American Express’ Stacy Poritzky on being uncomfortable in the best way possible has been saved
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Stacy Poritzky: Some weeks it all works and some weeks it's an absolute mess. Right? (laughs) And for me, the work-life prioritization has always been “on average over time.”
Tanya Ott: I’m Tanya Ott and this is the Press Room from Deloitte Insights. For more than a year now, we’ve been talking to women who are leaders in the financial services industry—an industry where, the data shows us, it’s often been hard for women to get ahead. We’ve had some pretty intimate conversations about education, careers, families—the challenges and the triumphs. And, importantly, where we go from here.
Today’s guest is Stacy Poritzky, vice president of brand strategy at American Express. She’s been with the company [for] more than 20 years, but she tells me it wasn’t always a straight line.
Stacy Poritzky: Oh, I was going to be a lawyer and change the world. And I took my Law School Admission Tests (LSATs), I filled out applications—and then, [I] decided, [being a] lawyer is not my thing. So that was the start of my career journey. As I think back on it now, honestly, as a daughter of two teachers and a granddaughter of another one, besides [being a] lawyer, all I knew and saw was how to be a teacher, and it really seemed hard and took a level of patience [that] I didn't have. So that was out. But, while I didn’t become a teacher, I definitely got my work ethic from watching them teach and be the best at their craft—[the fact] that they can be and try new things and get better and also have a commitment in making other people better. And [there’s] definitely a bit of a teacher/coach in my leadership style that I attribute to them.
I decided to hit the pavement and start my job search post college. Like a lot of people, I started with random headhunters hoping someone would take a chance [with] me. That was at BBDO in advertising. I’m really lucky—Early on in my career, someone did take a chance, and that first boss was a woman who had risen through the ranks herself and was leading an account. She hired me with no experience and promoted me a couple of times. I definitely attribute [to] her [the] expanding [of] my scope and giving me a level of confidence that I can do this, and [that] I could be good at it. She cared about me and my growth. Honestly, [she] was the first example of a leader to do that and pull others up along the way.
Tanya Ott: Stacy says after a few years she wanted to move to the “other side of the house”—the client side—so, she went back to business school, then got an internship at American Express that eventually led to a full-time job.
Stacy Poritzky: And I’ve been there ever since, navigating 22 years in my marketing journey across B2B, consumer-partnership marketing, and landing in my current role about ten months ago overseeing our global enterprise brand strategy team. I would say that there have been a couple of themes over those 22 years. They have definitely all been different, but they have included a maniacal focus on the customer and the job we’re doing for them, how we create end-to-end experiences, integrating those experiences offline and online, and really [having] a constant view on building what’s next and getting ahead of where our customers are.
Tanya Ott: Twenty-two years at one company is a long time. How have you been able to ensure that you’re always learning and facing new challenges—that it doesn't get stagnant?
Stacy Poritzky: When I set out and look at what I want to do next, I usually create a set of skills or areas in my job that I want to either learn or do more [of]. Each job that I’ve been offered within the company has, what I keep telling people, “made me uncomfortable in the very best way possible.” Whether it was learning a new part of the business, moving from B2B to B2C, [it was] always learning something new and making sure I stay on my toes. I really do relish this opportunity to learn and grow, and especially in a company that strives for excellence with our customers and colleagues finding those opportunities. So, it’s been purposeful. It hasn’t been, oh, still here 22 years later to push myself out of a comfort zone. There are two ways that I’ve done that. I’ve been intentional about that next role to make sure there were learning opportunities. An example of that, and this is going to really date me, but at the time there were roles that were digital and there were roles that were not digital. I had seen that most of the roles that I had [held] were not digital in nature. I committed to the fact that my next couple of roles were going to really train me in being a digital expert, whether it was replatforming a website, [or] whether it was creating end-to-end journeys digitally. Those moments where I’ve been really purposeful about learning something new or doing something different have propelled me forward and made me adapt to different times and different places and spaces. So, I think that that’s one thing.
