In 2020, American Express achieved the ambitious goal of 100% pay equity in the truest sense of the word. It is also the only company in the finance industry to have bucked the trend in the boardroom. In a truly remarkable interview with Monique Herena, we talk about American Express’ The Ambition Project, leadership resilience, and what we can do to help women propel into leadership roles.
Thriving Through Change
The HR Digest: What is American Express’ secret sauce for being recognized several times as a “Great Place to Work”?
Monique Herena: We firmly believe the best way to back our customers is to back our colleagues. To do that, we offer a compelling colleague value proposition, which includes meaningful work and growth opportunities, a flexible and inclusive culture, competitive pay and benefits, and more. At its core, our colleague value proposition places our colleagues at the center of everything we do, focusing on the whole person, holistic well-being, and a strong sense of belonging.
An important aspect of how we designed our new way of working —or what we call Amex Flex —was to check-in with, listen to, and learn from our colleagues. They told us they value having the flexibility to work from home and that they also miss in-person collaboration. That’s why Amex Flex offers the best of both worlds —providing greater flexibility for our colleagues while ensuring we preserve the important benefits of our very special culture which is built on relationships.
American Express takes great pride in ‘The Ambition Project’. Can you tell our readers more about this program and how it promoted change within the company in practical terms?
Women’s success is in everyone’s best interest, and through The Ambition Project, we are encouraging women to fully embrace their ambition and pay it forward. We launched this initiative as part of our commitment to engage, retain, and back our women colleagues, and I’m proud to say that:
- In 2020, American Express achieved 100% pay equity for colleagues across genders globally and across races and ethnicities in the United States.
- 48% of new hires globally were women and among colleagues that received promotions globally, 46% were women.
- Today, women make up 27% of the Board and 37% of our Executive Committee at American Express.
With a focus on better understanding the unique experiences and ambitions of our women colleagues, enabling them to build stronger relationships and creating a more inclusive environment for all women across the company, we continue to move The Ambition Project forward through global events and networking forums and customized learning and development programs. We are ambitious for all colleagues at American Express.
What is the number one leadership competency required in today’s fast-paced, unpredictable world?
Without a doubt, leadership resilience. Resilience is built through a series of intentional behaviors —they can be learned, practiced, and strengthened through experience. Resilient leadership is all about motivating teams, sustaining energy levels, and maintaining a growth orientation. We do this by inspiring, leading, adapting, and performing through disruptive changes, both on a personal and organizational level, over time. We use these experiences to make us even better.
At Amex, we continue to prioritize colleague well-being, communicating frequently, and staying open to if and how we need to evolve. That’s the key. We can all be better in the next moment than we are right now. I’m inspired by the great resilience Team Amex has already demonstrated —the growth and successes, and how we’ve led through so much change. It’s really important that we continue to build on our momentum.
What do you think most boards misunderstand or underestimate about human resources?
In my experience, boards are increasingly seeing HR as a trusted advisor and having a critical seat at the table. They are in tune to the strategic value of talent and the role and responsibility the function plays as a co-creator of people strategy with the business to enable and support growth. I believe that you have to closely link your talent and culture strategy to the company strategy, or you just will not be able to drive the same level of impact.
From my first conversations, well before the pandemic, with our Chairman and CEO, Steve Squeri, and members of the American Express Board, we were very aligned on the company vision, the strategic importance of providing a great colleague experience, and the cultural shifts required to achieve our business goals and better serve our colleagues, customers, and communities.
What are the core values that influence your decision-making?
The American Express Blue Box Values and Leadership Behaviors set the standard of leadership for all colleagues and exemplify how we drive change and, ultimately, how we win as a team. The Blue Box Values are our guiding principles; they help ensure that we bring our company vision to life by backing our customers, colleagues, and communities with trust, integrity, equity, and respect in everything we do.
As colleagues at American Express, one of our most important values is “We Do What’s Right.” This is the foundation of how we make decisions every day and conduct all aspects of our business —from backing our customers, colleagues, and communities and maintaining their trust to protecting our brand. All of us share this responsibility.
If the HR Digest readers would like to get involved in advocating for more women in the boardroom, what do you recommend they do?
Having diverse backgrounds and experiences at the decision-making table fuels innovation, so advocating for representation in the boardroom and at all levels of the company is a win-win.
When it comes to advocating for more women in the boardroom, I recommend looking at your current state and start by increasing transparency. We recently shared an in-depth look at our journey, which includes our US Workforce EEO1 data and makeup of our Board, in our first-ever Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Report. Through transparency, we hold ourselves accountable and not only stand by our words but put them into action. While there’s more work to do, we are very proud of the progress we’ve made.
It’s also important to demystify the process and increase awareness of how women progress into leadership roles, such as board seats. There are different roads to the boardroom, and the more we can create space to learn about other’s experiences and understand the diverse set of skills needed, the better positioned women will be to advance and achieve their ambitions.
Monique Herena is Chief Colleague Experience Officer at American Express. As Chief Colleague Experience Officer, Monique is responsible for all aspects of the colleague experience, including talent management, leadership development and compensation and benefits. Monique leads all colleague experience functions globally.
Photo: American Express
This interview was published in the January 2022 issue of The HR Digest.