Doris Daif – Head of American Express Digital Customer Experience

When it comes to leadership role models, Doris Daif is someone we look up to. As Head of American Express Digital Customer Experience, Doris gets to know the people she works with both personally and professionally. She also believes in flexibility and balance. Having studied marketing in college, Doris interned at Revlon and ended up working there after undergrad. After working at Revlon, Doris decided to continue her education and enrolled in Stern School of Business at New York University to earn her MBA. Now at American Express, Doris leads a team of over 130 people.

Throughout our interview, Doris emphasized the importance of passion, hard work, and finding mentors. We not only found Doris to be motivating and empowering, but what she shared resonated with us deeply. When it comes to her advice about living more in the moment and not being so prescriptive, we couldn’t agree with Doris more. Read on to find out how Doris thinks young people can demonstrate confidence and poise, what her daily duties involve, and how she unwinds from an occasionally overwhelming schedule.

Name: Doris Daif
Education: Bachelor of Science in Marketing from Rutgers University; Master of Business Administration in Marketing and Finance from New York University, Leonard N. Stern School of Business
Follow: @ddsethi

Carpe Juvenis: How do you define “Seizing Your Youth?”

Doris Daif: Seizing your youth means living in the moment and not apologizing or feeling that you should be doing something other than you’re doing at that very moment. At least for me, that’s come as I’ve gotten older. When I was younger there was a lot of “shoulda coulda woulda” mentality around wondering if I was keeping up with what other people were doing or feeling like I was missing out on something. Seizing your youth is about feeling passionate and excited about what you’re doing at that time, knowing that it’s the right thing for you, and feeling comfortable in your own skin.

CJ: You majored in Marketing at Rutgers University. How did you determine what to study?

DD: I didn’t have a great plan when I was in undergrad in terms of what I wanted to do. My parents were both very academic and have master’s degrees, and they both wanted me to be in a stable job that earned money. I was in school in the early 90s and there was a lot of pressure around getting jobs post-graduation. It was a very tough time.

Before I went to Rutgers I thought about going to Carnegie Mellon and studying engineering. I ultimately decided to go to a state school. I may have headed toward marketing because I wanted to study something in business, and I knew I didn’t want something accounting and finance-related. Marketing really wasn’t planned at that point in my life but I knew it would give me the most options.

CJ: What did you do once you graduated from college?

DD: I was interning at Revlon when I was at Rutgers. I helped the chemists in R&D test their products on customers. It was awesome! All these women would come in to test out everything from shampoo to lipstick, and I really started to love the interaction with customers and thinking about what made them tick.

When I graduated from Rutgers, it was a difficult time economically. A lot of jobs available for undergrads with marketing degrees were sales jobs. I ultimately decided to go back to Revlon in a sales role. Going back to what I was saying about seizing your youth, it was not a typical job to start at with an undergraduate degree, so it was a risk but I loved the work and the people. After a few years, I turned the job into a full-blown marketing research opportunity and moved to the headquarters in New York City. I had the opportunity to work under really seasoned market research people where I could take what I learned in the R&D labs and translate it into more qualitative and quantitative market research at Revlon.

It was while I was at Revlon in NYC that I realized that I wanted to go back to graduate school and continue my education. I didn’t want to go back full time, though, so I applied for a part-time MBA program at the Stern School of Business at New York University. Then there was an opportunity that presented itself at Colgate Palmolive, and I got a call from them for a similar role where I would be working on much larger brands and doing more business analytics. That’s really what led me to leave the position at Revlon and go to Colgate.

Doris B

CJ: You are currently the Head of American Express Digital Customer Experience. What does that mean and what does your role entail?

DD: I lead a team of 130 folks located in New York and in the United Kingdom. We have responsibilities for making sure that when customers have a digital experience with us – whether they come onto our website or get an email or a text message – that we’re not only meeting their needs but that we’re delighting them.

We think about features that customers want to see, but we also actually listen to the voice of the customer. We have an internal design team that will sit down with customers and prototype and design with them. When we have a design that we think is really good, we figure out ways to put it into market and test it. It’s a really active place to work and there are no two days that look alike. I work with a really passionate group of people who are excited about what they do. The team ranges from data people to designers to operations people to product developers. There are some people who are in charge of the site or content management or personalization. We all work together to give the customer a great experience.

CJ: In an interview with theglasshammer.com, you noted that “confidence and poise are two of your greatest assets.” How can young people demonstrate confidence and poise?

DD: I’m so passionate about this topic because I didn’t have either of those growing up. I was a very shy, introverted kid. I didn’t fit into a natural clique, so to speak. What’s important to remember is to not put people in a box. People can be in many boxes or not in a box at all, and that is okay. The right kind of reinforcement is important for kids at a young age. Being able to celebrate not just the clear successes but also the effort is very important. You don’t just try once and get something; you have to develop the ability to come back repeatedly. You also have to learn how to step away. Take time to immerse yourself in why something failed, but then get up and try it again the next morning. We’re in a culture of wanting things to happen immediately, but that’s just not reality.

CJ: What advice would you give to a young person who is interested in working in the digital space with customer experience?

