Want to run a big bank someday? Go work for Citigroup (C).

The third-largest U.S. bank has fallen on hard times in recent years, but its name still pops up with Ivy League frequency on the resumes of financial chief executives. Now that Citi-trained bankers have landed two prominent CEO jobs this fall, the bank's alumni run four of the country's biggest financial companies: JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Visa (V), MasterCard (MA) and Citigroup itself. The graduate network extends internationally; this summer, British bank Barclays (BCS) chose former Citi banker Antony Jenkins as its new CEO.

Citigroup's diverse mixture of operations, large international footprint and lively internal politics have served as a proving ground for bankers who want to run their own companies, according to former executives and recruiters. While the bank has struggled to retain talent over the years, especially after the financial crisis, working there offers opportunities — and challenges — few other financial companies can match.

"Citi has always been a very dynamic organization, very political, always changing," says Richard Lipstein, a managing director at recruiting firm Gilbert Tweed. "If you survive it and run a good business, it almost makes you qualified to get to the next level, whether there or moving to another company."

That always-changing political climate was on full display this fall, when Citigroup's board abruptly fired CEO Vikram Pandit and replaced him with bank lifer Michael Corbat. Corbat's 29 years at Citi and its predecessors include stints running the bank's operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and overseeing Citi's efforts to dispose of unwanted businesses after the financial crisis.

Corbat and other Citi veterans have had "exposure to really good quality and well-rounded experience, with an international component," says Cliff Rossi, a former chief risk officer for Citi's consumer lending group. "While Citi has certainly gone through its trials and tribulations through the crisis … by and large this is an institution that has a very lengthy pedigree."

Visa grabbed a piece of that pedigree this fall, when it hired Citigroup alumnus Charles Scharf as its new CEO. Scharf experienced the good and the bad of the bank's tumultuous environment: he got his start at Citi predecessor Commercial Credit, where he first worked for his longtime boss Jamie Dimon and saw the series of mergers that created the modern Citigroup. He also saw Citi Chairman Sandy Weill publicly (and bitterly) break with Dimon after years of grooming him for the succession.

Scharf followed Dimon to what would eventually become JPMorgan Chase, getting more leadership training as he ran the bank's retail financial services unit for almost a decade. He also continued working closely with Dimon, widely considered to be one of the country's best bankers, before taking an apparent demotion last year.

A JPMorgan Chase spokesman declined to comment. In an interview this fall, Scharf praised Citigroup for what his time there taught him.

"Citi has an extraordinary global franchise. In my years there I participated and was able to learn and see how successful global institutions have built themselves to a point of success over time, and what functions well and doesn't function well," Scharf said in an interview in late October, when he was named Visa CEO. "I think my experiences at Citi will certainly help me navigate this company and its global growth."

Scharf is now competing head-to-head with former colleague and friend Ajay Banga, who took over MasterCard in 2010. Banga spent 13 years at Citigroup, running its international global consumer group and its Asia Pacific business before leaving for MasterCard in 2009.

A MasterCard spokesman declined to comment.

Robert M. Iommazzo, a managing partner at recruiting firm Seba International, says that Citigroup has historically groomed executives like Banga by rotating them through several different businesses and locations.

"The bottom line is, it's great training. You've got a lot of different constituents, a lot of different businesses, a sprawling empire," says Iommazzo, who recruits risk-management executives for Citigroup and other financial companies.

He also notes that most successful future leaders leave Citigroup with relatively grounded personalities; while CEOs like Banga and Jenkins might have healthy egos, "they're pretty down-to-earth guys … not your typical investment banker types."

Citigroup spokesman Mark Costiglio declined to discuss details of the bank's internal efforts to cultivate talent: "Citi has a longstanding commitment to the training and development of talented leaders who thrive in a culture that demands excellence and innovation," he said in an email.

But recruiters and former executives all singled out Citigroup's large foreign operations as an important proving ground for future industry leaders. Citi is the most international of the U.S. banks, and by running businesses abroad, its executives get a greater autonomy and responsibility than some other banks can offer their developing talent.

"It's a big, diversified financial services institution, and the heads of its various businesses have the opportunity to get the expertise, experience and exposure that makes boards comfortable hiring them as CEOs of other businesses," says Steven Eckhaus, a Wall Street compensation advisor and a partner at Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP. "What you're really observing more than anything else is a platform where they have an opportunity to learn."

Several industry members also point out one more practical reason for companies to poach Citigroup executives: shorter "gardening leaves" for defectors. Citi typically only requires a 75-day advance notice from senior executives who leave to work for rivals, compared with the standard of 180 days at most other big financial companies, according to recruiters. That means that Citigroup executives hired away by a competitor could start work again in less than three months, instead of keeping their new employer waiting for half a year. (Citi spokesman Costiglio declined to comment.)

To be sure, other banks and financial companies tend to have their own recruiting and training impact on the industry; American Express (AXP) alums, for example, are now running consumer businesses at both Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. But among the other large banks, "you don't hear as much about their senior executives going off and heading up other companies as you do at Citi," says Rossi, now a teaching fellow at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

The financial crisis accelerated some of those departures, as executives fled to companies that appeared farther from the brink of failure or better able to pay for their skills. But Rossi sees Corbat's takeover as a step in the right direction for Citigroup's future executive retention.

"There's certainly been a brain drain of sorts in various positions," he says. But "tapping Corbat as the successor to Pandit may actually put them back on track to cultivating that kind of leadership, because he grew up Citigroup and has that built into him — how effective a process that is. Tapping an insider will certainly help stabilize things going forward."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.