Executive Conversations: Jonathan Polk’s Story
General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer, Melio
Throughout Jonathan Polk’s career, he has been a civil lawyer, a government regulator, and an executive at a 150+ year-old financial services institution. He currently serves as the General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer at Melio, a rapidly growing digital payments provider.
In a recent webinar with ICEO’s Sally Washlow, Jonathan talked about his journey to Melio and his major transitions along the way. In this conversation, he shared valuable insights on taking initiative with your career moves, why you need to find an organization whose mission aligns with your values, and the importance of seeking out trusted advisors at critical career pivot points.
Building your credibility in a new environment
Jonathan’s career started at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Except for a brief stint at a private law firm—he spent the next 20 years exploring a range of opportunities with the New York Fed, serving in roles in litigation, enforcement, anti-money laundering, corporate compliance, and bank supervision.
“One of the themes of my career is that I have been the instigator of change. Many of my roles might not have happened if I hadn't started the conversation about how I might get involved in one thing or another."
Jonathan credits this willingness to explore unfamiliar territories as a driver for many of his unique and rewarding career stages. Instigating these opportunities provided him with direct, hands-on experience, and eventually led to him entering the corporate sector when Jonathan made the jump to American Express.
While changing industries can lead to rewarding career experiences, it is also among the toughest challenges for executives. At the New York Fed, Jonathan had personal connections with senior leadership and was clear on how to best advance his priorities. At Amex, he would need to build these from scratch.
"When you take on a new role or a new challenge, you essentially hit the reset button on all aspects of your work life: your brand, your relationships, and your credibility. I understood what it took to get things done at the Fed, but Amex was a complete unknown when I joined.”
The senior leadership team at Amex had strong relationships with each other—relationships built by working together for a long time. As the new person, Jonathan invested in his working relationships, demonstrating to his peers that he was committed to their combined success.
Jonathan knew that earning the trust of his peers was critical to his new role. He also knew that this wouldn’t happen overnight.
“My clients had to take my call when I was a regulator, but that changed when I transitioned to the corporate side. I realized that part of my role was to give people a reason to pick up the phone—I needed to figure out how to create value for them.”
Moving at the speed of start-ups
Jonathan believes advisors are a critical part of planning your career—and has made a point at seeking them out at various moments of transition in his life.
That’s one of the reasons why, after Jonathan left Amex, he connected with ICEO and began to think about what he would do next. In addition to building a strong relationship with his peer advisor, he credits this experience with opening his mind to opportunities outside of large established organizations, particularly career opportunities that connected with him at a personal level.
When he found Melio—he knew he had found a mission that he connected with. At its core, the company is a pivotal tool for supporting small businesses in achieving their financial goals.
“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy. They make the biggest contribution to GDP and they hire more employees than any other type of employer. Beyond that, they are the very fabric of the communities they serve. Finally, they so often produce artisan products that are the result of their passion. There is something very wholesome about all that, and I love that I get to work at a place where our mission is to help small businesses.”
But joining Melio represented another industry change, and he knew that moving to a start-up environment would make this a massive learning experience. While American Express is more than 150 years old with a global reach and a recognizable brand, Melio is a high-growth, series D start-up founded in 2018. In order to establish themselves in a highly competitive financial services industry, a company like Melio needs to have strong leadership and quick decision making.
“The pace of work sped up a lot when I moved from the Fed to Amex, but being at Melio is like it’s been turbocharged. I've been here for two years and it's extraordinary how much activity and energy comes every single day.”
The lifelong journey of leadership growth
The lightning pace appeals to Jonathan—and he loves the learning that comes with it.
One of the lessons that he internalized during his time at Amex—leadership is an art form—is one that can be honed no matter the stage of your career. In that business, executives take great pride in leading the people entrusted to their care. They are a precious resource to the organization and the engine of getting things done.
He was keen to bring this mindset from Amex to the startup environment. Being a part of a young and ambitious organization, Jonathan looks to nurture and cultivate the talents of those he leads.
Serving at a fast-moving organization requires a leader who can adapt quickly. For me, changing the game, the environment—I needed to be agile and focus on the things I could do to get better results for my team and the business.”
Reflecting on the full journey
Jonathan knows he didn’t take the easy route by changing his career from lawyer to regulator to risk advisor to general counsel, but he thinks that each of those experiences was critical in setting him up for his next role.
The thread that ties all these different stages together is his ability to hone his craft and make an impact on the world. He believes all executives should find roles that connect to their values. It creates a personal connection to the work they do, motivates them, and helps them perform at their best. In his words, this is what gets him out of bed in the morning:
“Even on tough days when nothing seems to work, you get to remember that your actions do make a difference. You can focus on what you are working towards and the impact you can make.”
Jonathan Polk shared his story as part of ICEO’s Executive Conversation Series, a speaker series highlighting leaders who have navigated major career pivots, bringing to life the range of possibilities for executive career journeys.
Reuben Cohen is the North American Managing Director for LHH's International Center for Executive Options (ICEO). He and his team work as trusted advisors to CEOs and other top-of-the-house leaders, guiding them through career inflection points to a variety of new paths.
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