The other thing was always looking for ways to improve on the status quo. Just because we’ve done it before, just because it was the way we did it, just because I’ve been here and it could have been my idea five years ago doesn’t mean we can’t change it now.
Tanya Ott: What’s really exciting you right now?
Stacy Poritzky: Wow. What a great time to be a marketer. Right? This landscape is changing daily, whether it’s the confluence of data and capabilities and messages, our ability to reach audiences in completely new ways, and then also the challenges of how people actually take in media and get messages given to them and the way that they participate in more of a two-way dialog with companies and brands, versus a brand having a message and then being able to use a megaphone and send it out. I think that every day is new and different and thinking about how the brand shows up in this moment is, quite frankly, quite a gift of a job. What’s not new is that no matter what the media, the data source, the platform, we still need to have a deep understanding of the role we play in our customers’ lives and making sure that we’re communicating that in the best way we can. For American Express, it could be their financial lives, passions like travel, entertainment, and dining. But we’re always looking to make those moments better, no matter what the new medium or what the new idea [is].
Tanya Ott: One of the things that strikes me is that we’re seeing so much of this direct contact these days. I mean, I’m one of those people that if I need to get in touch with a brand, I may skip the phone or email and go straight to tweeting them. And, for you, on the other side of that, that’s a very public kind of engagement.
Stacy Poritzky: Absolutely. And I think, you know, obviously, there are advantages to that and there are disadvantages to that. But I definitely think that more than anything else, there is a humanization in that. People are actually talking to us and creating that dialog, and if we’re really listening to those signals, we will be better at meeting their needs. We’re not going to get it right every time. But, you know, it used to be that it took months to understand what our customers needed from us. To your point, now, all you have to do is get on a platform and read the comments and have those conversations. And you have a better sense of the direction, of the expectations of our customers and what they’re looking for us to deliver on.
Tanya Ott: As you said, a tremendous amount of change in the industry. How is that affecting how you try to attract and retain talent?
Stacy Poritzky: It is a difficult one right now. I think more than ever, it really does need to be purposeful leadership. I don’t think it’s much different [than] how we approach our customers. It’s all about listening to what our colleagues need and what it’s going to take for someone to be able to bring their best self to work and be able to deliver on that as a leader. People stay at companies when they feel that they are being challenged and that they are both getting something out of and giving to their job. So, finding opportunities for people in the things that they love, they’ll be happier and more productive. Sometimes that’s on my team and sometimes that’s finding an opportunity outside my team for someone, but if they’re going to grow, they’re going to stay longer with the company.
If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that our work lives and home lives are inextricably linked. And knowing people and getting to know people beyond what they do makes for a better leader-colleague relationship. It’s better for the team and it builds a level of trust that when things aren’t going as great or there’s some frustration, there’s [also] a knowledge that your leader has your back. I do think that that helps retain talent as well.
I think the last thing that any leader can do to ensure that we are retaining and attracting the best talent is to create an environment where fun and levity is—what I call a superpower of the team. We spend a lot of time working, whether in the office or on our screen, and I think that laughing and joking and inspiring each other isn’t really a nice to have [quality]—it’s essential. I think it helps our team, but I also think that it is a brand that we want for our organizations. We work really hard, but we also don’t take ourselves too seriously and we have a lot of fun along the way.
Tanya Ott: So, I want to dig in to this idea of work/life balance, which is, I think the phrase that you used. But is it possibly, sort of, off the mark? How should we think about it?
