“Yesterday, my daughter Leah asked if she could come to work with me, so I brought her in,” said Susan Sobbott (MBA ’90) of her 9-year-old. “Leah sharpened about four boxes of pencils and sat through some meetings with me. She said she had the ‘very best day.’ Last night, she asked what time we were leaving for work this morning.”
As president of Global Corporate Payments at American Express, a wife and a mother, Sobbott knows about the challenges of managing a family and a career. At home, she raises her two children, Leah and Jeremiah, with her husband, Keith. In her current position, she is responsible for all of the products that serve the company’s corporate payment clients around the world, including the Corporate Card and Corporate Purchasing Solutions.
A leader in the corporate payments arena, American Express operates in nearly 200 countries and serves 62 percent of Fortune 500 companies. Since she started working for the company more than 20 years ago, Sobbott has established herself as a leader who spearheads creative marketing strategies, uncovers pockets of untapped growth and cares deeply about her customers.
Sobbott’s downtown Manhattan office, which overlooks the Statue of Liberty, is full of family photographs coupled with several awards she’s won, including a Corporate Leadership Award from the United Way of New York City, the Office Depot Corporate Visionary Award, B2B Magazine’s Best B2B Marketer of the Year Award and the Women of Achievement Award, given by Girls Inc.
Her life outside of American Express is deeply intertwined with her professional career, which is what she prefers. “When my children spend time with me at my office or work events, they are able to see that I have other responsibilities beyond my role as Mom,” she wrote in a Huffington Post 2013 blog post.
"My life and my work have to be integrated because I can’t find another way to do it,” Sobbott said. “Honestly, it’s very practical. Balance implies that I have two separate parts of my life. I would have to get them on an equal level, and to me, nothing competes with my family. I believe if you ever ask a person to make a choice between their work and their family, you’re always going to lose. It has to be their family.”
Sobbott decided that if she isn’t willing to compromise, her employees shouldn’t have to, either. She formalized her integrated approach at American Express by creating a Project Resource Team for employees who need more flexibility. The Project Resource Team is a program that “gives employees who want to work part-time the opportunity to continue their careers.” Team members work on a rotational basis — to fill in for someone on maternity leave, for example, or to lead a special project.
The team had an immediate impact on American Express and its employees. “It transformed the way the entire team looked at work-life integration,” Sobbott said. “It allows individuals who would have opted out to stay in, to stay connected. It is a small way to make life more palatable and a little bit easier, which can make a big difference.”
Giving her employees more flexibility also meant they were more well-rounded. “These employees become super heroes because they have rotational experience that rounds them out as executives,” Sobbott explained.
“They’re often highly sought after when they rotate back in.” Team members average about two to three years and then decide whether they want to return as full-time employees or continue on a part-time basis. The idea has been successfully adopted by several other American Express departments.
Another key to Sobbott’s success is her leadership style, which she credits Darden for teaching her. “My business and leadership philosophy emerged from my Darden roots of an integrated learning process. Just like the curriculum, nothing gets to be siloed. We have a business ecosystem. No one gets to go off and do their own thing. Everything is mutually reinforcing,” said Sobbott.
At Darden, she also learned about the power of confidence, which she considers a critical asset for leaders. “You could have the best solution to the world’s most dramatic problem, but if you are unsure of yourself, no one is going to have confidence in you,” Sobbott said.
Darden’s cold call environment and study groups taught her how to solve problems and obtain the right resources. “The other side of the confidence issue is communication,” Sobbott observed. “The ability to communicate clearly in a compelling way is so important. It’s perhaps the most important skill I learned at Darden, and it serves me every day.”
Prior to her current role, Sobbott served as president of American Express OPEN. During her 10-year tenure, she transformed it into the leading credit card issuer for small businesses, launching more than 20 successful card products, increasing revenues more than 50 percent, and doubling profits.
The daughter of a business owner, she has always had a passion for helping small businesses, which is part of why she created Small Business Saturday. Every year, over Thanksgiving weekend, consumers are encouraged to shop at small, independent businesses.
In 2013, American Express engaged elected officials in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. — including President Obama and many senior government officials, almost 200 corporate partners and 1400 neighborhoods across the country. Small Business Saturday has won dozens of awards, including a Grand Prix award at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity and an Effie Award from the American Marketing Association.
Sobbott’s pioneering work at American Express has helped women entrepreneurs across the country. In 2013, her company created OPEN for Women, a CEO boot camp for female business owners offering training, tools and support to advance their businesses. At the events, Sobbott shares what she and others have learned about women in business in the hope of helping them succeed. “Women tend to start businesses out of a passion or a need they see in their lives,” said Sobbott. “We try to help them marry their passion with profits.”
In addition to her other roles, Sobbott is a highly engaged alumna who serves on the Darden School Foundation Board of Trustees. She cares deeply about how the School can help both women and men become better leaders. She also serves on the boards of Red Ventures and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
“I think some of the most valued characteristics in modern leadership are typically considered to be female traits,” Sobbott said. “Whether or not they are embodied in a male or female executive, the notion of creativity, of connecting disparate pieces of information, nonlinear thinking and creating a highly collaborative environment … tend to be more associated with female traits.” She believes that Darden could attract more women to the School if it explored this theme more fully and brought out “female” leadership traits “that are critical to success in our fast-paced world of innovation.” Sobbott is amicable and energetic. She spends time getting to know her employees. Talking to parents on her team was how she originally decided to create the Project Resource Team. She observes those around her, and meets their needs as best she can, all while juggling a daunting to-do list.
“I have my list of things to accomplish this week,” Sobbott said. “We’re planning the budget, and I have to get Leah’s ballet shoes. They’re both on my priority list. One is no more important than the other.”
So how does she manage to get it all done? She said her yoga practice helps keep her grounded, though she does not consider herself a yogi. She also recognizes her challenges. “My integrated approach is just a practical way for me to make it all work, because let me tell you, it’s hard. Anybody who thinks it’s not clearly has not done it.”
At the end of the day, however, positively impacting others is what matters most to Sobbott. “Success for me is not measured in money or status. It is measured in meaning. In my mind, success is understanding how you serve others and doing it really well.”