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‘Chasing skills, not levels’ a recipe for women’s success in the corporate world

Not being afraid to try new things helped American Express chief risk officer Denise Pickett rise through the ranks

This story is part of our Breaking Barriers series, which profiles Canadian women in maledominated industries. Breaking Barriers is brought to you by American Express Canada, which is proud to celebrate women who have opened doors for the next generation. At American Express Canada, women represent 61 per cent of the entire employee base.

If you want a meeting with Denise Pickett, you just might find yourself walking or running to keep up.

Pickett’s early-morning and evening walks on the Hudson are just one of the many ways American Express’s New York-based chief risk officer stretches her day.

“Sometimes it means starting or ending my day walking with a colleague, but it lets me spend more time mentoring and guiding people in a way that melds my personal and professional lives,” says Pickett.

“I’ve always believed in a good work-life fit.”

“From the beginning, I’ve been clear with my leaders that if my kids are student of the month or in a school sporting event, I’m going to be there,” says Pickett. “I set boundaries of what I can and cannot do.”

When Pickett first joined Amex Canada 28 years ago, she recalls seeing many women in senior roles. Following their lead, she found her voice and became more confident in articulating her thoughts.

“Early in my career, there were moments in meetings where I had an idea that was shortly followed up by a male colleague having that same idea,” she says. “I realized that if I wasn’t being heard, I needed to speak louder. In my last decade, I haven’t experienced this.”

Pickett rose through the ranks in marketing and strategy, eventually becoming the country manager for the Canadian business in 2007. From there, she moved to the United States in 2010 – with her husband, three kids and the family dog in tow – to head up the company’s then-U.S. Loyalty business.

From there, she progressed into running two of American Express’s largest U.S. businesses: the small business division and later, the U.S. consumer division, the last job before her current position. As chief risk officer, Pickett is responsible for developing American Express’s risk appetite, ensuring its safety and soundness, and maintaining its control and compliance environment.

After studying human biology and physiology at the University of Toronto, Pickett decided to pursue an MBA and landed a sales job at a leading technology company. When she joined American Express to work in branding, she took a pay cut – believing that taking on new and unique challenges would be a recipe for success.

“That was the early side of my one and only career principle, which is to always chase skills, not levels,” says Pickett, who has jumped at new opportunities throughout her career – including her current post. “I don’t take long to think about these opportunities. I just say yes in the moment, knowing that I’m going to learn and be able to contribute. I’ve been in this job 18 months and love it.”

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Pickett feels fortunate to have had two strong mentors, now deceased, who had a great impact on her. The earliest was Judy Elder, a former agency executive at Ogilvy & Mather, who encouraged her to become involved in the Canadian Marketing Association, which she later chaired. The other was Ed Gilligan, the former Vice Chairman and President of American Express, who took a chance on Pickett, promoting her two levels to be the Canadian country manager.

“Sponsorship is an obligation I feel I have to the next generation. So, I take an active role in many people’s careers – men and women,” she says. “But have I leaned in with a few more women? Yes, because women generally have fewer sponsors than men.”

The biggest change she’s observed over her career is that there’s a lot more support and engagement at all levels and across both genders. However, more is needed to level the gender divide.

According to a 2018 American Express study, 81 per cent of men over 35 believe their organization is doing enough to establish gender equity compared to just 68 per cent of women. That kind of research data may spur further change.

“I’m lucky to work for an organization that’s on the leading edge of some of that change,” says Pickett. “At Amex Canada, 61 per cent of our employee base is female and women make up 56 per cent of our leadership team. We do well in terms of diversity.”

Pickett likes to talk about “ambition,” a word that historically has uncomfortable connotations for women, particularly early in their career.

“Ambition is the pursuit of what you want in life,” says Pickett. “I’ve started to realize the importance of articulating your ambition as a woman. It doesn’t mean you have to be ambitious about climbing the corporate ladder. It means you have to be ambitious about being your best self and advocating for other people, particularly other women, if you have the opportunity.

“I have an open-door policy in New York and put anyone on my calendar who wants to reach out and talk about their careers and ambitions.”

And then of course, there are those walks.

Photo credit: Thomas Bollmann

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Content Studio.
The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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