Episode 10: Jeannie Coyle on Lou Gerstner, AmEx, and Developing Leaders through Experience [The Amiel Show]

What happens when CEOs of large organizations make leadership development a central part of their business strategy? What becomes possible when they personally spearhead this pivotal work rather than delegating it to HR or ignoring it entirely?

In episode 10 of The Amiel Show, talent strategist Jeannie Coyle and I talk about her experience at American Express in the early 1980s, helping Lou Gerstner (who later “saved IBM”) build a powerful pipeline for developing leaders internally. We discuss:

  • The unusual approach that Americal Express took of developing leaders through focused experiences rather than training and complex tools
  • Jeannie’s big risk that paid off: giving Gerstner a one-page summary of high potential leaders instead of the customary big binders
  • How Gerstner created a new culture involving honest, transparent conversations that had never happened before
  • How Gerstner took personal responsibility for developing leaders at the company
  • What it was like to be a woman in leadership at American Express in the early 1980s


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Politics Is Not Optional: The Case of the Weakened Boss

The three biggest mistakes I’ve made as an executive coach in the past decade have one thing in common: organizational politics. In each case, I failed to sufficiently prepare the leaders I was coaching for power moves at senior levels that could—and did—affect them.

Here’s the thing. Few people would call me naive. I’m biologically wired to see what could go wrong and warn people about it. I’m also fascinated by the darkest guides to power and influence (e.g. Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power). However, with these three leaders, I missed key dynamics to which they were also blind, and it ended up costing them.

In this post, I share one of those stories. My intent is two-fold: first, to demonstrate that in organizations politics is not optional; and, second, to illustrate the level of acumen required to navigate politics skillfully.

Deer wounded in road

Case 1: The Weakened Boss

Linda was a highly successful senior manager with an amazing network at her company. When I met her, she had recently been brought onto a senior team in order to introduce a new business model, one more suited to the radically new market dynamics. Many of her colleagues were not enthusiastic about this business model. Some, in fact, were bitterly opposed to it. They had earned their stripes and had success in the prior business model. What did this new person think she was doing trying to change things?