Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express at View From The Top Talk (Transcript)

So clearly there will be people and there’s a lot going on, there’s more innovation going on right now in commerce and payments than almost any place else. But we’re not standing still.

Andrew Baldwin: Staying with the theme of innovation, I want to pivot to policy. You are on the President’s Council for Jobs and Competitiveness.

Ken Chenault: I was. It’s no longer – but I was.

Andrew Baldwin: If you were to treat the President of the United States as one of your customers who is over levered hypothetically, what advice would you give on kind of current deficit levels, how to manage, you know, increasing debt levels over time?

Ken Chenault: So obviously with the proper service training I’d do it in a very polite but forceful way. But in all seriousness I think what is most important and from my experience on the jobs council, I went in questioning how much of a difference could be made in creating jobs. I actually believed that the jobs issue is a solvable issue. We did a lot of work identifying different industry areas where we can drive growth, putting together both short and long term strategies. Obviously you get down to politics and getting that through on both sides of the house.

But the reality is that I think there are several things that need to be done. One is, we do have to promulgate some pro-growth policies. When I look at the infrastructure in the U.S. there are major improvements that have to be made, that can help stimulate job growth but also can make us a more productive and competitive economy.

Secondly, we have to deal with entitlements. That’s just the reality. And so back to your analogy of someone who is having credit problems, you’ve got to sit down and you’ve got to say here’s the spending that has to stop.

But thirdly, I think what’s very important is that tax reform in a comprehensive way both personal and corporate. We’ve got to really bring about a set of fundamental changes. And I think that what is required is not just an issue of being focused on what the President, the Senate and the House does. I think we need to put more public pressure on. And I look at this frankly as almost like a social movement that your generation, the next generation, your lives are in jeopardy. If you really felt that on a social issue, I think you would have a much different attitude and approach. And I think we need a far more engaged electorate that is going to put real pressure. Because the existing approach is not driving change fast enough.

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Andrew Baldwin: That’s great feedback and from what I understand about American Express’ culture, you have a culture of constructive confrontation and transparency. And here at the GSB, we have a euphemism that feedback is a gift. Could you share with us a story when you had to give or receive one of these gifts that’s not so pleasant?

Ken Chenault: Sure, sure. I think I would say probably half-way three quarters through my career, things are going really well. I thought I was getting terrific feedback which in general I was. And we had this process where you got feedback and there were always 10 things that you did really well. And then ten things that you needed to improve. And it didn’t matter who you were, you always had 10 things that you needed to improve. Because the view was no matter what your station, you should always focus on being a good leader. So it was always depressing particularly if you’re really focused on saying I want to be the best, to confront that there are things you’ve got to focus on.

Then we start to say, well, what are one or two things that you need to focus on and in our feedback process, you had to talk to your team about, here are the things, here are things that are positive, here are the things that are negative. And so one thing that came out with me is that I didn’t listen well. And I actually thought gees, I am respectful for people, I sit in meetings. I listen to people and the feedback I got was, Ken, you know, your mind’s always racing. And if you don’t think someone is saying something that’s really smart, you literally will just turn off. You won’t frown but we know that you are not there.

Andrew Baldwin: That’s not what’s going on here, between –

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Ken Chenault: I’m not at all, not at all. And that really hit me. I mean I didn’t fully realize I was doing it and didn’t really realize, not just the impact that was having on the person that I was talking to, but obviously the impact that had in the entire room. Because at that time I wasn’t president, but I was a pretty senior person. And almost the phrase was, this is one of Ken’s zone-outs. And he’s thinking about something else.

And one of the things that I clearly learned from that feedback was that I was missing out. It doesn’t mean that every time someone was talking to me, I thought they were saying something that was really terrific. I would certainly let them know, I don’t think that’s a great idea. Here are the reasons why. But I was actively engaged and you’ve got to have that two-way street. And if you listen some more those ideas can come out, so the ability to be what I call an active listener can actually empower that person who you’re talking to. That was a real learning for me, and it was incredibly helpful. And it took several years before I got the recognition that I was an active listener. Now people say, boy, Ken is a really good listener. Someone who has been in the company a long time said, well, let me tell you back Ken, 10 or 15 years ago he wasn’t such a great listener. So that’s — but I think for anyone, one of the things that I try to do really every year is think about two or three areas that I want to improve going forward in my own leadership.

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