The Strategic Brilliance Of American Express CEO Ken Chenault

Ken Chenault came into American Express following an historically hugely stormy period of forceful egos and clashing giants: H. Clarke; Raleigh Warner; James Robinson; Edmond J. Safra, Sanford Weill; Lou Gerstner; Peter Cohen; and Harvey Golub.

No major company in U.S. history has endured as much drama from so many mammoth players of the same generation in the same two decades. The only thing they all agreed upon was the strategic brilliance of former consultant Ken Chenault.

He came in below the radar line as a peacemaker and problem solver. And the problems were enormous. The financial supermarket of Lehman/Shearson American Express stumbled; Visa and MasterCard were bank cards from Bank of America and Citibank that were stealing away consumers. Retailers and restaurateurs revolted rejecting the punishing fee structure and new nations were fighting over the proprietary control of cross border flows of financial data.

Ken led the charge on all these fronts—winning back customers, retailers, and global governments. No one could have done all this better.

From the disruptive technological and consumer market revolutions that converged on the world of finance in the 1980s and 1990s, to the horrors of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center adjacent to American Express’s headquarters, to the turmoil and its consequences over the past decade, and the global financial crisis of this current decade, Ken Chenault has been both a stabilizing pillar of wisdom and an inspiring leader with compelling vision for the future.

He is revered for his Socratic leadership model—encouraging constructive debate and candor, avoiding grandiosity, and transcending ideological barriers. As a leader who embraces change, Ken is referred to by many CEOs as a model for sorting through and refining regulatory changes, identifying new consumer interests, entering emerging markets, and embracing new technologies. Chenault also produced total shareholder returns of 129% towering over the Dow Jones Financials and the S&P 500.

It is true that in recent years, continued competition, especially now from new crypto-currencies, global competitors such as the far larger China Union Pays (with 4.5 BILLION – yes BILLION cards), the loss of a key account—Costco—and the tragic death of the initial intended heir apparent were significant setbacks—but Ken never lost his cool sense of direction and navigated rebounds from all such challenges. Through all of this, he has been an inspiring model of the American Dream and one of only three African American CEOs of a Fortune 100 firm. He is one of a kind, and he’ll be missed.

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Jeffrey Sonnenfeld
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is senior associate dean, leadership studies, Lester Crown professor of leadership practice, Yale School of Management, as well as president of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute and author of The Hero’s Farewell and Firing Back.

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