A Conversation with Kenneth I. Chenault ’76
Eileen Blass/Usa Today
Kenneth I. Chenault ’76, chairman and CEO of American Express, is widely considered one of the most successful and talented business strategists of our time. Joining AmEx in 1981 as director of strategic planning, he was named president and COO in 1997, and CEO and chairman in 2001. Chenault is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Business Roundtable.
What drew you to law school, in general, and to HLS in particular?
I was attracted to law school because I believed it would help me prepare for a career in the real world. At that time, I didn’t know whether I wanted to practice law, go into government, teach or join a not-for-profit organization. Harvard Law provided an opportunity to learn from a faculty that had shaped the laws of our country and helped to change the world around us. It also offered an opportunity to study with the brightest students and to test myself against the best.
Did you have a particular career path in mind after graduating HLS?
Back then, business and the corporate world were not on my radar screen. By graduation, I had decided to be an attorney and joined Rogers & Wells in New York. My plans were to practice law and then possibly go into public service. The business world of the later 1970s was going through some sweeping changes. We were moving from an industrial-based to a service economy, and new patterns of global trade were emerging. Old companies were fading away, and new, dynamic ones were taking their place. With all that was changing, I began to think that business offered more opportunities to get ahead and to make a difference. Corporations are “for profit,” but I recognized that businesses could play a leading role in driving social change, that they do have responsibility for being good citizens.
I moved back to Boston and joined some of my Harvard classmates at Bain & Co. I quickly realized I enjoyed business. I liked being responsible for developing strategies. I liked creating a persuasive argument, pursuing it with clients and rallying support among my colleagues. I also liked the discipline that came with measurement, the chance to be judged in terms of outcomes. The ability to drive change appealed to me, and I was very comfortable with the concept of being held accountable for my work.
You joined American Express in 1981 and are widely credited for transforming it into the premier financial services and travel company in the world. What was your vision for what AmEx should be?
When I joined American Express, it was a well-established global company with a long heritage built on customer service dating back to 1850. I didn’t have goals for the company back then, but I wanted to learn as many aspects of the business as I could.
One of the first things I learned was the importance of brands. That lesson would shape my thinking for years to come. I learned the importance of earning the trust of your customers and how important relationships were to any successful business. Building a brand requires you to make a commitment. The founders of American Express made a commitment to serve their customers, and they brought that commitment to life in good times and bad. In many ways, the vision that I have for our company today is still grounded in that tradition. We value the trust that our customers put in us, and we know that we have to earn it every day.
You believe strongly in corporate social responsibility; you have said that businesses exist to serve not only their customers but also the communities in which they operate. Why do you believe this is the appropriate approach for a corporation (and its CEO)?
Corporations exist because society allows them to exist. I believe every business has an obligation to give back and to help improve our society. Sometimes we show this by writing checks. Sometimes it’s by providing our employees with opportunities and time to volunteer. Sometimes it’s by sharing our skills and resources. Sometimes it’s by being there for customers in times of emergency when there is no one else to turn to. Regardless of how we do it, contributing to the betterment of society is part of the corporate charter.
What more should corporations, and their leaders, be doing to serve the world?
You don’t need an opinion poll to know that very few people believe corporations always deliver on their social responsibilities. But I know there are many individuals and companies—small, medium and large—that are committed to social good and that believe that companies can pursue profits while also contributing to the public good. Leaders can’t just look at the bottom line. They have an obligation that goes beyond the products or the jobs they help to create.
I want American Express to serve customers and help our business partners succeed. I encourage employees to ask the tough questions, speak up and demand action, whether it helps to make a service more helpful, a product more transparent or the community healthier.
How did your HLS education affect your life and your career? Did HLS have an impact on your dedication to public service?
Harvard Law taught me a disciplined approach to analyzing problems and situations. It taught me the value of appreciating different perspectives and respecting the opinions of people you don’t always agree with. Harvard also taught me the importance of adaptability, integrity and accountability. I learned that you have to know what you stand for, but that you cannot be so rigid in your thinking that you never adapt to new realities. I learned never to put goals ahead of values. I learned that when you are given opportunity, you need to hold yourself personally accountable to delivering results. Harvard taught me the importance of law but also the importance of leadership.
You have chosen to generously support HLS—why have you done so?
I want future students—particularly those who are economically disadvantaged —to have plenty of opportunity to benefit from studying at Harvard Law.
What do you hope to see HLS achieve in the coming years?
I want Harvard to develop great lawyers and great leaders. Whether they end up on the bench or in the boardroom, I want them to leave Cambridge with a sense of purpose and a commitment to bring about positive change in the world around them.