LIVED Leader: Ken Chenault (CEO of American Express)

Ken Chenault
Published April 2, 2015

“Corporations exist because society allows them to exist. I believe every business has an obligation to give back and to help improve our society. Sometimes we show this by writing checks. Sometimes it’s by providing our employees with opportunities and time to volunteer. Sometimes it’s by sharing our skills and resources. Sometimes it’s by being there for customers in times of emergency when there is no one else to turn to. Regardless of how we do it, contributing to the betterment of society is part of the corporate charter”.

This vision of the business world carries an expectation that every CEO shares the common principle of supporting others in the wider world through their success. Having said this, corporate social responsibility (CSR) typically comes as a descendent of financial success. It is fair to say that more effective social change can be achieved with greater funds. However, it is somewhat less common that the main driver for a person to succeed in their career is a powerful desire to make a meaningful impact on the world.

This applies to Ken Chenault, the current CEO and Chairperson of American Express. The origin of his driver was a passion for public service, which inspired Ken to enrol at Harvard Law School. He suggested his enrolment “provided an opportunity to learn from a faculty that had shaped the laws of our country and helped to change the world around us”. The fact that this Value has persisted in his approach to work since the mid-70s (when he graduated and entered the workplace) suggests that Ken has the courage to stand firm to his beliefs with integrity. He also values ambition and Drive, attributing this to his own personal success, eg “I always believed that a focus on ideas that really change the status quo [was important]… I liked changing the paradigm and it helped me [get recognised]”

As a result, AmEx are heavily involved in a wide variety of employee-driven philanthropic projects around the world, ranging from disaster relief to historic monument preservation, eg the Statue of Liberty, as well as running a Leadership Academy focused on “building the personal, business and leadership skills needed to run a successful non-profit organisation”.

Ken’s open and authentic leadership style is becoming more and more important in the modern workplace, as it is vital to influence and engage others in the mission of an organisation. This was immediately put to the test when he became CEO of American Express in 2001, having joined the company during the early 80s and built his understanding of brand loyalty and trust in the merchandising department.

A few months after Ken assumed the role of leader, on 11th September 2001, the World Trade Centre was destroyed by terrorist attacks (literally on the opposite side of the street from the AmEx HQ). This devastating event not only took the lives of thousands (including 11 AmEx employees) and impacted millions around the world, but also plunged the financial and travel industries into one of their worst crises in history.

The commercial challenges that American Express faced were immense, not least because share prices dropped instantly and dramatically. In line with their core value of customer service, within hours of the attacks American Express was helping over half a million stranded travellers get home by increasing card limits for those without cash and waiving late fees. They rallied to help those in need and maintain trust in the company.

Having said this, Ken needed to utilise his commercial Intellect to ensure the organisation recovered from this catastrophe. For example, when he and the Board analysed their cost structure, they realised that 15% of their workforce needed to be laid off in a time where emotions were running high. Not only did they make this tough decision happen, but following this period the company surprisingly received the highest employee satisfaction ratings in their history.

How is this possible? Well, Ken credits this outcome to the compassionate way in which he handled the situation, boosted by the honest approach he took to communicating changes at an individual level. Here, he was quoted as saying “I take my motto from Napoleon: Make sure people are grounded in reality, and give them strategies to be hopeful”. The latter part of this statement has been represented in his belief that mentoring is a core part of a leader’s ability to build engagement, through Emotions and enhanced relationships, throughout the organisation.

“There are people at lower levels who have incredible judgment and incredible insight that [are] coming up through the company, [and they] help me tremendously to say ‘watch out for this situation’, or ‘you may be approaching an issue in this way, here’s another way to think about it’. So I really encourage people to develop mentors at different levels of the organisation”.

All of the above factors describe a personable leader who drives a collective purpose to change the world for the better, and brings each individual on that journey with him. These characteristics make Ken Chenault a LIVED role model for leaders of the future.

Author: Jordon Jones

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