‘What Makes a Leader’ With Brett Mooney, President & CEO of Amex Canada

Including his three guiding principles: agility, risk and care.

Nearly ten years after his departure from American Express, Brett Mooney returned to the company to assume the role of president & CEO in January 2023. Beyond his management of the company’s Consumer, Commercial, and Corporate businesses, Mooney guides the Canadian executive team, oversees Amex’s operations across the country and holds a position on the Board of Directors. “I’ve learnt that every new experience is a form of development,” he says – reflecting on his two-decade-long career, which includes executive roles at Scotiabank and, most recently, TransUnion. 

Brett advocates for taking risks in the name of leadership development and the importance of agility and centring ‘care’ in his work philosophy. “I believe we should constantly challenge the status quo and make time for blue sky thinking,” he says. “Many business problems aren’t looking for ‘faster horses’, but transformative models or approaches to deliver new forms of value.” 

Joining us as leader-in-residence for November, Brett Mooney sat down with CB to discuss the pillars of his success, his aspirational corporate philosophy and what Canada’s future leaders ought to know about reaching their goals. 

What have been the driving forces of your career?

I believe that a career is made of many small moments and seemingly minor decisions that translate into ‘chapters’ over time. Early on in my career, I realized the importance of defining clear values, and showing up with the right mindset. The mindset I’ve used is called the ‘ARC’ approach—agility, risk and care—which I consider guiding principles for how to succeed, seek growth, and find fulfilment regardless of the organization I am a part of.    

Take ‘risk’ for example – True development happens just past the point of your comfort zone, so it’s important to take risks and work at an organization that supports you in taking those risks. Operating with this mindset can make it challenging, but I also believe it’s one of the fastest ways to develop as a leader.  

From an agility perspective, I focus on making sure that I adapt quickly to changing conditions and that I pursue a learning agenda. An organization that is too rigid and overwhelmed by the process is at a competitive disadvantage to an organization which emphasizes learning and failing fast.   

For ‘care’, it’s about caring for people, caring about finding the right leaders and also being careful when selecting the organizations where you work. I believe the best leaders operate with humility and care personally about their teams. I also believe that the best leaders look down to support their teams, more often than they look up to manage their leaders. Lastly, it’s important to align yourself with organizations which operate with values which are congruent to your own. I’m incredibly thankful to be at American Express, where the company and my values are deeply aligned. 

It’s been nearly ten years since your last role at Amex, how does it feel to be back? 

Incredible. It’s a thrill to be back embedded in this amazing culture made up of so many highly talented leaders. Every day, I am reminded how impressive our teams are, comprised of domain experts in their respective areas across a huge range of topics including product, marketing, fraud, risk, legal, and many more. I was incredibly fortunate to “grow up” at Amex, and able to learn and develop under the guidance of some of the best leaders in the country, many of whom have transitioned to lead core areas of our global business in the US and across our international footprint.  

How do you stay ahead of the curve when it comes to digital commerce and development? 

It all starts with making learning a priority. It’s unfortunate that in some organizations blocking time in the calendar for learning is seen as ‘less productive’ than attending a project meeting, for example. I’d argue against that. Secondly, seek people and points of view that broaden your horizons and challenge your way of thinking. Develop and nurture relationships with subject-matter experts and subscribe to industry publications and newsletters to learn about key developments and emerging technologies. Many of the most successful strategies of our time are about remixing existing products in new ways. 

What do you believe makes the Canadian market unique? 

There are a lot of things that make Canada a unique market for Amex, but diversity is certainly at the top of the list. Not only diversity in its population but also geographically. We’re a multicultural country with provinces that differ vastly from one another, and this creates unique opportunities for brands to connect with people in more meaningful ways. It requires diversity of thought within your business, your team, your products, and your marketing materials – it factors into everything we do in Canada.

How do you prioritize fostering a culture of innovation while also maintaining the core values that have defined Amex for decades?

At Amex, we believe that innovation and our core values go hand in hand. Our “Blue Box” values, as we call them, help us do business in a way that makes people’s lives better. Embracing diversity, standing for inclusion and supporting our communities are at the core of these values, and innovation is one of the tools that can help us enable change for the better. 

As a leader, how do you ensure that your team remains motivated and aligned with the company’s vision, especially in times of uncertainty?

For me, this is about creating clarity, communicating, and deepening connections across our enterprise. It’s always important to align and mobilize your team to the company vision and strategic plan, but even more so during turbulent periods. There’s no substitute for a well-laid plan – but as we’ve all learned over the last 3 years, you must remain agile and flexible to change. When the pandemic first hit, my full team and I held daily calls for over 3 months with every colleague on the phone – to provide clarity, provide support and foster deeper connections as we navigated the unprecedented times together. 

What are your top priorities for developing the next generation of leaders at Amex, and how are you nurturing their growth?

Nurturing young talent and watching them succeed is one of the most fulfilling parts of my job. At Amex, career development is prioritized across the board, which means there is a strong culture focused on fostering the next generation of leaders. Providing development opportunities is the most important component of this and is not something that every business is quick to provide younger employees. But at Amex, it is built into our culture and corporate model.

American Express is also focused on supporting the holistic wellness of our employees – including physical, mental and financial wellbeing so that they can thrive both personally and professionally. This is important at all career stages, but it is especially important to feel this support when you are first starting out. I didn’t have the right balance between personal and professional life early on in my career, but thankfully I have an incredibly supportive wife and family that were patient with me, which enabled me to find the right balance over the years.    

What’s your advice for Canada’s future corporate leaders? 

I have four core pieces of advice for Canada’s future leaders. First, determine where your passions and talents intersect – it’s a surefire way to excel in any career and be highly engaged along the way. Second, I’d also recommend that you seek leaders and experiences, not jobs and levels. Third, be intentional with your time – it’s the most precious asset in life and it’s important to spend it wisely. Constantly evaluate your business routines and allocate your time to high-leverage activities – those that deliver an outsized impact and offer the most growth to you, your colleagues and your organization.  

Lastly, train with the best. Throughout my career, I’ve had the chance to work with people from a diverse set of backgrounds who have unique points of view and expertise. I make it a goal to learn from each of them to expand my knowledge, and way of thinking and find new and better ways to do things. I’m fortunate to be ‘training’ with Amex again – it’s an incredible organization and I’m thankful for the team around me that enables me to learn and grow as a leader every day. 

Canadian Business hosted a virtual fireside chat with Brett Mooney to talk about his career, and to discuss how American Express Canada drives innovation and change with emerging technologies like AI.