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AmEx's Denise Pickett: Use your leverage to move up

Monday, August 3, 2015  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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Denise Pickett, president of American Express Open, shared "The Power of a Career
with No Limits" at the NEW Executive Leaders Forum.

Women on the rise have more leverage than they know, and should ask for what they need to make career-advancing moves work for them, Denise Pickett, president of American Express Open, told more than 300 industry leaders at the NEW Executive Leaders Forum, July 30, 2015 outside Los Angeles.

"There are a million reasons to say 'No,' to an opportunity," Pickett said. "Ask yourself, what will it take for me to say, 'Yes'?'"

Pickett shared her personal career story during "The Power of a Career with No Limits," a discussion with NEW Forum Co-Chair Trish Lukasik, senior vice president, PepsiCo Warehouse Sales, PepsiCo Inc.

When offered the top spot at American Express Open in New York City, the former head of American Express Canada faced relocation to a new country with her husband and three children, including her oldest high-school-aged daughter. Before accepting the position, she recalled, she "asked everything I needed to make it work."

Among her requests, beyond title and salary, were responsibility for a larger piece of the business than initially offered, support for her husband's job search and help in selecting the right school for her children. She received all.

She was assigned a coach, too. "I didn't think I needed one," Pickett said. "The notion of a coach was weird to me. But in the first session, the coach mapped out of the relationship map in the company. Not the org chart, the relationship map. I thought, 'Wow, this is useful – I had no idea.'"

Still, the first year of the relocation was difficult on a personal level. Her daughter cried "every night for six weeks," Pickett said. "But the experience brought us together as a family, because the kids had no one [but their parents and each other]. Now, the kids are very close and that's a great outcome we didn't expect."

Authentic leadership

As she rose through the ranks, Pickett learned career lessons about the importance of being authentic and having sponsors. As a senior vice president in Canada, she asked a sponsor if she should change her behavior as she moved to the American Express world headquarters in New York. "My sponsor said 'Absolutely not. You are where you are because of who you are, and you will fail if you change,'" she recalled. "I said, 'That's really good, because I’m not capable of changing.'"

When a longtime sponsor passed away, she realized what that person had meant to her personally and professionally. "Every time something good happens in my career, I write my sponsors a handwritten note," she said. "I have written thousands of them. When is the last time you wrote a handwritten note to a sponsor who did something for you?"

As a sponsor to others, Pickett writes notes to her protégés offering support and kudos on their successes. "If I know they are presenting to the Board or operating committee, I say 'I've got your back, send me your deck in advance, I’ll make sure it’s good,'" she said.

Women leaders can create corporate cultural change by keeping connected to the customers and leading with courage. "Do big things in a very visible way to send very big signals," she urged. One example: Pickett "blew up" the floorplan of office suites assigned to executives and moved her office to the first floor. Earlier, serving in the top spot for American Express in Canada, she gave up the parking space closest to the building and gave it to the Employee of the Month.

"Culture change is hard work," Pickett said. "It takes a lot of communication. You must be on it and on it and on it."

Women in leadership positions, she said, are called on to be uncommon. "Break down barriers in a very public way."

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