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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
American Express creates gender intelligent workplace
Article Type: HR at work From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 11, Issue 2
Short case studies and research papers that demonstrate best practice in HR
Samantha BidwellBased at American Express.
Helen WellsOpportunity Now.
The work that American Express has done on becoming a gender intelligent workplace was recognized through the Opportunity Now Global Award 2011. Opportunity Now is the gender at work campaign from Business in the Community. It works to empower employers to accelerate change for women in the workplace. It works with its membership of employers from private, public and education sectors to offer tailored and pragmatic advice on workplace issues.
The Global Award, won by American Express, celebrates an inclusion program or initiative, which extends across at least three countries. American Express’s global work on gender difference included building gender intelligence across the organization and implementing a comprehensive range of interventions. Among these were training for the CEO and senior executives on communications, assumptions and behaviors; an organization-wide gender intelligence training program; and a senior women’s conference.
The company also undertook an extensive piece of research with the Center for Work Life Policy (CWLP) and specialist consultancy Catalyst in 2009, which resulted in the development of “The Sponsor Effect” concept. This internal sponsorship activity has led to a mainstreaming of initiatives focusing on “women in the pipeline” and “women at the top” goals. As a result, American Express has already seen a change in the representation of women in the executive pipeline. The scale of the work and the impressive early results achieved were the reasons American Express was recognized by the Opportunity Now judges.
A history of diversity and inclusion
American Express is a diversified worldwide travel, financial and network services company. It is a leader in charge and credit cards, travellers’ cheques, and travel and insurance products. With over 60,000 employees across the globe and over 6,000 in the UK, American Express takes great pride in fostering a working environment that encourages different backgrounds, talents and perspectives to thrive.
American Express has been on the diversity and inclusion journey for over three decades. The organization has evolved its thinking and practices to meet the needs of its business and employees. It has achieved a gender rich representation overall – 63 percent females worldwide, 30 percent at VP level and 15 percent at executive board level, figures that have remained fairly consistent over the past five years. The organization has 22 women’s interest networks worldwide and women’s development programs that have been successful in identifying key issues for women.
Prior to 2009, American Express’s primary focus was on building diverse talent initiatives and establishing “Builds diverse talent” as a core leadership competency and a core company value. In 2009, American Express refreshed its global diversity and inclusion (GD&I) strategy to include both a marketplace and workplace focus. The GD&I strategy focuses on the following three core pillars:
Talent segmentation: attracting, developing and retaining diverse talent.
Market segmentation: supporting and advancing targeted solutions for key customer segments.
Workplace transformation: creating an engaging workplace culture.
In line with this strategy, the focus over the past three years has been on creating a step change through developing the following:
Solutions for the organization that will drive sustainable impact and change.
Increasing senior leadership involvement in the senior female talent pipeline.
Creating an overall gender intelligent workplace and culture.
Actions to boost gender intelligence
In 2009, global research with male and female executives across the globe was undertaken, in partnership with a respected gender intelligence consultant, Catalyst. This research was underpinned by local research conducted via internal diversity councils led by country executive leadership teams in markets such as the UK, India and Australia. Through involving more male leaders, American Express has increased mindshare and ownership of leaders and employees on women in the pipeline, both from a talent and market perspective.
At the beginning of 2010, four work streams were established to identify and implement sustainable solutions. The work streams are as follows:
Pathways to sponsorship. This is a specific effort to identify, differentially support and invest in American Express’s highest potential future senior female leaders. It is a high touch customized program that specifically focuses on creating exposure and targeted development opportunities for American Express’s high potential women in order to strengthen their network of sponsors to further enable career advancement. Executive coaches, senior leaders and line leaders are fully involved throughout the program.
American Express Women’s Conference. This was hosted for 170 of the company’s most senior women from around the world with the CEO and vice chairman as key sponsors. This conference will continue to be held every two years.
Gender intelligent organization. American Express has led training that has been designed to promote awareness of the business benefits of becoming more gender intelligent both from a leadership and customer servicing perspective. By bringing gender differences to the surface of talent conversations, American Express feels that a common language can be established to enable open discussions that pave the way for attitudinal and behavioral change. As part of the American Express’ journey to become a gender intelligent organization, all senior vice president and above leaders throughout the organization have completed training, sponsored and attended by the CEO and his direct reports. The training covers the following:
Understanding the root of “unconscious biases.”
