The Female Leaders of Tomorrow: Interview with Hannah Lewis from AMEX

At Finance Monthly, we love a female success story and this month, we introduce you to Hannah Lewis - UK Country Manager at American Express.

In her role, Hannah leads all operations in the UK and a workforce of nearly 6,000 team members. She’s involved in everything from growing the company’s Cardmember base, to further expanding its network and the number of places Cardmembers can use their Amex card, to enhancing B2B payments proposition and strengthening local strategic partnerships.

Hannah is also incredibly passionate about ensuring American Express remains one of the best places to work and has an inclusive and welcoming culture where all team members can thrive.

Tell us about your career and the things that have led you to your recent appointment as UK Country Manager for American Express.

I started out in my career in strategy consulting, and it was here where I was first introduced to the dynamic world of payments. I was attracted by the huge opportunity for transformation – everyone needs payments but at the time there was still a big offline volume. While there was potential for significant innovation it’s also a complex space and not something any consumer really wants to spend time on and that challenge really attracted me. That led me to American Express, with a brand and culture I admire and a customer centric approach that has consistently driven innovation.

And I’m still here 14 years later! I think I joined with the expectation of being with the business for only a couple of years, not appreciating the depth and breadth of the organisation and the opportunities I would have to grow my experience and my career. In my time, I’ve worked in our consumer, merchant and commercial teams, among others and have really enjoyed that opportunity to move around the business. Not only has this meant there has never been a dull day, but it’s also helped me to broaden my skills and diversify my expertise. The holistic insight I have of the business is something that is really valuable for me in my current role.

By hiring people from all backgrounds and perspectives, we can enrich our workplaces, our understanding and how we can best serve our customers. It makes our business stronger.

As a woman leader in the financial services sector, what do you think should be done to achieve better gender equality in financial services leadership?

For me there are two key things. Firstly, I think as an industry we need to move beyond broad commitments to more tangibly measuring progress and setting ambitious targets which we are open about to meaningfully move the needle.

Secondly, I think we need to really challenge ourselves to bring more women into the industry at all levels and to take a chance on people with slightly different skills sets or backgrounds. We will struggle to make progress particularly at senior levels, if we don’t do this and in the meantime businesses will miss out on a really valuable diversity of perspectives and ideas.

I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made at American Express. If I think about things like the number of women working at a senior level, it’s consistently gone up. And from a recruitment perspective, we’ve made huge progress in working to attract individuals from all backgrounds. – For now, and in planning for the future, it’s so important to think about how you are encouraging people from all backgrounds and groups to see the business as a place that they want to work.

How do you encourage younger women who aspire to pursue leadership roles in finance?

I believe women role models are important and we should work to spotlight them and their experiences. It isn’t a naturally comfortable spot for me but I do feel the responsibility and recognise the role that I can play by talking openly about my own journey, my vulnerabilities, and experience to help other women in the industry.

On an individual level mentoring can also be incredibly beneficial. I’m lucky that I’ve had some incredible colleagues and mentors from a range of backgrounds and experiences to learn from throughout my career, including some of my team. Their support has not only encouraged and helped me to navigate my career, but it’s also fuelled my own aspirations and ambitions.

Finally, I believe we all have to get more confident in voicing our ambitions and asking for support.  We launched the Ambition Project to inspire women to confidently pursue their ambitions, whether personal or professional, and pay it forward. Earlier this year we conducted a global study on women’s relationship with ambition and found that only 31% of professional women around the world said they are proud to call themselves ambitious whilst only 32% said they were confident they could actually achieve those ambitions in their careers. Given that, it’s imperative that we do all that we can to help normalise and the conversation on women’s ambition. It can be exposing but you are much better off stating an ambition and hearing constructive and sometimes difficult feedback early that you can act on, than holding back and not hearing that until it’s too late.

How can industry transparency help progress D&I?

In my view it’s a no-brainer: transparency about progress being made and being prepared to be held to account is key to making demonstrable progress on diversity, equity and inclusion. At American Express, the number of women in senior management positions now stands at 47% and we are proud to disclose our workforce diversity data on median pay gap, hiring, promotion and retention by gender globally. But, in addition to the data, you need transparency and openness in your culture so that everyone feels they belong and can thrive. There’s no single answer on such an important topic but a willingness to talk openly about progress, and to acknowledge where and when you have more to do is a critical step. At Amex we have launched a voluntary Self-Identification programme, which gathers data on colleagues around how they identify, to help us to ensure we are meeting our commitments as well as help to inform our strategies. It’s not a solution in itself but as colleagues become more comfortable sharing their data it will be a critical enabler to drive change.

What is American Express doing to encourage people from all backgrounds?

By hiring people from all backgrounds and perspectives, we can enrich our workplaces, our understanding and how we can best serve our customers. It makes our business stronger. That’s why we have inclusive recruitment practices to ensure we are sourcing talent from all backgrounds.

Retention of that talent is of course also key. Creating an inclusive work environment where all colleagues feel they belong, ensuring that their contributions are valued and their voices are heard, is a huge priority for us at American Express – we want a welcoming culture where everyone can thrive.

Externally, we’re also really proud to have partnered with charity Blueprint for All to provide tools, support and encouragement for 18–30-year-olds in the UK from a diverse ethnic heritage to pursue a career in financial services.

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