Ken Chenault is widely regarded as one of America’s most notable CEOs. According to CBS News, he spent the final 17 years of his nearly four-decade career in corporate America as chairman and CEO of American Express.
Ken had no prior experience running or developing a business while in college; all he knew was law and history. However, by the time he retired, he had established himself as one of the four successful African Americans who head a Fortune 500 corporation.
In 1981, when American Express was in trouble, he was offered the opportunity to supervise the company’s operations. According to Neil Patel, one of the organization’s senior managers, Louis Gerstner, initially wanted to close down the department Ken worked in; but, in two years, he altered the company’s fortunes from $150 million to $500 million.
Throughout the years, he guided the company through both good and bad times, establishing American Express as one of the most trusted brands in the country. In 2013, the company was ranked 13th on the list of the World’s Most Admired Companies.
There are a few principles Ken credits for the exceptional feats he achieved in the corporate world:
First of all, leaders need to create a context and a message of hope in their work environments. This can be done by arming employees with the strategies, values, and inspiration to be hopeful. Even in the wake of a crisis, leaders must ensure that neither an individual nor a situation distorts the reality they hold.
The next principle is to implement a strategy that enables employees to visualize that they can achieve company goals or overcome challenges a corporation finds itself in. With this winning mentality and consistency in delivering objectives, leaders are bound to achieve success. Ken adds that in the course of empowering and getting employees to work towards the vision of a leader, there should be a way to consistently track whether they are meeting their deliverables.
Next, is the use of constructive confrontation as a mechanism to get expected results from employees. Because different perspectives on an issue matter, Ken believes the culture of letting staff speak up boldly helps colleagues to understand each other’s reality. Once the team decides on the way forward through this approach, they will most likely deliver their best. Leaders must make themselves approachable for constructive debates with employees, and once a determination is made on a matter, everyone can work together to achieve a common goal.
More so, Followership, integrity, courage, and a sense of humor are qualities every leader should possess. Based on these ingredients, every leader must as a matter of importance, have a mentor who provides insight and judgment. This mentor relationship must be developed to enhance a leader’s performance. This is often misunderstood as having someone in the background giving technical advice; that role is an expert position.
A mentor should be able to give judgment on a leader’s decisions. It doesn’t matter where these mentors are placed, whether at higher or lower levels of the ladder. The best advice often comes from those at the bottom because they give unfiltered insights about a situation.
Ken concludes that power is a beautiful influence to wield as a leader, however, judgment is more potent than power when running the affairs as a leader.