I started this crisp autumn morning by attending the Wall Street Journal’s captivating “Viewpoints Executive Breakfast Series” featuring a conversation between WSJ editor Alan Murray and American Express Chairman and CEO, Kenneth Chenault. I found Chenault to be refreshing, balanced and pragmatic on a variety of topics, ranging from politics (on this morning after a historic mid-term election) and the economy, to leadership and corporate responsibility.
Here are a few highlights from this lively 60-minute exchange between Chenault, the Amex chief since 2001, and Murray, the WSJ’s Deputy Managing Editor and Executive Editor, Online.
- With the shifting of power in Washington and the general feeling of frustration (note: he didn’t use the word “anger”) across the country, Chenault emphasized that both parties must reach across the aisle to promote job creation and stimulate the economy. Murray questioned whether the climate was right for such “pragmatic centrism” but Chenault stood his ground and stressed that the American public wants to see results on job creation and economic growth. If that does not transpire, there will be another shift in power in 2012.
- Hardly sounding like Milton Friedman in his approach to corporate responsibility, he remarked: “Corporations exist because society allows us to exist. We have a responsibility to in fact, make a difference.” He views his role as more than just driving value to shareholders, but providing value to his customers, delivering a meaningful way of life for his employees, and making a positive impact on society.
- When asked how he would counsel Obama on marketing himself to the American people moving forward, he quoted Napoleon (“A leader’s role is to define reality and give hope.”) and explained that Obama must clearly define the reality of the situation, what he is going to do to lead in these challenging times and define his core priorities — what is he going to be resolute about. “Leadership reputations are made in times of crisis,” Chenault said. It’s worth noting that Napoleon also said, “To be successful in the world you must promise everything and deliver nothing.” That’s the path most politicians seem to take.
- He was generally supportive of government regulation of the card payments industry (namely the Dodd-Frank bill), in that it creates greater transparency and mitigates risk to both companies and consumers. To the extent that regulation limits availability of credit to lower and middle income consumers, he questioned the intent of regulators. We need to finds way to “responsibly” extend credit to these consumer segments, not shut them out, he added
- He was quite effusive in discussing the opportunities for innovation in the digital world, such as digital wallets replacing or supplementing the more traditional payment systems. Amex has created an enterprise group to exploit and leverage opportunities in the digital space. He vowed that his company will “reinvent payments and services.”
- To spur innovation and meet the challenges of the digital world, he believes in promoting “constructive confrontation.” He wants people clashing on ideas but in a constructive way, not in a way that’s personalized. “I want the model to be challenged,” he remarked.