Enabling a Workplace Culture of Ambition and Advocacy

Over the past year, working women have collectively displayed an unwavering power–setting the critical expectation that companies react to diversity and inclusion needs in real time.

As more women ascend to senior-leadership positions and millennials grow in numbers across the workforce, more diverse voices will be heard and important stories will be shared. According to a recent study by PwC, 86 percent of female millennials said employer policies on D&I were important to them. And, in research from the Center for Talent Innovation, 67 percent of women surveyed in the U.S. say it’s very important in their work or career to be able be empowered and empower others.

The ability to connect with colleagues directly on topical matters has become a necessary retention and recruitment tool. In response, organizations worldwide are now embracing the idea of candid discussions at the office and creating safe channels to ensure this happens.

At American Express, we are three decades into our D&I journey. We have been encouraging these types of conversations for many years. And, with women comprising nearly 40 percent of our executives and a workforce that is over 50 percent female, we’ve seen firsthand the positive change women can collectively drive across the enterprise. As my team looks toward the future, we are focused on encouraging even stronger advocacy to make our workplace more inclusive than ever before. Here is what I have learned so far:

Lead from the top with visible role modeling

In an April 2018 survey of our female executives, 63 percent said it was most important to see women leaders in positions of power as they grew in their careers, indicating that strong female role models were important to their success. In the same survey, 74 percent said they have a sponsor, and 49 percent said they credit “a lot” of their success to those individuals.

Fostering a culture that encourages mentorship and sponsorship is crucial to career mobility. Research shows that men and women with sponsors in the workplace tend to be more likely to ask for stretch assignments and raises. In addition to promoting top female talent into positions of power, we have also been vocal in our support of organizations including Lean In and the #MentorHer movement–encouraging employees of all genders and levels to drive greater awareness and support of these initiatives.

Our efforts have paid off: Fifty-five percent of our senior women leaders say they are paying it forward by sponsoring five or more employees at the company.

Create channels for continuous and actionable feedback

As HR professionals, we rely heavily on colleague listening to gauge sentiment and ensure we’re meeting the needs of our workforce. But translating honest, thorough and actionable feedback into tangible strategies that address employee concerns can be challenging. We have an end-to-end colleague listening strategy anchored by our colleague engagement survey which focuses on four key attributes:

  • Consistency: Conducting the survey at the same time annually allows for stronger comparisons that help guide future policies and practices.
  • Anonymity: Responses are anonymous and all data is aggregated.
  • Accountability: Results are shared with all senior leaders, who are held accountable for their results and compensated based on their ability to address this feedback.
  • Visibility: Results and action plans are shared throughout the organization. For example, feedback from the survey in 2017 informed a companywide initiative called Need for Speed. This included the introduction of a full suite of resources to help employees make business decisions more swiftly.

In 2017, 85 percent of employees participated in our survey, demonstrating that colleagues understand that it’s an important opportunity to share perspectives and influence actionable changes.

Ensure company policies and resources support colleagues’ work and personal lives

An EY study found that 38 percent of U.S. millennials would move to another country with better paid parental leave benefits and that 86 percent are less likely to quit if parental leave is offered.

In early 2017, we introduced a new parental leave policy to guarantee all U.S.-based, regular full-time and part-time employees welcoming a child through birth, adoption or surrogacy, are eligible for 20 weeks of paid parental leave. In addition, we strengthened our support programs for parents transitioning back from leave, including offering a Parent Concierge service, free breast milk shipping when travelling on business, and additional back-up care days for new parents.

This change in policy was a significant investment and required buy-in from senior managers across the organization. We’re already seeing the benefits. Employees have expressed that they feel American Express cares about their experiences as working parents, and that the policy has helped create more equal opportunities across genders. An additional advantage: The opportunity to provide coverage during parental leaves has allowed other colleagues to gain experience in different parts of the business and in areas of interest, further increasing employee engagement. We recently surveyed colleagues who took parental leave in 2017 to ensure our policies and practices are working as intended. The feedback and data are aligned with original predictions on why enhancing parental leave is beneficial. 82 percent of colleagues surveyed felt ready to return to work at the end of their leave. In the same internal survey, 90 percent of colleagues who are new parents indicated they believe the parental-leave policy is an important factor in their retention.

Flexible work arrangements, including flextime, part-time, compressed work weeks or job sharing, also help find a balance appropriate for each employee’s personal and professional needs. In a 2017 American Express employee survey, 49 percent of respondents said they had telecommuted in the last year. We have heard from colleagues that this policy makes them more productive and committed to the company because they feel our company is committed to them.

Create channels for learning and volunteer opportunities

Training, career planning, further education and honest development conversations are all crucial to retaining talent. A Bersin by Deloitte study revealed that “organizations with a strong learning culture are 92 percent more likely to develop novel products and processes, 52 percent more productive, 56 percent more likely to be the first to market with their products and services, and 17 percent more profitable than their peers. Their engagement and retention rates are also 30€“50 percent higher.”

But everyone learns differently, so it’s important to offer more than a one-size-fits-all program. We’ve found that learning and development should be offered in many forms, both formally and informally, in person and on-demand at employees’ convenience. We use tools for maximizing learning on the job; cross-border and cross-business unit assignments; career coaching, mentoring and professional networking; rotation opportunities; virtual learning sessions; and formal classroom instruction. Our six-month Accelerated Leadership Development Program is aimed at strengthening the pipeline of senior management by developing vice presidents globally.

The takeaway here is that customized training is core to keeping your company competitive. It’s a lynchpin for employee engagement, retention and nurturing top talent.

In addition to professional development opportunities to fuel growth and a sense of purpose at work, company-sponsored volunteer opportunities are proving to be impactful as well. In the spirit of enabling a culture of advocacy and ambition, we’ve put in place a wide array of volunteer opportunities and encourage colleagues to engage in our environmental responsibility efforts. In particular, skills-based volunteer programs are helping employees not only hone their talents but also feel more fulfilled at work and more connected to the company, according to our internal feedback surveys.

Create formal channels for women’s networks

Particularly at large and global organizations, colleague networks create a way for employees to meet and network, gain exposure, discuss challenges and learn about opportunities outside of their direct business units. They also help to keep the workforce connected, active and learning across locations and functions, fostering a sense of inclusion and empowerment.

In our organization, we’ve found that colleague networks provide a forum for career development, support and mentoring related to the unique challenges women may face in the workplace. Nearly 50 percent of American Express women identify as members of at least one colleague network. Our survey data indicates that colleagues who participate in networks are also more engaged at the company, indicating this is working as a channel to help embrace and promote ambition internally.

Set a precedent 

In summary, it’s important for companies to set a precedent that their employees’ voices are heard and actioned. This creates a safe space for employees to direct their advocacy within the workplace in a meaningful way. We remain committed to channeling these ambitions and enabling all our colleagues to bring their whole selves to work–benefiting both the individual and the organization as a whole.

Sonia Cargan
Sonia Cargan is chief diversity officer at American Express. Send questions or comments to [email protected]