Stacy Poritzky: I don’t love [the phrase] work/life balance. The balance word, I think is the thing that gets [to] me a little. I think your work and life [are] inextricably linked. The reality for me personally, and this starts getting very personal for each individual, [is that] some weeks, it all works and some weeks it’s an absolute mess. Right? (laughs) And, for me, the work/life prioritization has always been “on average over time.” Even as I say that I also want to be clear that I don’t have it figured out. I haven’t met someone who really has. But I think that some weeks it’s going to be more important for me to schedule a meeting than to schedule dinner out, and other weeks it’s reversed. Each day, each week, each moment in time, that kind of evolves. I’ve found that going with that evolution has been helpful for me in figuring that out and being honest about when it works and when it [doesn’t].
One thing I do know is that I have found that I am more successful when I know my nonnegotiables. So, at that point in time, whatever time it is, what is the most important thing? On average, am I making that thing a priority? For me right now, and has been for a little bit, it’s been my family and kids. I prioritize being on the sidelines of the game, picking up the phone if one of them calls, no matter what the meeting is that I’m in—and that has been [like that] for a long time now—and scheduling time off around breaks. But I’ve had to base decisions in my career around it, even if it’s made my career a little more nonlinear. For other people, those nonnegotiables can be focusing on a passion area, like volunteering or traveling or prioritizing physical or mental health, which I try to do and I not always successful [at]. It’s important to set these nonnegotiables because otherwise—and I’ve seen this a lot and I’ve done it myself—we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and for others. We run the risk of feeling like we’re failing even when we’re not. So that has helped me, this prioritization and knowing my nonnegotiables, and I think that that is where the reality and the idealized version of work/life balance kind of comes together.
Tanya Ott: I heard someone refer to it once, instead of work/life balance, they said work/life blend, which resonates a lot more for me as someone who has worked for 30 years and also has kids throughout that whole process.
Stacy Poritzky: I think people are more and more comfortable with the blend part of things, frankly, post pandemic and living through a time where we’ve all lived in each other’s living rooms and kitchens and other places and spaces in our homes. There’s very little that has been an advantage [in] this moment in time, but that is one that I have been heartened to see. It humanizes people and the environment in which we work. And actually, I think it makes us better at what we do, especially as a marketer whose job is to understand people and understand how to connect to people at scale—It has been a gift.
Tanya Ott: Obviously with the pandemic, lots of people are talking about hybrid work environments. You’ve been doing it for a long time. How hard was it 15 years ago for you to make that pitch to switch to hybrid?
Stacy Poritzky: I am very lucky that I worked for a company that was open to different working situations long before the pandemic ever happened. In fact, I joke now that everyone seems to have caught up to my way of working, but the reality is [that] it’s even different for me now. There’s no one right way to do this and we have to figure it out and give people grace as we’re figuring it out together. Be thoughtful about what meetings you want to make in person versus what is fine to be on a call. One example is I like, if I have the opportunity, to meet a person for the first time in real life who I’m trying to build a relationship with and then we can connect virtually subsequent to that. Doesn’t always happen, but that would be a starting-point goal. Also, if I’m in big meetings, I’ve always used a tactic where if I am virtual, but I know that there’s going to be a lot of people in a room together, I will peg someone who I know is going to be in the room and say, I’m going to be virtual today. If there’s something that I need that I don’t feel like getting discussed or I’m not being able to make my point, I may Slack it to you. That allows me to have a voice in the room, even if I’m not physically in the room. Technology has gotten much better over 15 years, which has made this much easier. I also think people’s mindsets over time and the scale at which we’re doing it has made it even easier. But those are some of the tactics of the purposeful ways that I’ve made sure my voice is heard, no matter whether I’m in the room or not.
Tanya Ott: One of the pushbacks we sometimes hear when we’re talking about the hybrid situation, particularly for leaders, is trying to manage people where [with] some people you have a lot more face time than with other people. How do you navigate that?
