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Case study: American Express



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American Express shares its latest leadership development programme, and how it will help strengthen their talent pool in Asia. By Sabrina Zolkifi.

American Express has never been a company to think inside the box and prides itself on being adaptable when faced with obstacles. Alex Kershaw, director of HR (Singapore Market Head) at American Express International says those two principles have been a result of strong leadership within the organisation.

“Breakthroughs occur at the edge of the comfort zone. An American Express leader welcomes new ideas, continually testing the ‘tried and true’,” says Kershaw. “We anticipate and act, refusing to wait until the future has happened.”

And because the world’s focus is now resting on Asia, it is in that vein Kershaw says the company decided to focus on developing leadership in the region. She shares one of the biggest challenges of facing the company’s leaders in Asia is driving and leading change.

As leaders, we need to embrace change and to take our teams along with us on this journey.

“We know that the human condition is often to fear and resist change, so our leaders need to understand their role as an enabler for change and growth and hone their change leadership skills,” she says.

American Express boasts a dedicated global leadership team who plan ahead and anticipate leadership development requirements. Last year, the company also launched a new Global People Leader Learning Programme to support its development efforts.

“We are constantly listening to feedback from our leaders, and making improvements to existing programmes, whilst developing new programmes or content to meet the need of each leadership segment.”

But the company isn’t just fixed on developing leaders that will thrive in Asia.

“Increasingly, our leaders lead teams which are geographically dispersed, and we need to ensure we are building a culture and language of leadership which transcends cultural and geographic boundaries.”

Kershaw says the biggest driver behind providing tailored leadership development programmes was to provide “a solution that would meet their needs and give them the flexibility they need to learn at their own pace in their preferred style, in whatever part of the world they are in”.

We needed to find the right blend of group learning events to drive connectivity and collaboration, as well as self directed learning to ensure flexibility,” she says.

“By using a blend of learning channels, technologies and approaches we believe we have developed an impactful global solution which meets these needs.”

American Express’ People Leader Learning Path programme consists of four learning paths, each designed to cater to different levels of leaders at different stages in their leadership journey, with different paths for new and existing leaders.

Kershaw shares the piloted extensively across several markets, and feedback received from the pilot was used to tweak the programme – a key step that would ensure the programme’s relevance and engagement at the market level.

When the programme launched in Singapore, the most critical step was building buy-in for the programme.

This started by gaining support from the country executive team and identifying an executive sponsor, as it ensures the programme has advocacy at the highest level, and from within the business, not just within the HR function.

The company also rolled out a kick off meeting for each learning path when it launched the programme. The aim of it was to make sure the participants were clear on the programme’s aims, content, expectations, and structure.

“Involving the leaders of the participants was important as they play a critical role in facilitating learning gained from the program and ensuring it translates into behaviour change,” Kershaw says.

“We know that creating an environment which is conducive to learning is key to creating behavioural change, and so we want to ensure leaders are aware of what their learners are experiencing, and are prepared to coach and support.”

Kershaw says the programme is still in the midst of being fully rolled out, but the response has been very positive so far.

“We’re constantly taking feedback from our learners, so we can make improvements for future programmes. This programme is no different and I’m sure there’ll be lots of learnings as it continues through the roll out.”

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