American Express’s Denise Pickett knows that purpose is a much more exciting motivator than strategy – and that shareholders respond to it as much as employees and customers. 

Corporate purpose is now almost as much of a requirement as a good strategy – at least on paper. Yet when I met Denise Pickett, president of American Express’ US consumer service division, she emphasized that purpose doesn’t work unless it’s “institutionalized” – meaning that everyone from the manager of the mali room to the chief executive must buy into it and live it.

As someone who has worked in the strategy arena for much of my career, I found Pickett’s contrasting of strategy and purpose incisive. “Strategy is always chunked down and changed to target different levels of the business,” she told me. “It will never be digestible for everyone all together – so it cannot be a guiding light for 10,000 people.”

As a Canadian, she compared purpose to the Commonwealth, a rallying point for the multitude. “It’s like the monarchy,” she says, “whereas strategy is like complex, hard-to-understand government. Great strategy is like good government. It’s crucial – but it doesn’t excite people.”

Pickett found applying the purpose of her division – ‘creating extraordinary customer experiences every day, everywhere’ – brought her closer to customers: an exercise of real value for leaders who can otherwise drift away from the very people they are supposed to serve.

“As you get more senior, the distance between you and the customer gets bigger – when it should get closer,” she admits. “But when I was Canada country manager, I’d apply our purpose, and for a day every couple of weeks I’d get out there and just talk to customers. It energized me. Your people have to be convinced that it’s not just a tagline – it’s real.”

This is what Pickett means by institutionalization – the organization and everyone within it embodies its purpose. What Pickett terms “excavation” – talking to the people within and without the organization to garner insights – is key to starting the process.

“When I came to run the US consumer business, it took six months,” she reveals. “We talked to customers and employees, we pressure-tested ideas. I didn’t want to come in and say ‘this is it’. That wouldn’t have been genuine.”

This focus on employee and customer priorities could appear to clash with those of shareholders. Yet on this topic, Pickett is resolute. “I hadn’t thought about it,” she admits. “I tend to focus on the customer and the employee. And the customer is always at the centre for me. I don’t really put it through a shareholder lens. Purpose is a long-term investment, and that’s where you get the alignment with shareholder interest. The outcome is better for shareholders, but it’s not the starting point or rallying point. Shareholders are not the guiding light. If you put the employee engagement first, and then keep customers at the centre, shareholder returns will follow.”

Perhaps that is Pickett’s greatest insight: if you lead your people from a clear sense of purpose, profits will naturally follow. In her, Amex has a prescient thinker. Purpose matters because, when done right, it drives employee engagement as well as customer focus: not only a winning formula, but also a formula for winning.

Michael Chavez is global managing director of Duke Corporate Education.