NewCo Shift Forum 2018
Why the most senior woman at American Express decided to leave, and what her decision can teach us all
Until very recently, Susan Sobbott was the President of Global Commercial Payments at American Express, a storied company that has gone through significant transitions over past 100 or so years, and certainly in the last five. She spent 27 years there, and had a remarkable career as a senior executive spanning multiple divisions of the financial giant.
I first worked with Sobbott when I ran a company called Federated Media, and she ran part of American Express which included OPEN, Amex’s small business brand. Sobbott, a director of many commercial and nonprofit boards, was recently named one of the 150 women who shaped the world. But perhaps the most interesting thing about her is her recent choice to leave American Express after being passed up for the role of CEO. Most executives go silently into the night after this kind of news. But not Sobbott, who pointedly explained her reasons for leaving: There was only one job she wanted at the company, and the company didn’t give it to her. Below is the full transcript and video of our conversation at the Shift Forum last month. (While all conversations at Shift Forum are held under Chatham House Rule, Sobbott preferred her remarks be on the record. We’re thankful she did!).
John Battelle: It’s very rare that anyone stays at any company for almost three decades, but you made it 27 years. You reached the president level. You ran many very big P&Ls, and had tens of thousands of people reporting to you.
Then your CEO announced that he was retiring. And the scuttlebutt I heard was that you were the obvious next choice. Obviously, I’m biased. I want my friend to be CEO of AMEX. That would be super cool. Maybe I get one of those black cards!
But it didn’t happen. Now, usually when these things happen the person who was passed over goes quietly. It’s never discussed. The company certainly doesn’t acknowledge that this may have been an issue. You were not asked to leave. You said, “Well OK. Fine. You’re not going to give it to me. I’m out of here. I’m going to go find a CEO job somewhere else.” That’s rare. You broke protocol. Why?
Susan Sobbott: Well, first of all I’ll say most of the time people would ask me how long have I stayed at AMEX and why have I stayed for 27 years? I’m used to that question, so now I have to answer the other question which is why did I leave? A long time ago, I had a mentor who had come to American Express from several other firms. I said to him, “How do you know when it’s time to leave a company?” He said, “When you look around and there is no job that you really want to have.”
In my case, there are no further jobs I want to do at American Express. I aspire to be a CEO, and that job just got filled at American Express. For me, I felt I didn’t want to recommit to the new CEO, who’s terrific and will be wonderful in his role, for another extended period of time. It’s my time. I’m ready to do something new and big. I just wanted to put it out there.
I give advice to women all the time, in particular women entrepreneurs. One of the things I tell them is set your goal and say it out loud. Importantly, when you do that, a community of people will come around you and support you to get there.
One of the things I tell women is set your goal and say it out loud. When you do that, a community of people will come around you and support you to get there.
One of the things I was worried about when I made this decision was if I was disappointing all of my female colleagues at American Express. I was really astounded at the number of notes, 100s of notes, that I’ve gotten from the women who work there, who are actually even more inspired by me using my voice to say this is what I want to do.
There’s such a protocol at the C-suite level in very large corporations. Wasn’t it scary to announce, “I’m going to go find my role that I want.” What it implies is you bozos over here [laughs] didn’t see it, I see it. I believe in myself. Isn’t it scary to put yourself out there like that?
Absolutely, it is. Look, when you work for a big company, it becomes part of your identity. The magnitude is big. I ran almost half of the company.
How many employees is that just for scale?
In terms of revenues, I ran almost half the company. I had about 6,000 employees. American Express has 55,000 employees, of course, most of them in service-related endeavors. The commercial business at American Express is a big business and I helped build it.
I built it from the time that you and I worked together, so it was a big deal to say, “Ugh. I’m going to walk away from this. It’s my baby and it’s my identity.” On the other hand, I come out here, and I hear all of you and all of the exciting things that you’re doing, and I think, “Oh, my God. Look at what I’ve been missing.”
Let’s talk about that. I’ve had several friends who’ve moved from a large corporate position, jumped feet first into the world of startups, and come away going, “OK. I’m not sure that was a good deal. The people are crazy. There’s no structure, no one really knows what they’re doing. My boss is 20 years younger than me, and he’s kind of an idiot.” Are looking to do something that different? Give me the idea of what the perfect job looks like for you?
Let me first start by saying that for 27 years I’ve worked 15 hours a day. I have managed global teams through credit cycles, economic downturns, and aggressive earnings targets. It has been as exhausting as it has been fulfilling.
My first stop is to just take a break, I have to say. It’s less than a month since I signed my last Sarbanes-Oxley certification, so it’s not like I’ve had a whole lot of time off here. I have to figure out…
By the way, thanks for coming. I appreciate it. I’ve known Susan for a long time, and I asked her to come before this news. When the news came out about your leaving, and I sent you an email, “Oh, shit. Really? Please, will you still come?” I think it’s important to talk about career and changes, because that’s part of life and it’s big part of life here in the Valley.