DD: During those first five to seven years, you want to work your tail off. You want to create great work that is meaningful and has high integrity. Go into something where you’re going to be happy putting in the extra hours.

Surround yourself with people you want to be like. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a couple of early leaders and mentors who I observed. I watched them in action and saw their mistakes and what they did right. To a certain extent, they turned into advocates for me.

Also, you can’t fake it. Early on in my career I had a very false idea that I’d get one position and do it for two years, and then I’d get promoted and do that for two years. It’s not all that prescriptive, but the common ingredient is passion. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, it’s way too much time and way too forced to amount to anything. Younger people get caught up in what they should be doing, but this comes back to haunt you later. Knowing that you’re passionate about something allows doors to open that you wouldn’t have expected.

CJ: Finding that passion when you’re young can be difficult. In your experience, how do you think young people can find their passion?

DD: There’s not a magic bullet with this one. Passion can ebb and flow for different things throughout your life. Some of it is not being so prescriptive. If you’re overly sensitive to finding your passion and figuring out a plan, it can get really stressful. I’ve been caught up in that! You learn as you go.

Having great mentors and leaders who have been honest about what I do well and what I don’t do well has helped me figure out what I am interested in. Family does this very well – they will put a mirror up and tell you what you do well and what you don’t. Be receptive to this feedback and ask questions. Sometimes we have a very self-centered view of ourselves. I tap my team a lot to tell me what I can improve upon. What would my biggest fan say and what would my worst critic say?

CJ: You mentioned that you didn’t really fit in with any certain “clique” in high school. It can be hard thinking you don’t belong to a certain group. How did you navigate that when you were younger?

DD: Not well. I latched on to academics. I really worked my tail off. If I had to be 98% prepared, that should have been good enough, but at the time I was so insecure about myself that I would do whatever it took to get to 110% preparation. Looking back, that’s not a bad thing. I’ve been told that I am extremely hungry for the next thing, and I think that resilience comes from the feeling of wanting to excel. The flip side is always having that insecurity of having to do 110% which is not always a good thing.

For me, I love American Express because some of my most formidable years have been at this company. I came in at an entry level job and now I’m running a large team. I appreciate that I work for a company that has put a lot of confidence in me, which helped me build my confidence.

We as a company talk about diversity a lot, which is important. Diversity in terms of the products we offer and the kinds of customers we want to attract. Therefore, your employee base needs to be diverse to reflect that. I’m first-generation American, and both of my parents are from Egypt. There weren’t a lot of other Egyptians walking around in the schools I was in. I don’t know how much that contributed, but I definitely always felt like a fish out of water and that I had to try harder to integrate with any given group of people.

CJ: Leadership plays an important role in your job. How have you learned to lead and how do you bring the community together?

DD: I always make an effort to get to know the people who work for me, both on a personal level and professional level. I think that’s really important. I don’t just get to know my direct reports, but I like to dig in and have deep relationships with all of my people. I like to do it in an approachable style, even if it’s not in-person; using instant messaging is great.

The second is giving people flexibility. Everybody has different needs in terms of what’s going on in their personal and professional lives. One thing I’m extremely passionate about is seeing women advance. Women in particular need that flexibility as children come into the equation.

We afford people the ability to have a full life. I feel like people’s best ideas come when they’re out living their lives and they’re outside doing other things. I try to ensure that people are balanced.

CJ: What is an area, either personal or professional, that you are working to improve in and how?

DD: There are two areas. When you rise in an organization, you spend a lot of time removing roadblocks for your team. One thing I’ve become aware of is not losing my technical skills, so I’ve been doing a lot in the area of digital technology.

The second is doing even more to figure out how to collaborate with people across different lines of business in the company – that’s a lot more fruitful. A lot of times, rather than going to people when you’re in crisis mode, it should be about how you can help them. This notion of “giving to get” is an important thing to understand, especially for youth. When you’re a millennial, there can be a focus on yourself and how you can get ahead. It’s amazing how much can get sent back to you when you’re outwardly facing and helping other people. When I get stressed out and so focused on my issue, I figure out how to call someone and help somebody with his or her problem. As an old Revlon mentor would tell me, “you get more bees with honey versus vinegar.”

CJ: Having a loaded schedule can sometimes be overwhelming. What do you do when you’re having a bad day and need to unwind or reset?

DD: I value balance but for me that balance doesn’t mean I cut off work when I leave the building or vice versa. I self-regulate. There are times when I know work will be busier than other times, but there are other times when I end my day on time and go exercise. I make an effort to be more active. Meditation is something I’ve been wanting to try. I try to maintain connections with people who I’ve come across in my professional life. I enjoy going out to eat a lot. I enjoy reading.

CJ: What is your favorite book? 

DD: The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz.

CJ: What is a book you’ve read this year? 

DD: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.

CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

DD: I would have carried myself with greater poise and confidence. I also would have had more fun and not been so paranoid about what the next thing was going to be. I’d try to live more in the moment and not be so prescriptive. I’d also try not to be as introverted. There are people who are naturally introverts, but I was holding back on a lot of things that were in my head that I thought that no one wanted to hear or weren’t valuable enough to be said or done.

Doris Daif Qs

Images by Carpe Juvenis