One thing Susan Sobbott has learned in a long and successful career at American Express Co. is that when you're working to drive innovation, fear of failure can paralyze you.
“Trying new things and planning to change them based on real-world experiences is how important breakthroughs can be achieved, because innovation is all about iteration,” said Sobbott, who was named Amex’s president of global commercial payments less than two years ago, propelling her to join PaymentsSource's 2017 Most Influential Women in Payments honorees.
A new idea doesn’t need to be perfect when it goes out the door, as long as it’s constructed well enough to learn from and improve, Sobbott said. “Don’t overanalyze an idea into the ground. Give an idea wings and get it out there, because when truly innovating you’re trying to model something you have no experience with.”
This combination of optimism and energy has helped Sobbott steadily ascend over 25 years to her current role, after serving as the company’s president of global corporate payments and before that, president of American Express OPEN, the company’s small-business division.
At OPEN, Sobbott played a key role eight years ago in creating and championing Small Business Saturday, which focuses broad national attention on small-business merchants for one day each late November, and also helps to drive millions of dollars in card sales.
Embracing technology and social media early was a key to Sobbott’s success in building support for Small Business Saturday, and that focus continues in her role as one of Amex’s corporate officers influencing the company’s strategic direction. Sobbott is also a member of the Amex’s business operating committee and is the sole business-unit president on Amex’s committee that manages enterprise risk.
Pursuing such a demanding job while cultivating a full life with marriage and two kids can be challenging, but Sobbott doesn’t believe in sharply separating her personal and professional activities; she even merges them when necessary. “I’ve worked hard during my career here to pursue work-life integration, as opposed to work-life balance.”
She has a photo of her family placed prominently on her desk, to let colleagues know how important her family is to her, and she makes sure her family knows how much she values her work.
“You can’t leave a part of yourself at home," she said. "You need it all and it’s important to put your whole self into whatever you are doing at home and at work.”
Sobbott thrives on the spark of ideas that comes from brainstorming with a talented team. “Listening to others and considering opinions other than your own is so important, a skill I work on every day, and one of the most underrated,” she said.
Younger colleagues are increasingly a fresh source of inspiration to Sobbott.
“Millennials in particular are driven by a sense of purpose," she said. “Every day I’m energized by their passion and reminded of the impact we can have when we embrace a shared mission.”
Helping other women in business is another big passion for Sobbott. The longtime chair of Amex’s Women’s Interest Network, Sobbott helps guide programs to advance female corporate leadership at all levels. She’s received several awards for her efforts to support women who launch and run their own businesses, and she continues that mission from her perch in Amex’s executive suite where she helps shape policies to drive their success.