A motivating speech from a female executive at the Ogilvy ad agency 15 years ago helped steer Denise Pickett to new heights at American Express.

As did having a family willing to move to the U.S. from Canada.

After 17 years with Amex in Canada, the company offered Pickett a position at its New York headquarters. It would call for moving her family from its home of many years in Toronto to a suburb in New Jersey.

Denise Pickett, Chief Risk Officer and President, Global Risk, Banking and Compliance, American Express
Denise Pickett, Chief Risk Officer and President, Global Risk, Banking and Compliance, American Express
"We can no longer look at just our immediate competitive set as a barometer for customer experience, and I think that's especially difficult in a regulated industry like payments."


"Surprisingly, my husband and three children were almost immediately on board," said Pickett, one of PaymentsSource's Most Influential Women in Payments this year. "When I arrived in New York, I dove into my new position, adjusted to the new office and began to build relationships with my new colleagues."

Last month, Pickett was promoted to her new role as chief risk officer and president of global risk, banking and compliance, after serving as president of U.S. consumer services for three years. The new role represents another significant achievement in her 26-year career at American Express.

Pickett calls the experience of moving to the U.S. "incredibly worthwhile" and a major turning point in her career trajectory. "This experience taught me that rather than thinking about the many reasons you could say no to opportunities, you should always start with what it takes to say yes," she said.

She already had a strong notion of what it meant to embrace leadership and be a role model for other women.

"There are moments in your career that are unequivocally inspiring, and one of those moments for me was hearing Judy Elder, a senior executive at Ogilvy, deliver her leadership speech called 'Mothers, Fathers, Men, Ambition,' " Pickett said.

Though she had heard many speeches over the years, this one was the most inspiring. Elder encouraged women to be ambitious not only for themselves, but for other women, Pickett said.

"Back when Judy gave the speech, more than 15 years ago, that was leading-edge stuff," she said. "The idea of women having a responsibility to be role models for other women was a newer concept. She took me, as well as many others, under her wing and encouraged me to aim higher."

Pickett realized that even though she thought she had reached her high point as a vice president at Amex reporting directly to the country manager, she could do more. The experience forced her to think differently about her opportunities to advance, no matter how daunting the next step looked.

It put her in a position now to deal directly with she calls the most fascinating aspect of fintech these days.

"The speed of change continues to fascinate me, and it's not limited to fintech, as customer expectations and global innovation are elevating the service bar across industries," Pickett said. "We can no longer look at just our immediate competitive set as a barometer for customer experience, and I think that's especially difficult in a regulated industry like payments."

She knows that women in the industry will have much to say about how the future of payments is shaped.

"Women on the rise or in powerful positions have more leverage than they know, and should not be afraid to ask for what they need to make career-advancing moves work — and speak up," Pickett said. "I believe you should never settle."

READ MORE: The Most Influential Women in Payments, 2018