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The Boss: Lessons From My Childhood Helped Me Ascend the Ranks at American Express

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In The Boss, women share how they became successful and the lessons they learned along the way.

As the last of eight children — I have six sisters and a brother — it’s safe to say that learning to negotiate and influence people were survival skills practically instilled in me at birth. As the youngest, I had to learn early on how to use my voice and get people to listen. My large family also taught me about the power of “watching to see” and “listening to hear” in order to navigate the bustle of our large family dynamics.

So I watched, and I listened. I learned from the mistakes and triumphs of my siblings, studied how they interacted with my parents and each other, and gained an appreciation for life’s choices and their implications.

Throughout the years, I began to understand how to define my own voice. I picked up on people’s actions, behaviors and language to learn how to manage different relationships and not shy away from difficult situations. This not only served my ability to get a seat at the table among my siblings, but eventually in the boardroom.

My mother was the guiding force in shaping my personality and giving me the confidence to be an equal among my older siblings. Not someone lettered with degrees, she was an insightful teacher, an independent thinker and a protective nurturer who believed in the value of communicating. She taught me the significance of a thoughtful, perfectly timed response. She’d say, “It’s not only what you say, but when and how you say it.” I have never lost sight of her wisdom, and I try my best to instill the same guidance in my own children.

I attended college in my home state of Louisiana at Dillard University where I earned my Bachelor of Arts in accounting and graduated summa cum laude. I went to work for the Arthur Andersen auditing oil and gas companies. My goal was to get experience across a diverse group of companies quickly with the expressed intention of going to business school. After two years, I left the comfort of the proximity to family and friends and moved east to pursue an MBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. I had my sights set on Wall Street, determined to compete with the best in business. That meant I needed to learn the tricks of the trade quickly to get a job, so I did what I knew best and began making cold calls to Wharton alums for informational interviews.

I got my first summer internship months later at Salomon Brothers, and began working as a mortgage specialist. There, I advised thrifts and commercial banks on investment ideas and strategies related to mortgaged-backed securities and other fixed-income products. It wasn’t until 1989 that I joined American Express in a move that switched me from a successful sales and trading career into marketing. It was a calculated risk and a strategic pay cut, but it launched my career at Amex and I’ve been there ever since. I’ve held roles of increasing responsibility across the card-issuing and network businesses, including positions in marketing, product development, sales and client management, product strategy and business development.

My career at American Express spans nearly three decades now. While not all my roles at Amex have had formal negotiating responsibilities in the job description, all of them have required building relationships and navigating difficult conversations. I’ve had many mentors and sponsors along the way who believed in me, gave me a seat at the table and put their reputation on the line for me. I try to do the same for others now.

Throughout my career, I have experienced many meetings where participants around the table came with their own agenda and voiced it loudly. Those early life lessons in influence from my family taught me that the loudest voice in the room isn’t always the most powerful. The ability to hold back, to listen and watch for cues, and to allow those captured insights to inform my voice and actions have proved effective time and time again. Taking the time to listen and ask questions has helped me determine the right approaches and negotiate better outcomes for all in the end. I can remember many difficult client meetings where it seemed there was no solution to advance the negotiations because each side had their set of “deal breakers” based on a specific ask to solve an issue. But if you understand the problem from the other person’s perspective you may understand the problem differently, and if you listen to hear the problem there is often more than one solution to their demand.

But while tactics in influence can help you get a seat at the table, relationships let you keep that seat.

Back to those early years, among many values, we were taught the importance of integrity. Your education, principles and credibility can’t be taken from you. All those people around the table are, after all, people. They’re multifaceted human beings who want to reach outcomes together through trust and respect.

As my career has led me into a world of partnerships and negotiations, the quality of my relationships has become a key indicator of my success. The investment I make in relationships is critical, because I understand with each interaction that I build trust and establish credibility. I live and practice my core beliefs, which means showing up consistently and authentically to each relationship.

To this day, I believe that when a person understands who you really are, they can appreciate each interaction with you in the right context. So when I sit back in a negotiation and take a more reflective stance, my counterparts understand that I’m tapping into my listening side, and when I must “go hard” or be provocative, they understand that I’m doing so out of passion for my point, and it’s not a reflection of my character.

Before any negotiation, my team and I spend a lot of time preparing for multiple scenarios. I tell them that preparation breeds confidence, and confidence leads to courage. That’s important, because anyone can prepare for a conversation, but it takes courage to show up in the corporate world as your true self. This means being clear in who you are, owning your voice, being bold and believing in your position. It also means not shying away from showing both the harder and softer sides of your personality. Too often, leaders mistake vulnerability with weakness, and often resort to a more one-dimensional power position in efforts to command respect.

It may be obvious, but to choose courage – and courage is a choice – you have to believe in who you are. If you don’t, how can you expect someone else to? When you come across business partners or sponsors who are willing to trust you and risk their own political capital for you, it can open the door to new opportunities. Sometimes it’s a bigger seat or a new one at another table.

As I mentor others, I remind them that good communication stems from being authentic, confident and bold, but that they must also practice humility and show vulnerability. I also encourage them to listen, read the room and be intentional in their actions. We practice the power of asking the right questions and having the courage to voice their informed opinions.

I recently saw a quote from Shonda Rhimes that said, “You belong in any room you enter.” That resonates with me, because the real secret to having that seat at the table is believing that you belong there in the first place.

Glenda McNeal is the president of enterprise strategic partnerships for American Express.

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