Ken Chenault knows what it’s like to lead through a crisis. Just months after he was appointed CEO of American Express, Chernault had to address his employees’ terror and uncertainty after the attacks on September 11, 2001.
“For me, and for American Express, what was most important in 9/11 was the safety and security of our people. We lost 11 employees,” says Chernault, now the managing director of venture capital firm General Catalyst. “So it was very, very important that we demonstrate that our concern was the safety and security of our people, and to take care of the families who lost their loved ones.”
Speaking at the Forbes Just 100 Virtual Summit Wednesday afternoon, Chernault recalled how he gathered all of his tri-state area employees at Madison Square Garden shortly after the attacks. American Express’ office at 3 World Financial Center had been damaged. He says he was frank with his employees, and constantly made clear what he did and didn’t know about the company’s future. He also gave them reasons why the company would be successful.
“I took them through how we managed crises over 150 years for the company,” he says. “What I also did was emphasize to them some of the growth opportunities we had to take the company to the next level.”
These strategies, as well as others he implemented during the 2008 financial crisis, are just as applicable for leaders in today’s pandemic climate, Chernault says. His mantra during a crisis? Define reality, give hope and communicate.
First, leaders need to determine what it will take for their businesses to stay liquid, and what economic metrics they need to achieve, he says. Then, they should address what trends are happening in the marketplace as a result of the crisis. For example, Chernault pointed to recent growth in telehealth and online ordering services companies as good investment opportunities during the pandemic.
“Real leadership reputations are made or lost during the times of a crisis,” he says. “You’ve got to be both compassionate and decisive, because people are going through emotional turmoil. They want to see if you truly care. But what they also want to see is that you can fashion a game plan to take them from where they are today to where the company needs to go.”
Chernault also spoke about how companies and leaders can improve racial equality in corporate America. When Chernault took over at American Express in 2001, there were only two other Black CEOs among all of the S&P 500 companies. He says he was born three years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, striking down the prevailing separate but equal laws and affording him more opportunities.
Every company needs to focus on the attraction, training and development of people of color, he says, as well as creating a culture and environment where they feel not just tolerated, but embraced. Leaders should come up with a comprehensive diversity plan that is embraced at every level of a company.
“Just think if businesses had taken a stand in the 1800s, and the 1900s, in the ’30s, in the ’40s, the progress that could have been made,” Chernault says. “This is not something that can be a flavor of the year. This has to be an ongoing effort.”