Stacy Poritzky: From a leader[ship] perspective, I think that you want to make sure that you’re connecting with people no matter where they are. I’ve led employees that have lived in other places. I’ve had full teams that sat in different cities or different countries, for that matter. For me, it’s all about taking time to get to know people, whether they’re virtual, whether they’re hybrid, and whether they’re in person. One other way, as a leader, that you can do right by your people is being very overt about how we work as a team. In fact, right now my team is in the process of coming up with a set of what I’ll call rituals [that] we want to implement in this new hybrid environment. Some are very tactical—how we show up on WebEx or using different communication channels— and others are more thematic. Are there certain days that we all want to be in together? If there are folks that are virtual regardless on that day, what does that day look like for those people? There’s a level of intentionality and a level of signaling to our colleagues that we care about you no matter where you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting face to face or across a screen, we are going to carve out the time to make sure your voice is heard. We’re going to have to change the way we work to do that, and that’s okay. But I think that for me, at this moment, it’s about us meeting the moment, [and] not having the moment meet us—and, therefore, we’re carving out the space to have those discussions.
Tanya Ott: Stacy, right out of the gate in our conversation today, you talked about that first woman who took a chance [with] you and hired you when you didn’t really have a lot of experience and all of that. You were very intentional about identifying her gender. I’m wondering, both personally, professionally, and for the industry as a whole, why gender is so important to you.
Stacy Poritzky: The support that I got from that woman, as well as [from the] many others along the way, has been an opportunity to look up and see where I want to be and see myself. I have personally benefited from those who came before me—my first boss who took a chance [with] me, every leader and mentor, [both] women and men who have challenged me to go for it, who believed in me before I believed in myself. Without those women, I wouldn’t be here.
I’m the mom of two teenage daughters who have watched me build a career. And I don’t take that lightly, that they have seen me work on the good days and bad days. I have confidence that by them having the opportunity to watch me, no matter what they end up doing, they will bring a confidence to wherever they go next, that they belong, and they can do it, and that they have a seat at the table in a way that is assumptive and not in a way that kind of asks for the seat of the table. They just take it because they assume that it’s theirs to take. Ultimately, the more and more that we see people pulling other people up, ultimately, they will crush that ceiling for all of us.
Tanya Ott: There are, of course, all kinds of diversity. And we’ve talked about gender diversity, but there’s also race and ethnicity, LGBTQ, economic background, [and] neurodiversity. How are you thinking about those kinds of diversities and how you can embed them in the work that you do?
Stacy Poritzky: As a marketer, we are we are only at our best if we are thinking about all of the things that you just said. It goes back to, our job as marketers is to understand people. People come with all different stories and all different backgrounds and all different experiences. It is our job to understand those experiences and make sure that we not only can talk about what we want to talk about, but [also about] what matters to other people. And that is not one kind of person, [it] is all different kind[s] of people. Whether it is how we market to a more diverse audience, how we set up a team that is better because we have folks from all different walks of life with all different experiences and backgrounds, that makes us better as a team. My best teams have been filled with people who are very different and come with all those different experiences. My best marketing has been marketing that appeals to a lot of different backgrounds. I think it is incumbent on all of us to continue, and we started with this idea of learning about and being open to understanding different people and where they come from and what their life experiences have been, and then again meeting them where they are.
Tanya Ott: What do you hope the conversation around gender equity in the industry looks like in ten or 15 years?
Stacy Poritzky: Going back to my daughters, I think about this a lot. I hope that the conversation is around people and women who are doing great things—beyond the first, we’re just about the best. And if we get there in the next 10, 20, [or] 30 years, I think that we will be in great shape. It’s not about any one number, but it’s about the magnitude of stories that can build up and be told about all these great accomplishments that starts to make it even more likely that my daughter is going to look up and not question do I belong—but just figure out what her mark is going to be.
Tanya Ott: Well, Stacy, thank you so much for your time.
Stacy Poritzky: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.
Tanya Ott: Stacy Poritzky is vice president of brand strategy at American Express. Like I said at the top of the show, this is part of a series of conversations with women leaders on the frontlines of the financial services industry. The road to leadership is different for everyone.
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Cover image by: Natalie Pfaff