Coaching Teams for Results at American Express

Coaching Teams for Results at American Express

Many global companies launch action-learning projects for their high-potential talent. Typically the main desired outcomes are:

  • Engage high potentials in challenging business problems to develop creative solutions
  • Build the leadership pipeline through accelerated experiential development
  • Retain critical talent by providing exclusive growth opportunity

With the best of intentions, some of these projects get launched but don't deliver the intended outcomes. In many cases, organisations don't get the return on their investments and even run the risk of demotivating the participants.

Over the past two years, Organisation Solutions has been partnering with American Express on their Strategic Task Force initiative, which brings together a selected set of high potentials to work on a critical challenge. Our approach, SLP (Strategic Learning Project) methodology, provides comprehensive guidance on all aspects of successful project delivery while creating a learning environment for the team members.

So far, three projects have been successfully completed, and a fourth is getting ready for launch.

Below is a recap of this journey with highlights and key learnings from American Express (HR Directors, Project Team Members, and leaders) as well as my (SLP coach) recommendations for successful action learning projects.

The Beginning of the Journey

To give us the context on how they decided to kick off this initiative and why they selected SLP as their solution, here is my conversation with Alex Kershaw, the HR Director who launched the initiative.

Alex, let's start with the context. What led you to this initiative?

Our main priorities are engagement, retention, and development of top talent. In a market where there is slow growth, the career opportunities don't come very fast. We had to think about multiple challenges:

How do we enable our leaders to get to know the talent outside of their businesses?
How do we create opportunities for talent to move around?
How do we make our talent more employable by giving them exposure to different parts of the organisation?
How do we engage, retain, and develop our talent?
How do we drive the business objective of growth as well as talent development?

I wanted to help build capabilities, and provide breadth and growth. It was important to stretch and develop our talent. At the same time, I was wondering if talent development and business growth could be addressed together by creating strategic project opportunities, which we are not always resourced to take on.

It sounds like you'd really given this a lot of thought. It is great that you started with the "why". How did it all come together in the end?

I started socialising this idea with the leadership team. Finally, at an offsite about growth, it all came together. We discussed what we needed to do differently to drive growth, and identified where collaboration opportunities existed. This resulted in a list of projects. Next was the decision to pick the most impactful project opportunities and put our best talent on those to move forward. It all came together like a perfect storm.

What made you decide on SLP as your preferred solution?

To go forward, we needed a clear scope and structure. Without a structure it would not have felt formal, and we could have run the risk of the talent and projects being derailed. It was also important for me that the program had credibility as a development and growth opportunity. Creating a partnership with an external firm, and using a proven methodology, provided the credibility, structure and formality we needed to set us up for success.

We looked at multiple tools, and SLP ticked all these boxes for us. It also kept it strategic and practical. Our purpose and what the offering provided was completely aligned.

Insights from the Journey

Project selection criteria is the key to success

The leadership team selects the best opportunities for the organisation and decides which of these would drive the biggest impact and have the highest probability for achievement.

Team members think projects work best when the problem to solve is well defined, specific, and leaves room for creative and strategic thinking. They say that it needs to be about breaking new ground. It is important to choose a project that gives space to play with new things.

Main considerations for future projects

First, scoping is key. Choosing an exciting project is one thing, but if the scope isn't clear, it can't be achieved. The scope needs to be described in detail from the get go, and then the team needs to hold their ground against scope creep. They all recognise how easy it is to want to achieve more and lose sight. The consensus is that having a methodology in place helps keep things on track.

Second, leaders and HR add that it is critical to pay enough attention to the execution beyond the project team. What success looks like needs to be emphasised clearly, and the success criteria should be stated.

Highlights of the experience

From the participants' perspective, it is really an advantage to see how the rest of the company works. They build experience outside of their immediate business line, obtain a big picture view of the company, and collaborate with colleagues from different parts of the business. The process helps them build new knowledge and skills.

They also get great exposure to the leadership team, increase their network, and enjoy the teamwork with their project team members. Even for the ones who don't enjoy the limelight, moving out of their comfort zone and being recognised is seen as a plus.

As for the leaders, they really enjoy getting to know the talent and witnessing their individual growth. This familiarity also helps them have productive talent discussions and create movement across the business. They recognise this as an opportunity to break through the silos. It also excites them to get some valuable insights and solutions to tough challenges.

The Future of the Journey

Finally, to bring us to the present day and share the reasons for continuing with the initiiative, below is my conversation with Joanna Miller, the HR Director getting ready for the next project challenge.

Joanna, you are getting ready to launch your fourth project. I am so happy to see that there is still strong commitment from you and the leadership team. What are some of the benefits that make you a supporter of this process?

I feel like we've achieved all the intended outcomes. The team members increased their exposure and visibility. As a leadership team, we got to know the talent on a personal level and had a chance to observe them in action. Approximately 50% of the talent from the projects either received a promotion or made a lateral move across the lines of business. That is a powerful benefit from the program, from a talent management and career development perspective.

It also creates new pathways of awareness. Everyone involved ends up thinking about solutions that they otherwise wouldn't due to their interactions with team members from other lines of business and due to the problem they are solving. The whole really becomes more than the sum of its parts.

The participants get some critical experience like presenting to executives, managing stakeholders, collaborating across groups, and developing strategic skills.

In Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed our journey and found it useful. Below are some points I would like to share for anyone who is involved in action learning projects:

  • Start with the need, the WHY. American Express decided to implement the SLP as a potential solution to address some of their key challenges. Do not lead with the activity; lead with the need.
  • Sponsorship and commitment from the leadership team is key. This makes or breaks the projects. I have seen many exciting launches with no follow up from the sponsors, which leaves the teams frustrated. American Express had incredible dedication from their senior leadership team in terms of support and availability. Teams were given easy and continuous access.
  • Assign a real problem with real achievement potential. Ensure there is balance between challenge and achievement. American Express had an impact vs. achievement matrix, which proved to be very helpful.
  • Have a well-defined scope with a clear vision for desired outcome. Teams usually embark into unknown territory with these projects. It is important to have a well-defined scope to set them up for success, as well as a clear vision for what success looks like. What are they solving for and what is the end goal?
  • Structure helps. Having a methodology helps the team move with minimum distraction. Have clear roles, clear flow, and clear milestones. Being exposed to a set of questions to explore, as well as different ways of approaching problems helps participants build muscles that they normally don't have the time to develop in daily work. At American Express we tried both. Teams struggled less when structure was applied.
  • Emphasise learning. Experience does not automatically lead to learning. Encourage team members to think specifically about their learning progress. In the case of SLP, there is a coach assigned with regular check-ins who helps with this process.
  • Have a formal completion for the project, touch base on the experience, and celebrate. Help teams have clear closure on the assignment, address their expectations, and celebrate the journey. These are your high potentials. Leave on a happy note.

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