Samantha Hammock, Chief Learning Officer at American Express: How to think bigger about leadership
Hear from Samantha Hammock, the Chief Learning Officer at American Express, about how they’re enabling great feedback, prioritizing leadership development for all, preparing for the future of work, and more.
Over to Samantha!
On how she got into HR and why it’s an exciting career today:
People who succeed in HR today are curious about the business and can directly connect the work they’re doing to business goals.
Like many, I ended up in HR unintentionally. I have a finance background and was asked to lead a training program. It opened my eyes to the fact that investments we make in people are the key to driving business results. After that experience, I transitioned to HR and I’ve been there ever since — and, I can’t imagine being in any other function.
I love that HR is now seen as a strategic partner in the business. People who succeed in HR today are curious about the business and can directly connect the work they’re doing to business goals. It’s no longer viewed as a soft skill that’s confined to the sidelines; it’s core to achieving success – financially and competitively.
On a relationship-based culture:
We are a people firm. We care how people are treated and how they lead. We nurture great leaders at all levels of the company, not just those in official people manager roles. We just launched a leadership academy and it’s for everyone. Collaboration is critical to great leadership and we believe that “nothing gets done alone.”
On achievement and leadership being equally valuable:
How you achieve your goals and how you lead are equally important.
American Express has a framework for winning and puts the strategic imperatives of the company and our leadership model on equal footing. How you achieve your goals and how you lead are equally important. They’re even equal in our performance ratings: What type of leader you are and the goals you achieve are 50-50. We care what you deliver, and we really care how you do it.
On the future of work:
Most leadership development only readies a small portion of your population, but we’re focused on scalable leadership development for everyone.
It’s obvious that tech is changing, growing, and rapidly solving for various things. And because of that, our roles and jobs are changing. The work we need to do is changing. My team is focusing on the development component of the future of work. No matter how much we hear facts and statistics like there will be 30% unemployment because of robots taking over, I think being human will be more important than ever. We’re doubling down and investing in leadership and human skills. With technology integrating into almost every job, leading with a human touch in this environment is paramount. Most leadership development only readies a small portion of your population, but we’re focused on scalable leadership development for everyone.
On living your leadership principles:
Our leadership model is built around specific behaviors, and we’ve spent the past year thinking about how we bring them to life and make them tangible rather than just writing them down. It's been a fun journey. We ask the question, “how do we make it real? But we also say, how do you make it yours?” Because leadership is not cookie cutter.
One simple but tremendously powerful thing we’ve done is used a leader-teacher principal — hearing it from the voices of our own leaders. We hold leadership studios, and we invite everyone to hear one of our senior leaders talk about which of the leadership behaviors they’re personally working on. They ask people to hold them accountable to what they’ve declared too, so it’s not just words, it’s a commitment to embedding those behaviors.
We all know that giving and receiving feedback is critical to being a great leader. But why do we struggle to give and get great feedback? Our leaders have illuminated a core problem, which is that feedback requests are typically too general. When you ask, “Do you have any feedback for me?” you’ll often get “No, it was great.”
One of our leaders decided to strike “Do you have any feedback for me?” from her vocabulary. Instead she asks, “What did I do well in there?” and also “What should I have done differently?” That tiny tweak — asking more specific questions — has caught on quickly, and drastically changed the quality and quantity of feedback people are receiving.
On her advice for people coming into HR today:
Two things: One, think and act like you're part of the business. I seek out this behavior. It’s crucial for me to see curiosity about the business in candidates when I interview and hire. Second, up-skill yourself to be more data-driven. Across all the roles in HR, using data to influence your strategy and decision-making is really powerful.
On a modern career structure and her current book recommendation:
I have been recommending “The 100-Year Life” by Lynda Gratton all over the place. It's about the fact that we're all living longer lives than before — not to 70, but to 100 — and the impact it has on the environment, the economy, and us as people. I didn’t read it for HR purposes initially, but then I looked at it through the lens of the workplace, and it's quite intriguing.
Everything about our lives has changed except how careers are structured.
The way we structure careers is the same way we did it in the 1940s. Everything about our lives has changed except how careers are structured. And we have untapped demographics in work now. We have people with young families who are reentering the workforce. We also have people retiring in their 60s who are going to live for another 40 years. They're not ready to be done working. How do we modify the career framework to meet their needs and passions, but also fill what could be a sweet spot for companies? We don’t have it solved, but we’re thinking about it.
Want more recommended reads for HR?
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This is the third installment of our blog series, “Employee Experience Visionaries.” In each post, we feature highlights from a conversation with an HR thought leader on company culture, employee engagement, HR’s evolving role, and so much more. Read the previous posts in the series from BuzzFeed’s Chief People Officer, Lenke Taylor and Dean Carter, Patagonia’s Chief HR Officer
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