Leading with Purpose: American Express’ Progress on Board Diversity

by Savoy Staff

Stephen J. Squeri, Chairman & CEO, American Express 

At American Express, we lead by our values, which are anchored in trust and respect – that we show to one another, that we demonstrate in the ways we back our customers and in the support we provide to our communities. This has been true for the past 36 years I have spent with the company, and it is my priority every day to make sure it holds true now and well into the future.

When I took the helm of the company in 2018, I knew it was paramount to lean on those core values to build this great company’s next chapter. One of the most valuable insights I have gained from my predecessor, Ken Chenault, former Chairman and CEO of American Express, was that businesses must continuously innovate and evolve to move forward and remain competitive. What gives rise to innovation is the interaction of different perspectives, backgrounds and beliefs. It is also about taking the time to listen, having  tough conversations and providing opportunities to succeed so that we can create meaningful, lasting change. Companies that do not foster diversity and inclusion are poised to become entrenched and fall behind – or as Ken would say, “Innovate or die.”

Ronald Williams, Lead Independent Director, American Express Board of Directors

This persistence and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion must start from the top. If we are truly living by our values, this must not only be exhibited by our leadership team and colleagues but also by our Board of Directors. For that reason, the Board and I made it a priority early on to ensure our Board reflects the kind of diverse and inclusive culture we are committed to fostering at American Express. The broader, stronger and more diverse the team, the better our results will be. Our Lead Independent Director Ronald Williams has been a tremendous partner to me throughout
the years, but I am particularly appreciative of his contributions on this front. Like me, Ron is a true believer and an ambassador of values-based leadership and has helped me drive our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion inside and outside the boardroom. Ron, along with the rest of the Board’s Nominating, Governance and Public Responsibility Committee, led by Peter Chernin, supported a highly effective succession planning process, which has enhanced the diversity of our Board’s composition over time, bringing on highly qualified, successful and influential leaders from different backgrounds with a range of invaluable viewpoints.

Since I became Chairman and CEO, we have added six new members to our Board; four of the six are Black and three of the six are women. These members significantly strengthened the diversity of our Board, not just in terms of gender, racial and ethnic representation, but also through their unique skill sets and expertise, as each brought a wealth of knowledge and experience in areas highly relevant to our business. Christopher Young, who joined our Board soon after my appointment in 2018, has strong technology and business development expertise; he was followed by Charles Phillips, who further strengthened our digital and technology leadership experience as we work to become an essential part of our customers’ digital lives. And earlier this year, we were joined by Thomas Baltimore, a renown veteran of the travel and lodging industry, and Lisa Wardell, who has deep experience in large-scale business transformations in the financial services sector.

Today, we are proud to have a strong Board of Directors; out of 15 Board members, nine (60%) are from diverse backgrounds in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, including five Black, one Hispanic and four women members. But we still have more to do. We’re not 100 percent of the way to comprehensive diversity and intersectional representation on our Board – yet. I believe we can make further progress in embracing different perspectives. When the Board’s Nominating, Governance and Public Responsibility Committee reviews potential Board nominees, it considers the holistic diversity of the Board, including gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation and nationality and does not discriminate on any basis.

In the boardroom, diversity manifests itself in many ways, both in our strategic business discussions and in how we go about managing the company. For example, our Board plays a key role in guiding our annual company scorecard, which we use to measure our performance on business priorities. Part of this scorecard focuses on colleagues, including specific goals for diversity, talent and culture. We reflect this strategic focus in our recruitment, hiring and promotion practices across the company to attract, develop and retain the best talent and enhance diverse representation among our colleagues. We feel encouraged by our progress to date, especially within our more senior ranks. In 2020, 56% of our Executive Committee were women or from diverse races and ethnic backgrounds, and nearly 10% of colleagues in senior roles, which we define as Senior Vice Presidents and above, in the United States were Black/African American.

At American Express, our decades-long commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels of our company has established a strong foundation of continual progress. But, last year’s events following George Floyd’s murder spurred a global awakening, reassessment and self-reflection, and we realized we needed to do more. Our Board is deeply engaged in conversations around our culture that guide our company’s DE&I and ESG strategy, priorities and actions. We had real and passionate conversations with the Board and executive leadership team on ways that we could advance our commitment, embrace our role in systemic change for underrepresented communities and have an even greater positive impact on our society.

These discussions, along with those we were having internally with our colleagues, caused us to take a hard look at all aspects of our business, including our colleague base, the way we operate and our impact on our communities. We created the Office of Enterprise Inclusion, Diversity and Business Engagement to focus and coordinate our efforts across the company and developed a comprehensive $1 billion action plan to drive meaningful and lasting change to create equal opportunities for people of all genders, races and ethnicities. Our Coalition to Back Black Businesses in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation is just one example of the initiatives included in our $1 billion commitment. This first-of-its-kind Coalition brought together the four Black chambers, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the National Business League, the U.S. Black Chambers Inc., and Walker’s Legacy, to support Black-owned small business recovery in the U.S., and has already provided $5,000 grants each to 565 Black-owned small businesses, of which 58% were Black women-owned businesses. We are proud to be part of this effort, which came together with the strong sponsorship of Anré Williams, Chief Executive Officer of American Express National Bank and Group President, Enterprise Services, who serves as the Executive Sponsor of our Black Engagement Network.

I am very proud of the progress we’ve made on our DE&I priorities at American Express and am grateful to be surrounded by a diverse group of deeply experienced Board members and senior leaders who make us stronger as a leadership team every day. But there is much more work to do. Before I took over, Ken Chenault was one of only four Black CEOs among Fortune 500 companies at the time. Unfortunately, that number remains stagnant to this day, underscoring the need to continue to invest in developing, recruiting and retaining Black leaders to make sure Corporate America reflects the rich diversity of our country. It is our collective responsibility to continue to advocate for progress toward a more equitable, diverse and inclusive future so that we can move forward stronger together as a society, and I am personally committed to this mission with my work at American Express and across the Boards and organizations of which I am a member.

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