Two weeks ago, I heard Ed Gilligan, the President of American Express (AMEX), speak at a Leadership Conference in Arizona. After listening to him for an hour, I said to myself – “I want to work for him!” His speech was the highlight of the conference. Even though I didn’t know Ed, I had a glimpse of the type of leader he is through the stories he shared.
As we all climb the corporate ladder, it is great to meet leadership role models like Ed Gilligan. That day, I also learned a bit more about the type of leadership qualities I admire and aspire to. Here are four leadership qualities I admired about Ed:
Leadership Quality #1: Show vulnerability and share personal stories of struggle.
I used to think that what’s most important about being a leader is showing others how smart and accomplished I am. I thought that was how I would command respect, but that’s not how leadership works. Portraying a perfect image only separates leaders from their followers.
Ed did just the opposite — he was willing to show his vulnerability, even to a room of strangers. In his speech, he shared a story about a presentation he gave to his board in 2010. He told us that he was eager to get praise from the board, as AMEX had a very good quarter. It was therefore an unpleasant surprise when one board member stood up after the presentation, held his phone up, and said, “If AMEX is not on this, it will not survive.”
I was immediately sucked into his story, as if he was sharing a secret with me. Ed shared how he struggled with this board member’s feedback on a personal level. I remember thinking how down to earth he came across. Because of his story, I felt like he understands what we struggle with as team members, because he goes through the same thing, just at a different level.
Leadership Quality #2: Always Be Open to Learn and Grow
After taking two weeks to recover from the blow to his ego, Ed realized the board was implicitly asking him, “Are you part of the past, or are you part of the future?” That realization itself is admirable. We work with so many senior leaders who like to pull the “you have to do it my way, since I’ve been here longer” card. That is not very inspiring to anyone who may have fresh ideas. It’s refreshing to hear a white haired senior executive asking himself these questions. This showed me that he is open to learning and growing, because he realized that if he is not, he and his company would be in a downward decline.
Leadership Quality #3: Lead from the front
Ed told us that he decided to part of the future. I thought he would tell us that his next move was to create a digital task force and invest heavily in this space for AMEX. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when he said, “The first thing I did was set up my own Twitter account and get on Facebook.” He continued to say, “If I was going to be part of the future, I had to learn what all this social media is about for myself.” He also started coming to Silicon Valley and met with new start-up companies, like Four Square and many others.
This move impressed me, as so many leaders can talk the talk, but usually ask the team to walk the walk without doing it themselves. By being willing to put himself out there, make mistakes, and learn along the way, Ed showed that he leads from the front before he asks anyone to follow him.
Leadership Quality #4: Inspire Action and Take Full Accountability
As Ed was telling this story, I was still skeptical. AMEX is a very established company. How was he able to lead such a large ship into the social media space? Large ships do not change direction very easily. What he said next is what made probably every one of us in the audience excited, and secretly wishing we were working for him.
Ed said that he recognized AMEX didn’t know enough about the social media space to even know where to begin. So, he pulled together a small team of smart, passionate people. He took them out of their normal jobs, gave them a generous budget, and told them to go out to test and learn about the digital/social media space. The best part was he told them:
1) Their careers would be fine.
2) It was okay to make mistakes, as long as they were trying their best and learning along the way.
3) He would take full accountability, and provide full air coverage for this team.
This way, Ed dealt with anyone and everyone who was skeptical or nervous about this move, and the team was left alone to innovate and learn.
Who wouldn’t want to work for someone like this? I think leadership is an art that requires continuous learning. As we become more senior in our career, we should be conscious of what leadership qualities we respect and how we want to portray ourselves. Personally, I learned a lot from Ed Gilligan’s speech. Even though I wont’ be working for him yet (he is in New York, and I am pretty rooted in San Francisco), it was a pleasure to meet a leader that came across as so personable, genuine, and willing to lead from the front. I hope I can be as inspiring to my teams in the future.
To my pleasant surprise, after publishing this article, I was able to tweet with Ed Gilligan on leadership:
Your Comments: What leadership questions do you want me to ask Ed? What leadership qualities do you most respect and admire? Share your comments below. You can also follow our conversation on Twitter @bemycareercoach and @edgilligan
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Best wishes to your career success. I am always in your corner