I agree, I agree. In terms of what’s next for me, I really have to reflect really what are my gifts that I want to share. I do know that there are builders and there are growers. I’m probably more of a grower than a builder.
I also know that the moments I’m proudest of in my career have been those where my values have been aligned and my ability to make a difference was really driven by an intention and a purpose, and so of course I’d been looking for a company that wants to be purpose driven, even if it’s not (at the moment).
I’m interested in a company that’s as interested in growing leaders as it is in growing profits, and a company that really loves its customers as much as it wants to satisfy its investors or shareholders.
You’re narrowing the field.
Yeah. [laughs] I want to go on a bit of exploration expedition and see what’s out there.
Take notes. That’s going to be a good book. You are a very senior female executive, during three decades where there were very few of you. The last year has been an extraordinary breakout year for the Time’s Up movement, for women finding their voice at work. What’s your take-on on the past year or so? How has that affected your personal decisions?
I think it’s really important for women to find their voice, and so I’m really appreciative of the Me Too movement, of the Time’s Up movement, because it’s not as if women haven’t had their voice before, but it’s a bit of a backlash after the election of 2016, where women felt that they ended up in all of that.
Seeing women express themselves as in Me Too, where you have women who are sharing intimate trauma, really inspires other women on issues that are far less personal, that it’s OK to share your opinion. It’s OK to get out there and say what you want. As a matter of fact, it’s not only OK. It’s your obligation, because that is how you inspire others.
It’s OK to get out there and say what you want. As a matter of fact, it’s not only OK. It’s your obligation, because that is how you inspire others.
It’s your obligation to yourself and to your community that you can bring the most that you have to bear to make a difference.
There is a phrase that’s out there in the world about what it takes…I hear it here in the Valley a lot from friends of mine who are women. Which is you have to work twice as hard to get where a man could get. Does that resonate with you or does that offend you or does that lie flat? How do you feel about that sentiment?
The answer is yes, it resonates. Yes, it’s true. Next question.
In order to be recognized when you are different, you must be exceptional. In order to be exceptional, you need to work harder. It’s not fair, but there are some benefits. You learn faster, you grow faster.
I think that there are less women in senior positions, and there are less people of color in very senior positions, because the decision-makers are largely men. That presents a lot of problems. It presents problems importantly in the boardroom.
Look. Five percent of Fortune 500 companies have women as CEOs. Less than 100 women in history have been CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The odds are against women here. The reason for that — and me and any other woman — is because only 25 percent of boards have three or more women sitting on them. The average age of a Fortune 500 board is in the mid-60s.
What that means is that overall on most boards you have 65-year-old white men making decisions about who’s going to run the company. That’s not a bad thing, but there’s a consequence to that. The consequence is when you’re making a decision that has that much risk, that has that much weight, it’s easy to default to what’s familiar. It’s easy to default to what you’ve seen.
How many 65-year-old white men have worked for strong women in power? Not a lot of them. They’re just not as comfortable with it. It’s not conscious bias, but I think that is it an unconscious bias that has to be addressed. It has to be changed.
You know a lot of these canonical 65-year-old white men. You work with them. Are they getting woke?
I will say I’m fortunate to have worked for a company with men that believed in me, and the part of the business that I ran would be a Fortune 300 company. I do believe it’s possible for men to advance that on and see the potential of great talent regardless of what form it comes in.
I think that today what’s happening with men is they are certainly understanding the boundaries better, as in the result of a Me Too and the consequences of that. I also think that investors are demanding more relative to expectations around diversity.
I also think that companies are becoming more and more aware of their consumer and want different perspectives associated with that, how to attract and retain their consumer. Honestly, I think we need to have term limits on boards.
I think that it is ridiculous that we can have the same people sit for decades. If you look at medical students today, by the time they graduate, all the knowledge that they just gained is virtually obsolete.
I don’t need to sit here in front of an audience in California and tell you guys that technology is changing whatever the half-life of technology is. What makes us think that board members shouldn’t be held to the same standard of knowledge and currency?
That’s an interesting idea. This one feels doable.
It is doable. It’s just a decision. It’s just a decision that any company could make on their own. It doesn’t have to be a policy.
The other thing that I think needs to happen in terms of boards — or even companies in general, I shouldn’t say just boards in building pipelines of diverse candidates — is to do recruiting that is blind to a person’s sex or ethnicity. There have been tons of studies that tell us that if you are a woman or you are diverse, the standards and requirements for your experience in education are higher than if you were a white male.
By the way, if you set a set of criteria and say, “Look, I want more experience than I want education,” and when you see a diverse candidate come in that fits that criteria, that criteria is often retrofitted to the more standard white male candidate. We need to change the way we make our selections, because of this again is unconscious bias.
Questions. Please come to the mic. I want to make sure there’s time for them, so I’m going to cue you guys now. Since we’re talking about boards, a person in your situation, a very senior woman with lots of experience, I imagine that you could have your pick of boards who want to increase the number of women on there.
