Susan Sobbott, president of global corporate payments at American Express, is a 24-year veteran of the organisation and has recently shifted her focus from the US market to international customers
As Director meets Susan Sobbott at London’s Goring Hotel she’s on a whirlwind tour of Europe – her second since taking on the role of president of global corporate payments in January. In the days leading up to our interview, Sobbott, who lives in New Jersey, visited American Express offices in Paris and Brighton and held Q&A sessions with staff.
After our photo shoot ended she was scheduled to meet employees in the capital and 24 hours later she was on stage at the Royal Albert Hall addressing delegates at the IoD Annual Convention.
The last nine months have shifted her focus. For a decade she was president of American Express Open, the arm of the credit and charge card organisation that supports small US domestic businesses. She is now engaged with growing the customer base of global midsize and large corporations, learning about local experiences from staff in 40 markets around the world.
A supporter of women entrepreneurs and winner of several awards for advancing the success of female small-business owners, Sobbott chairs the American Express Women’s Interest Network to accelerate the advances of female leaders. Overleaf she tells us why there aren’t nearly enough women on boards, how the global financial crisis required her to trust her instinct and why corporates need to learn to embrace failure as entrepreneurs do…
In your almost quarter of a century at American Express how has the nature of business changed?
In so many ways… Then, leadership was about command and control. [From a] central hierarchy, I think the world of business has really progressed and is really thinking about empowerment, creativity and adaptability. The pace of change has accelerated tremendously. Pre-financial crisis people consumed media on television, radio and newspapers. The financial crisis brought digital media to the forefront because you needed real-time knowledge. What you think is happening at the start of the day is different from what’s happening at the end of it. The emergence of new companies has really brought this pace of change to the forefront.
…and the role of SMEs?
They’re a critical part of any economy and typically the engine of employment. They provide a path for economic empowerment among people, particularly women… The emergence of entrepreneurship has also accelerated because the barriers to entry have been reduced. With technology you can start a company and access customers around the world in a way you could never dream of 25 years ago. It’s created so much opportunity for innovation.
What has working with SMEs taught you in business?
That there’s always an opportunity to be exploited – and I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean in a crack that can be opened into a major opportunity for growth. My entrepreneurial customers have taught me to always look for those little opportunities that can become big ones, to trust my gut and trust that we’ll find a way through. Often when we talk about a great entrepreneur we talk about their great success but what we don’t talk about is the 25 failures that happened before that. Failure is the way to success. It’s a way to get to the right answer. Sometimes you have to see the wrong answer before you get to the right one. Entrepreneurs are the best role models for that.
What’s been your biggest career challenge?
The financial crisis was an unprecedented time… it helped me understand how you have to make decisions sometimes based on instinct and intuition. As managers and leaders we always want to have good data, good information and we want to think about things. When you’re in a crisis you have to go with what you feel is the right thing to do and hope that you’ve made a good step in your navigation and correct it if you didn’t.
Is there more diversity in boards today than you would have hoped for 10 years ago?
Goodness no, there’s not nearly enough diversity on boards. There’s lots of opportunity and more work to do to increase it, be that gender diversity or ethnic diversity or even diversity of perspectives of life experience. There have been tiny increments of growth and certainly terrific role models that have come into play here. I’m proud to say that at American Express we have three members of our board who are women. It’s not about counting how many women you have, it’s about making sure you have a board that represents your customer base and society. When you have different perspectives you see things that you cannot see if you surround yourself with people like you. Diversity on boards will influence diversity on management teams – and diversity of customers eventually.
How do you achieve work-life balance?
I use the term work-life integration because I think it’s a very simple concept: we have one life and we have to pack a lot into it. If we try to separate ourselves into two people (our home life and our work life) it becomes enormously challenging. You need to understand that one ebbs and flows into the other. I don’t want anyone to come to work and leave part of themselves behind. You have to bring your entire self to your role and to your job and to your team. That makes you more human and more understanding of the folks around you.
For employers how important is it to be flexible?
As an employer I find flexibility is a really critical piece of the equation in order to retain talent. If you ask someone to choose between their family or their job you will lose every time as the employer. People have to choose their families. We have to recognise that and provide them with the flexibility to be where they need to when they need to, knowing that they will be responsible and fulfil their obligations at work. There are many times my team get emails from me very late at night. That’s not because I worked from very early in the morning to very late. It’s because I worked from very early in the morning, went home, had dinner with the kids, put them to bed and then started working again.
What trends are you seeing in terms of business growth?
Earlier in the year we conducted a survey of CFOs of larger companies. In Asia and the emerging markets there’s much higher expectations for growth, Europe a little less so. What’s interesting, in 2014 versus 2013 we’re seeing that levelling out a little bit. Expectations have come down for Asia. Europe has gone up quite substantially and the UK has gone up the most. There’s a lot more optimism in the UK. Views around spending are still a little conservative because no one wants to take too much risk. But the number who are aggressive about investing has almost doubled, from about 10 per cent to about 17 per cent. Everyone is cautious about the economy but we’re so happy to see these glimmers of optimism.
What is the secret to the success of American Express?
Reinvention. So many companies try to hang on to what they have, but it just allows someone else to come in and advance, evolve and adapt it for the future. You have to change yourself. If you don’t change, you’re going to be reacting and you want to be more proactive in advancing. You want to be on the offensive, not on defence. I’m proud to say American Express has done this, and I’m very optimistic we will continue to be able to do it over time.