program.

I would like to serve four constituencies: first, our borrowers; second, those who entrust us with funds for our work; third, the important broader constituencies of support in both borrower and donor countries; and fourth, our staff and management.

I will spend a substantial amount of time in the field during the next six months…Second, I will visit our Part I Shareholders…to get a better sense of whether we are achieving their aims within the framework of an institution which at times must balance conflicting expectations. Third, I will meet with those who can assist us in our work and through whom we can better reach our goals…the IMF, agencies of the UN, the regional development banks, as well as the NGO community. And finally, to our World Bank Family, without which our dreams cannot be realized.

From what I can see, we are blessed with a group of dedicated and highly-qualified people—diverse and caring, with a long and unique collective experience. It is much too early for me to comment on the existing climate of morale and performance in our institution. Let me communicate simply what I care about and what I expect will characterize the organization under my period as President.

First, I expect from you loyalty to the institution and to each other. By this I do not mean that there should not be dissent nor that we cannot criticize our practices or actions. But criticisms must be internal and constructive, accompanied by initiatives to solve the problems. I will regard externally–voiced criticism of the Bank—of ourselves—as an indication of a desire to find alternative employment.

Second, I hope we can all recognize that the Bank Group is not some inanimate object, that it is the sum of the individuals. None of us can avoid the responsibilities for what we do. Each of our actions affects our collective image as an institution.

Third, I want us to look outwards and forward, not just to internal processes. I believe we all work here because we care about the world: we care about poverty, the environment, social justice, and many other issues which make up the dreams of the institution. These should be our guiding lights. Our organization and internal practice must serve our objectives, not dominate them.

Fourth, I expect absolute standards of excellence in our work, and in our renewal of skills.

Finally, we must have integrity in our word in our behavior, inside and outside our institution.

I should add only that I have a very strong sense of family, not only about Elaine, Sara, Naomi and Adam, but about each one of you. You can count on me to act fairly towards you, and notwithstanding our size, I expect that each of you will care about one another.

Entering our second half century, the Bank Group is at a critical juncture in our history. The world around us has changed, and its expectations from, and demands on, our institution have become enormously complex. We should regard this as a period of opportunity.

I am truly proud to be with you at this time, looking to create an even greater institution, worthy of our dreams, and critically important to our children and those who come after them.

Without records there is no history. Courtesy of ISG’s World Bank Group Archives.


Upon his arrival as World Bank President, Mr. Wolfensohn and Mrs. Wolfensohn met with several groups of randomly selected staff to introduce themselves and to meet staff members.












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