Banking in Perspective

Bright sparks on the expressway to the top

by Anna Tong

Florence Chow, vice president, HR relationship leader, East Asia
American Express
Photo: Edde Ngan

Life extends beyond the office walls

Finding the dream job means finding an employer who understands there is more to life than working long hours. It means finding an employer who offers a stimulating professional environment, opportunities for advancement and the right work-life balance.

American Express prides itself on being such an employer through its emphasis on employee engagement, leadership development and continuous evaluation of its programmes.

Florence Chow, vice president, HR relationship leader, East Asia, defines employee engagement as creating an environment in which people are committed to staying long-term and to going above and beyond expectations. For Ms Chow, this starts at the top: "We want to help our leaders understand what employee engagement is as we believe that strong leadership impacts employee experience." In turn, when employees are passionate about their work this can be sensed by the clients. "When employees are engaged, clients are happy," says Ms Chow.

Having a defined career path with opportunities for advancement is an important factor in considering an employee's enthusiasm and commitment to work. It is also a source of motivation for people to learn when there are programmes in place to allow career progression. American Express recognises this and promotes a learning culture, encouraging employees' improvement through various avenues.

Rise and shine

In order to identify and nurture future leaders, American Express developed "SPARKS", a mentoring programme aimed at highflying individuals within the company. Participants are paired up with a mentor from a different department who coaches them on aspects of their development. The 18-month programme focuses on each participant's career development but also considers the person as a whole. There are workshops such as those on negotiation techniques and influencing skills which aim to equip the participants with the leadership skills they will require as they move up in their career path.

Evidence of the effectiveness of its employee engagement focus is clearly evident in American Express' high employee retention rate. Fierce competition in banking and finance means companies in the sector face constant challenges of recruiting and retaining high-calibre staff. "It is not easy but it is a manageable challenge," says Ms Chow. SPARKS aimed at these high-performing and talented individuals provides learning and career opportunities, which attract people to American Express and then keep them there. Supporting this, Ms Chow notes that every employee who has been part of the programme is still with the company.

Evaluation tools to gauge the effectiveness of its policies come in many forms. Other than employee retention, American Express conducts one-on-one and group meetings between leaders and employees to share positive and constructive feedback and experiences at work. "Focus groups are another tool where we sit down with employees asking them what motivates them and whether there are any mornings when they didn't feel like coming to work. We then look at our company policies to see if we can address the problem," says Ms Chow.

The most obvious check of how a company is performing is by surveying its clients. For American Express the most positive aspect of its employee engagement focus is that it results in increased customer satisfaction. A series of research studies demonstrates a correlation between employee engagement and overall return to shareholders. Results such as this encourage American Express to reinvest more resources into their programmes, which is more good news for employees.

Best employer

The global presence of American Express opens the door to opportunities for worldwide exposure and development for its employees. "There are opportunities to work in overseas offices, even providing short-term assignments giving a broad based learning platform so when employees return from an overseas assignment they can apply their new skills back in the office," says Ms Chow.

Further encouragement for American Express and its focus on employee engagement came when it was included in Hewitt Associates' latest list of best employers in Hong Kong. The study revealed that people policies such as those developing career opportunities played the most important role in deciding the winners, even more so than salary level, which reassures American Express of the effectiveness of its policies.

Efficiency and productivity does not necessarily mean long working hours. It means individuals finding better ways of doing things. Coupled with the development programmes for its employees, American Express also implements a ''work-life balance" policy. It supports the notion that life extends beyond the office walls. The company offers flexible working hours to employees and understanding in times of need, allowing staff to take time off work. At American Express, each employee is given a display card with "work-life balance" on one side and "I leave on time today" on the other, giving employees a "licence" to leave work on time without any sense of guilt.

American Express' focus on employee engagement, career development, work-life balance and flexible hours creates a caring environment that not only is focused on growing the business but linking that to the welfare of its employees. By taking care of its employees' well-being, American Express provides a stimulating and enjoyable place to work for life.


Taken from Career Times 18 May 2007
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