I led a search at a board I’m on where the search criteria was essentially, “If you don’t find a woman, John, keep searching.” This is part of the conversation now at the board level is that they’re aware of this and want to address it. I imagine you could have filled the rest of your career with just sitting on boards.
That’s true. I am not on any (new) boards right now. As I said, I just want to step back [laughs] and take a few weeks off before I do anything. I sit on a privately held company board called Red Ventures which is based out of Charlotte, North Carolina. Terrific, dynamic, digital marketing company. I also sit on the board of the Children’s Place which is a publicly held firm.
I’ve gotten a lot of queries about board opportunities. I’m really honored to get them. Of course, I would listen and entertain each one, but I’ve got figure out what my big boulders are going to be that are going to occupy my time, and how I’m going to have an impact before I start feeling in with the pebbles.
Let’s go to questions.
Audience Member: Thanks. Hi. P&G CMO Mark Pritchard, I don’t know if you saw him earlier, he talked about using marketing budget to address buyers and society. I wondered if you think that marketers can use their budgets and actually measure perception among…Can it actually invest in change in our society?
Sure. I don’t know if any individual company can change society’s buyers because society is big. I do think that marketers can make a difference. I’ll tell you one of the things that we did in American Express was we were very focused on female entrepreneurs. I had a point of view that women-owned companies were really valuable customers.
In fact, we even had the statistic that women-owned companies were growing at twice the rate as male-owned companies. We built an entire advocacy program around helping women entrepreneurs succeed. In that way, we were trying to level the playing field a little bit in terms of access to funding, in terms of access to resources by doing our part and putting our money against our customer’s need.
Thanks. I’m a government person so this is outside of my field of expertise. I have heard it posited that women are more likely to be entrusted with a CEO role when the company is in such bad shape. That they’re just looking for a Hail Mary pass so they give it to a woman. Because the company is in such bad shape, it fails anyway and they said, “That didn’t work,” and then they give it back to a man. I’d be interested in your perspective on that.
Actually, I have seen studies that have been done. As a matter of fact, the study was done in the UK that said that women CEO’s are less successful than male CEOs. Of course, that raised a big stir and then people got underneath that and what they found was exactly that.
There was a company that was going like this and they gave the job to a woman because they wanted something different. They wanted a signal to the market that they were doing something different. What could be more different than putting a woman in charge?
Also, women are more likely to take those jobs. They are so happy to have the opportunity and because women are fixers. We are people who are going to go in and make it happen. Some men may say you know what? I’m going to pass on that one.
I’m a technology and government person and I’ve never given career advice but… have you ever considered being the head of a university because what I heard you say fits my ideal view of what a university head should do. If you haven’t thought about it, would you consider it?
It’s a job offer right here.
That’s really great. I’m going to talk with you more often. [laughs] Thank you. I’m honored that you would desire me as a head of a university. I will absolutely think about that.
Here is what scares me from academia is the same thing that it scares me from government. My customers that I have served over the years and the environment that I have been in, is one that is based on meritocracy. It is scary to think about going into an environment that may not be so. I don’t know enough about it. I don’t want to judge too quickly.
We have three current chancellors of universities here Janet Napolitano, Carol Christ, and Sue Desmond-Hellman. They’re all women by the way, and they’ve all done that job. You should talk to them…
Hi, Susan. My name’s Julie founder of REvolve You. I help moms relaunch their careers after taking time to be with kids. I noticed that you have had in the past sponsorship of CEO boot camps specifically for women.
I wondered if you’ve ever looked at the business value of being a mom and the skill sets that we learn during that time period. How do we capitalize on them and shift the perspective of the value of that time? How do we create avenues for women and men to be able to step in and out of their careers and not lose these opportunities to get up to a place of being a CEO?
Sure. Absolutely. There is an expression, I don’t know if it’s still used, called mompreneurs. In my work at American Express in advocating for women, I actually never wanted to use that expression. I felt like it defined women by then being a mother as opposed to being an entrepreneur or being a business leader.
One of the things that I know for sure is that the feminine characteristics are the most important characteristics of our future leaders. We need to be more agile. We need to be more collaborative. We need to think more about relationship. We need to be more comprehensive long-term thinkers.
Feminine characteristics are the most important characteristics of our future leaders. We need to be more agile. We need to be more collaborative. We need to think more about relationship. We need to be more comprehensive long-term thinkers.
That doesn’t mean men can’t do that. I love the men in my life. I love this man right here. Men can do it too, but women do it naturally and they do it easily. They bring something to the table that I think has spurred lots of innovation and creativity.
We need to own our femininity. What you are doing you happen to be focused on women who have children. I think that is just another aspect of female leadership.
Just a comment. Since we are asking, you could president. I thought I’d ask.
You are certainly more qualified.
Please join me in thanking Susan for coming today.