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

Andrew Baldwin: So I want to lean in for this next question. I know that you are very close friends of Sheryl Sandberg and a big fan of her philosophy, Lean In but the facts are in kind of unfortunately so that inequality is still exists. You’re one of six African-American CEOs. There are only 20 female Fortune 500 CEOs. Why is the pass so difficult for African-American females and other minorities at very senior levels within corporate America?

Ken Chenault: I think there are several reasons. I mean I think clearly what you can’t deny is that bias and prejudice still exists. And the legacy of bias and prejudice has a major impact. That just doesn’t go away. And I always go back if I could rewrite history and say in just, pick an era, in the 1920s there was full equal opportunities by all that happened historically, I think we would be so far ahead. But that didn’t happen. And so I think you’ve got to deal with that issue.

I think second is — and this is part of what Sheryl is talking about, we can all analyze the reasons why we can’t get ahead. And we should be very focused on that and we should all feel a collective responsibility to change that. But one of the points when I was growing up, that my father emphasized with me was, focus on what you can control. And the only thing you can control is your performance. There are several ways you can look at that. He was not saying that to limit me. What he was saying was that opens up a range of opportunities and from a accountability standpoint, don’t, in fact, run away from that problem or a challenge or a barrier. Figure out a way to jump over it.

And so what Sheryl was certainly not saying is that there are not a set of major issues and big issues and institutional issues that women have to deal with. But that women clearly can take increasing ownership for what they need to do, that a support structure is very helpful because we all need a support structure. And that’s important. And that we’ve got to take it very personally. I think at the end of the day what’s most important is this is a surprising phenomenon that happens. And it’s not really surprising.

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When you get people in positions who look different and are different, all of a sudden several years later you get more people who look like them. And so the representation issue is a big issue, is an important issue. And it is at some point — and this is where I go to these business metrics, if someone is simply saying each year, Ken,. I’m going to grow; this business is really going to do well. Here are my strategies. And each year nothing happens. That’s a problem. So if there is a real commitment and a real focus, then there need to be measures and there needs to be accountability so that those things happen.

And I think that a business mentality around that can bring about some very important social change.

Andrew Baldwin: I’d love to open it up to questions from the audience. And right before I do, I just want to say one quote that I found particularly inspiring from you. In the 2008 commencement address at Howard University, you said, “It’s your responsibility to the larger African-American community, to face prejudice and to make progress, to face history and to make history”, that I really enjoyed reading and was inspired by, so I just want to share that feedback in a public setting.

Ken Chenault: Thank you.

Andrew Baldwin: But I’d love to open up the audience to Q&A and let the tough questions roll.

Question-and-answer session

Audience: Hi, my name is [Nikki Jordeno] and I am a second year MBA student here. We’re really glad that you’re able to join us today. So I have a two-part question related to sort of those very tough decisions that you were talking about, going into the deposits business et cetera. One, when you make those tough decisions, would you say it’s more of a intuition, gut feeling that you have or more consensus-driven from the people and your really senior advisers? And the second part of that is, it is more gut in what you think is the right decision, then what is your process for bringing people on board and really rallying people behind really tough decisions?

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Ken Chenault: It’s a good question. I think one, what I’m a firm believer in is that you have to apply what I call situational leadership. That you can’t just follow one style. Sometimes you have to have a directive style, sometimes you have to have a consensus building style. There have to be some attributes from a leadership standpoint, one of those that I talk a lot about is integrity. Because that’s the only way you’re going to build trust and that’s for me the consistency of words and actions. But in some cases, I have relied on my gut but backed up with some analysis. I think it’s very very rare. Sometimes on creative issues, I’ll look at a piece of advertising. And you sort of know this is it. And you can’t totally explain why. But in a lot of situations I think you can analyze and you should. But then judgment is really important. But judgment should be based on what’s the criteria that you’re using to make that judgment. What are the values that you’re applying to make that judgment? So what I don’t believe in is making blind judgments. I think you always need to have some criteria. And you always need to have that balance by what values are important.

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