Samantha Hammock is helping American Express staff innovate and compete in a new technological age.
American Express has entered a new season—one of fresh leadership and growth. With that comes new talent development needs.
Known for a long history of strong performance, outstanding customer service, and elite rewards, American Express—under the guidance of former Chairman and CEO Ken Chenault—became a leading credit card issuer in the United States. After 17 years at the helm, he retired in early 2018, and Stephen Squeri, the company's then vice chairman, took over.
Just six months before this major leadership change, Samantha Hammock stepped into the role of chief learning officer. As CLO and vice president of global talent, leadership, and learning, she is well-positioned to support Squeri's leadership focus.
"My role ties to our new CEO's ideas for a leadership model that is forward-looking and anticipatory," says Hammock.
On a recent call with investors, Squeri said American Express is "moving into a period of growth." He told investors his priorities include digital innovation, shoring up the company's position in the premium consumer market, and expanding its share of commercial payments globally.
Going forward, American Express must contend with new developments in payment technology, risk management in the digital age, the buying behavior of people using mobile devices, and the challenges of digital customer care. The company also faces aggressive competitors in the payment space, such as Chase and Citi, and major players in Asia, such as China's Alipay.
American Express is already developing new products for the digital age. In late 2018, it announced the Australian launch of American Express Go, a virtual payments solution to help mid- and large-size companies more efficiently handle the business expenses of temporary workers, contractors, and general employees. American Express Go enables businesses to quickly issue a unique virtual card straight to a mobile wallet that can be used in person, online, over the phone, or as a form of payment in another app, such as food delivery or ride-sharing services. It integrates with Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay for contactless payments.
Developments like this require a new generation of innovation-minded employees with new skill sets, such as the ability to use predictive analytics to create breakthrough products. This is where Hammock is helping American Express.
Hammock is continually looking through a predictive lens. "I think L&D in general often operates in a reactive manner, developing skills after a business has already experienced a gap. We're moving to a predictive model steeped in research about future skills. My focus is on developing enterprise talent for the future. Our goal is to look five years ahead at what the enterprise wants to deliver strategically and then determine the skills needed to make that happen," she explains.
For Hammock, thinking about enterprise talent involves looking at capabilities that cut across the business regardless of what function a person is in. "We want to be able to proactively understand what skills are going to be advantageous to the company in the future."
One of Hammock's top projects is conducting internal research on the future of work at American Express. Her team is examining the functions and roles across the organization in the context of how smart technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and robotics will influence them. "We expect to leverage technologies to take over repeatable tasks and free up our colleagues to do higher-level work," she explains. "We expect people's relationship with technology to become more collaborative over time."
Leadership development at American Express is already tied to the future. "Our research continues to confirm that leadership and management skills are going to be critical to our business success as work changes for everyone in the future," says Hammock.
The company launched the American Express Leadership Academy in 2017—an intensive, formal leadership development program targeted at 15,000 next-generation leaders within the company. "We pride ourselves on being a company that grows great leaders," she says.
In addition to preparing leaders for the future, Hammock is responsible for creating talent readiness across the company, covering all aspects of employees' career journeys. "Skills have a half-life today of less than four years, so we need to strive for development based on predictable capabilities for the future," Hammock explains. "We don't want to be constantly racing to attract talent. Our purpose is to ensure talent readiness at every career stage—being ready for a new role or a promotion."
To prepare to take on this challenge, Hammock spent time reviewing processes such as training needs analysis. "That's when it struck me that we were reacting to business demands but had the knowledge to be predictive. We have the ability to gain insights into what skills our people will need in the future. We're telling the businesses what skills they need to develop now, instead of waiting for them to come to us for help because they are behind."
Her team members partner with internal business leaders and executives to design development experiences, making sure they address the skills and capabilities that make people ready for the future. "Designing in partnership with them is really crucial to the success of the programs we develop."
When thinking about the people she wants in her organization, Hammock looks for an aptitude for and a drive to learn. "What you've already learned is not as important to me as it used to be. Deep expertise is fine as long as you have the aptitude to continue to evolve. I believe that skills are less and less static all the time."
Future of the profession
Hammock foresees talent development professionals needing many of the same skills as other leaders in an organization. These include complex reasoning and critical-thinking skills, creativity, and socio-emotional intelligence—skills that the American Express Leadership Academy program teaches future leaders.
"I think we will continue to see the shift of the function to the highest levels in organizations," she shares. She also believes that learning will be defined more broadly than in the past, noting that a decade ago, learning was synonymous with classroom or online training and little else.
"People have the capacity now to seek knowledge on their own, using social collaboration tools and search engines." In her opinion, these new approaches to learning are happening across all generations. "In their personal lives, people of all ages gain information at the touch of a button on their smart devices. They bring that expectation of instant access to information into the workplace. I often tell my team, ‘If I can find something online, let's not re-create that internally.'"
Hammock thinks the heavy reliance on learning management systems as repositories of a company's total learning offerings needs to change. "LMSs have tended to be static and linear in the way they approach learning objects, and the pace of change is so rapid we need to assess and update learning constantly." She sees the practice of loading content on an LMS once a year as too infrequent. She notes there is a tendency to put in broad topics or information that people could find on their own much more quickly and easily than via an LMS. Hammock would like to see LMSs take better advantage of AI to drive personalized content. "They contain all the data they need to be able to do that," she states.
Despite these noted shortcomings, LMSs are useful for record keeping. "I work in a highly regulated industry, and I need to track who has access to what learning and to keep track of completions and such."
Regarding the role of AI in the learning space, Hammock sees it evolving rapidly, and she recommends digital fluency training programs for talent development professionals as well as for the people they serve in their organizations.
"There's great value in understanding the impact of these technologies on the talent development role. Reskilling and upskilling are more important than ever. I believe that to be true regardless of what role you are in."
Grounded in the present
Even though Hammock is focused on the future, she also looks at current results. She likes to say that people are the company and investment in them will always drive business growth. However, she also looks at concrete indicators of results, such as retention of the right people, achieving goals at a higher rate, and improving engagement scores.
"When you have clarity about your priorities and goals and the objectives of your learning programs, creating measurements around those is much simpler than thinking about the overall ROI for the entire L&D investment and budget," she says. In her role as CLO, Hammock will have ample opportunity to drive the evolution of skills at American Express.
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