Learning from AMEX: How Initiatives Can Drive Employee Engagement

Social media has been a godsend to a lot of us who love great content — although being told by someone what they had for breakfast does NOT count.

The amount of fruitful information you have access to is like nothing that you could have dreamed of years ago. Twitter, Facebook, and Google are just great tools. One of my mainstays is “Google alert.” To the uninitiated, it allows you to create a search “alert,” and then you will get the information when something is posted within the realm of your alert.

At times, the amount of articles you get sent from an “alert” can be overwhelming, but every so often, you read one that resonates. Last week, there was one that really stood out for me: “American Express commits $25 million to Leadership Development.” Because I have a background in training and development, I was awed by the amount of funds being committed. My thoughts ran to the kind of  leadership development program that could be designed when money is not an object.

So much for reading the headlines.

Philanthropy and employee engagement

The press release stated that AMEX committed this amount to build a leadership academy for servicing non-profits. This grant was an extension of the company’s philanthropic commitment to developing emerging leaders within the non-profit sector with a five-year, $25 million funding commitment. The additional funds will be used to expand the American Express Leadership Academy and build partnerships with well-known leadership organizations including the Center for Creative Leadership

As I read this release, I had a great feeling for AMEX. What a company! I can only imagine how the employees felt. Being associated with a company that is committed to giving back in such a substantial way has to make their employees feel good. And, this type of effort had to really move the engagement needle.

There are so many articles being written today about engagement and its effect on companies, because many organizations have (or are suffering through) an engagement deficit. Many of these same companies are strategizing on how and where to begin, asking “How do we approach this when there are so many different angles to approach?”

Philanthropy could have a direct relation to your employees well being without the added cost in a lot of cases. The days of corporate philanthropy and of just writing the big checks, or putting on charity auctions and black tie gala, is becoming a thing of the past.

Not just a check, but connecting with the community

Smart companies today are looking to not just write the check but to also connect with their communities in a way that benefits both the non-profit and the company. With the added awareness of corporate social responsibility (CSR), companies are creating a new model of philanthropy that engages employees in the philanthropic process.

This model, known as skills-based volunteering or volunteer-based employee engagement, is being used by an increasing number of companies today.

At Martha Stewart Living, our then CEO, Susan Lyne, created a volunteer program. Each employee was granted three (3) days per year they could use to volunteer. Her mission was to have the employees give back to their communities, and in the process, support their passion.  As you might imagine, this program was a tremendous success.

As part of that process, we adopted a high school in New York City  — New York School of Art & Design. We hosted two in-service training days for the teachers in conjunction with the NYC Board of Education. These sessions allowed our designers to present the actual design process framework that the company uses.

Article Continues Below

Our designers became more involved with working on assignments throughout the year at the high school. And the piece de resistance was our Chief Creative Officer, Gail Towey, giving the commencement address that year. This initiative allowed us to connect with our employees, with deserving and impressionable students, and with the Board of Education.

We also coordinated some group level activities around various volunteer efforts. One of the most successful was something called “Operation Backpack.” Operation Backpack provides school supplies to nearly 11,000 kids who live with their families in the city’s homeless shelters. We always captured photos of these type events to use during our onboarding program.

A tremendous effect on employees

The Director of the Martha Stewart Living Foundation, Jean Graham, gave the most fantastic presentation about the foundation’s mission and values, what we were funding, and how they as employees could play a role by volunteering. [Disclaimer: I was a founding board member of this foundation.]

All these initiatives had a tremendous effect on our employees, especially the newly hired ones. The connectivity was amazing; we successfully connected our Foundation to our employee engagement effort.

“Developing the next generation of leaders in the non-profit sector will help a wide range of organizations meet the needs of the communities where we live and work. In addition to our philanthropic dollars, we will also be connection our non-profit partners with employee volunteers across the country and drafting our executives to share their insights at Leadership academies in the years ahead,” said Ken Chenault, AMEX Chairman and CEO.

As organizations struggle with employee engagement numbers — which are at historical lows — we look for big initiatives to make a difference. However sometimes, we can just look within.

Every solution is not heavy lifting. Every solution will not be a cure all. But, enough small wins will definitely start the process.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.