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5 Success Lessons from Top Execs at Alibaba and AMEX

customer experience leadership

I had the unique opportunity to be part of a small crowd of business leaders invited to a special event hosted by American Express.

American Express CEO Ken Chenault and Jack Ma, Founder of Alibaba, sat on a small stage and asked each other a few questions about small business, customer-first leadership, and the future of innovation.

They both struck me as incredibly sincere and authentic. There was no posturing or name dropping (with one notable exception for a good story about Howard Shultz from Starbucks.) These two were leaders who have been there, done that, and can’t wait to do it again.

The themes that arose from this conversation included some of the typical entrepreneurial mantas – Be passionate! Stay diligent! – to some I didn’t expect. Here are a few of the ideas any leader can appreciate.

1. Hire lots of women!

Jack Ma expressed this in no uncertain terms. Women, he believes, consider the customer more.

Jack Ma @AlibabaGroup “women are key to #success“! #BABASmallBiz @AskAmex #HeForShe pic.twitter.com/i47KgTEIwy

— YWCA Chicago (@YWCAChicago) June 10, 2015

2. Stay lean if you can.

Alibaba Group did more than $390 BILLION in sales in 2014. They have approximately 34,000 people employed. While that sounds like a lot, it’s an impressively low number of people. Innovation can’t happen if you are drowning in bureaucracy, according to Jack Ma.

3. Fight complacency at every turn.

When the company is doing great, get worried about tomorrow. Ken Chenault articulated this by sharing a bit of history of American Express. They were, for all purposes, a traveler’s cheques company. 90% of their sales came from this one product line! When they decided to innovate and enter the payment business, many believed this bold move would kill the company. Quite the opposite, thanks to innovating.

4. Have a strong focus on employees.

Help them focus and serve your customers, and THEN the shareholders will benefit. LOVE this message from Ken Chenault. Jack Ma expressed a similar vision. He also stated to focus on customers, not competitors. A good relationship with customers will solve many things.

5. Don’t expand for the sake expansion.

Ask: will it make a difference? Will customers care about this improvement? Both leaders stressed this point. It’s all about the customer!

Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express. Impressive #leader who understands what #customer first leadership means.

A photo posted by Jeannie Walters (@jeanniewalters) on

Finally, Ken Chenault summed up leadership and vision.

He explained how in its century-plus history, American Express has shared constant values and vision.

Leadership has changed, but those things haven’t. When leaders in the past drifted away from the core values and vision of the organization, the company stumbled. When leaders don’t adhere to doing the right thing, everyone suffers.

Ken explained something he says he tries to share many times internally:


Leadership is not about hierarchy. Leadership is about integrity.
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It was inspiring to hear how close to the customer both leaders wished to be. They use feedback, they empower employees and they innovate before it’s too late. Any company can see lessons in success.

Thank you to American Express for this great event!

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