Dispelling the myths/assumptions about gender.
Scientific facts of gender differences.
Behaviors that hinder inclusiveness.
Leadership and gender.
Communication – same words, different language.
Following completion of the training, each senior executive participates in personal action sessions, focusing on personal insights and development areas. Having targeted the top of the organization, the training is being cascaded to all people leaders with customized sessions for business units and employee wide events in key markets, i.e. US, UK, Canada, Mexico, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia. Phase 2 of implementation will continue into 2012 with the intent that gender intelligence becomes integrated as part of leadership development competencies and programs.
The sponsor effect. Based on internal research findings in the UK and globally, American Express found The Sponsor Effect concept is a key factor for women’s senior advancement. They have invested in external research to validate this concept across the globe and have developed and delivered 60-90 minute workshops in the UK, US, Canada, India, Australia, Singapore, Mexico and Hong Kong to define sponsorship and how it differs to mentoring, its importance and how sponsorship is earned. This concept is not just being targeted at women; the organization has found that it is resonating with both men and women at all levels, across cultures and diverse segments.
Sponsorship a key tool
The Pathways to Sponsorship program, since its launch in 2010, has been expanded to the Top 20 Global Women, which are our executive board pipeline, as well as specific programs in the UK and Australia, with plans for India and Singapore to pilot a joint male/female program that are likely be expanded to Canada, Mexico, Hong Kong, Italy. The following are the key learnings from the program so far:
Importance is recognized of sponsorship and its role in career advancement – especially at the most senior levels. American Express is continuing to do further work in cascading understanding of sponsorship and how individuals earn it at all levels in the organization, worldwide. The longer term intent is to integrate the Sponsor Effect concept into the broader talent assessment/career planning discussions.
Importance of direct, honest, timely feedback has been reinforced. Women need this more, especially from line leaders. American Express is continuing to strengthen its coaching of leaders in this area and become more comfortable in having candid career conversations, especially on sensitive topics such as executive presence. Its intent is to use the organization’s “leader as teacher” concept to enable leaders to inspire through sharing their personal experiences. The mentoring circles business networking sessions have been practical and impactful, providing senior leaders with exposure to cross business unit talent.
Importance of peer support and networking. Executive WINs (women’s interest employee networks) is expanding across the globe. They have been powerful in underpinning the organization’s culture and development work for men and women.
A long term commitment to continuous improvement
American Express is seeing a positive uplift in its senior representation from 2010-2011. Women forming part of the executive board has moved from 15 to 19 percent. In the UK, American Express has achieved overall an increase at its senior female level from 44 to 47 percent. With the Pathways to Sponsorship program, American Express has achieved three promotions and three lateral moves within the ten participants (top ten females at vice president level). American Express will continue to focus on ensuring succession pipeline is coming through at all levels.
American Express has a clear focus on ensuring that it has the diverse talent it needs to meet future challenges. American Express and Opportunity Now will continue to work together to maintain the momentum and impact of this work.
About the authors
Samantha Bidwell is director, global diversity and inclusion, responsible for all international markets at American Express where she is involved with transforming the diversity and inclusion strategy to achieve continued business growth. She previously held a number of key international and European management positions in organizational development, talent development and HR business partner roles with American Express, Barclays Bank, Barclaycard and CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) following a successful career in retail store management with Marks & Spencer. Bidwell holds an MSc in strategic organizational development and a BA (Hons) degree in business studies and is a member of Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) and British Psychological Society (BPS). Samantha Bidwell can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Helen Wells is director, Opportunity Now, at BITC. She has worked for the gender equality campaign for over eight years and has extensive expertise in gender issues in the workplace. In her time at Opportunity Now she has been responsible for key strategic partnerships and engaging stakeholders, and she has played an integral role in new research projects and headed up the events and awards programs. She has led initiatives to address equal pay, increase the number of women on boards and identify future trends in leadership. Before taking on the directorship, she was head of communications. Helen Wells can be contacted at: email@example.com