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Financial Planning / Wealth Management

Helping "sparks" fly up the career ladder

by Carmen To

Florence Chow, vice president, HR relationship leader, East Asia, American Express Int'l Inc
Photo: Wallace Chan

Well-structured talent development plans pay dividends

The rapid development of Hong Kong's banking and finance industry calls for continuous upgrading of services and products. This may sound simple but in fact entails great changes across the general workforce.

In a bid to best meet the needs for professional talent, banking institutions are working hard to build and develop a talent pool. As a key player in the field, American Express is one of the pacesetters with its exclusive programme SPARKS.

"We are dedicated to stretchng our staff's potential to the full and help them sparkle," says Florence Chow, vice president, HR relationship leader, East Asia, American Express Int'l Inc.

SPARKS is a special talent-nurturing programme at American Express with four core elements built around the competitive advantages of the company, namely spend centric model, reward system, brand value and experienced management and talents. Combined together, these are the qualities that mainly give American Express its significant position in Hong Kong.

"To outperform others, we must be able to build and maintain a strong team that is creative and forward-looking," says Ms Chow. "We are committed to developing talents and equipping them with diverse skills and knowledge, letting them grow both horizontally and vertically. It is also very important to let them take ownership of their own careers but to help them choose the right path of development."

High potential

One of the key elements in talent development is leadership training. Under SPARKS, experienced mentors pair with 10 talented young professionals demonstrating high potential as future leaders who have been singled out for specialised training to further expand their skills in a particular area of the company's business.

These potential leaders are assigned to take part in specialised workshops to strengthen their skills in negotiation, presentation, project management and influencing. Experience-sharing sessions with senior leaders enrich their newly acquired knowledge. Meanwhile, they are given 12 to 18 months to build their networks and develop the competencies necessary for them to ultimately take up bigger and more important roles. Certificates are given to those who successfully complete the programme. "It acts as an incentive to show others what they too can achieve," Ms Chow adds.

Talent gaps

At American Express, talent gaps are identified at the same time as business plans and strategies are devised. "Aligned with our business needs, we identify the skill sets and the kinds of talent we need to grow the business," Ms Chow explains. "Then the next question is whether we have the necessary quality and quantity of talents at hand. If we don't, we will ask ourselves a number of questions. For example, should we build them from within, buy them from other companies or borrow them from our overseas offices? In terms of succession planning, we will evaluate the readiness of each potential successor. The final question is how we should bridge those talent gaps to drive our business."

Building competency has always been a priority in American Express. An evaluation tool called "Nine Box" has been designed to assess the performance and potential of each individual employee. These ratings are built on a progressive low-medium-high scale which in turn helps to define the appropriate development plan for the particular talent. Employees placed in box number one are regarded as high performers with high potential and will have a robust development plan.

Internal networking

As Ms Chow emphasises, American Express takes a people-oriented approach in developing its talents. Apart from setting an annual career development and growth plan for each individual, the company places great importance on internal relationships and networking. The Women's Interest Group is an example of an internal networking group within American Express in Hong Kong. The organisers are female but all staff are welcome to join activities such as yoga, cookery, and stress management seminars.

These activities also provide staff the opportunities to mix with colleagues from different departments and offices. In turn they learn about one another's role in the company's operations, which facilitates communications within the company and increases efficiency.

Competency focus

  • Developing winning strategies
  • Driving results
  • Focusing on customers & clients
  • Driving innovation and change
  • Building and leveraging relationships
  • Communicating effectively
  • Building diverse talent
  • Demonstrating personal excellence



Taken from Career Times 09 March 2007

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