Kathleen McCarthy is currently Senior Vice President and Chief Talent Officer for American Express, leading the Global Talent Acquisition and Management team. Early in 2013, Kathleen was tasked with creating an integrated talent management organization that looks after the employee lifecycle. Prior to American Express, Kathleen acted as the Global Head of Talent Management and Acquisition at Thomson Reuters, having cut her teeth at both McKinsey and Bain.
Christy Mommsen joined American Express in 2013 as the Director of Branding and Marketing Communication. She has overseen the relaunch of the global Careers website, now translated in 7 languages and optimized for mobile technology. Christy holds an MBA from Columbia University and has lectured at both New York University and the University of Wisconsin. Previous to American Express, Christy worked in consumer marketing, most recently in the role of Senior Director of Global Marketing and New Product Innovation at Philips.
The journey for American Express began 6 years ago with a request to reimagine how the company went about talent acquisition. One of the most obvious issues was an outdated Careers website, which was suffering from aging and uninspiring visuals, as well as a clunky user experience. For example when entering the site, only two options were provided for visitors to indicate where they lived, either within or outside of the US. Such a binary choice did not reconcile with the diversity of regions where American Express operated and potentially left applicants wondering how seriously the company considered its overseas operations.
Yet, the Careers website was just the tip of the iceberg. What was required was a complete rethinking of the talent acquisition strategy. Kathleen encouraged the business to take a step back and consider the fundamentals of how American Express promoted itself to potential talent and the types of individuals that the company targeted. She aspired to create an Employer Brand that would be on equal footing with its consumer brand. This was ambitious to say the least, as American Express consistently ranks as one of the most well known and respected brands worldwide.
Up until this point, talent acquisition at American Express was opportunistic. Strong talent in core business areas, such as marketing or consumer care, were naturally attracted to American Express and considered the company as a destination employer. When 2008 rolled around, this laissez-faire approach to recruiting was no longer sustainable. In the wake of the financial crisis, the CEO announced a change in corporate strategy to focus more heavily on digital payments, with direct implications for the type of talent that American Express needed to hire. Technology experts were in demand, but usually did not consider working for American Express. The stakes were high, as failing to create a new pipeline of talent would have direct implications for fulfilling the corporate strategy.
Taking stock of the work ahead of her, Kathleen recognized that the business needed to move away from either a geographic or business line approach to talent acquisition. Due to the underwhelming Careers website, a variety of recruiters set up their own landing pages to serve their local markets. Others took a different approach and focused on line of business. Although the job opportunities advertised might have made sense to internal talent, they had little chance of resonating with candidates outside of the company.
Kathleen's goal was to a establish a "brand promise that would have relevance across geographies and business units, "while providing a consistent experience for internal and external talent. Kathleen made the decision to embrace the company's heritage of what makes for a great consumer brand and applied it towards talent acquisition. Recognizing the power of the American Express brand, she knew that whatever Employer Brand they landed on would have to align to the larger organization.
Having worked in consumer marketing, Christy points out that "the process followed should be approximately the same for the two types of branding." The attention and rigor applied to the consumer brand should apply to the Employer Brand, especially when the stakes are high. She advises that a combination of qualitative, quantitative, and third party research drives a holistic perspective. At American Express, Christy regularly consults trends in the consumer and Employer Brands, pulse surveys about employee sentiment (broken down by business unit, geography, and key talent), industry trends, and competitor analysis, as well as conducts focus groups and interviews when new campaigns are launched.
Of the more notable trends uncovered recently by Christy is a disconnect between the public perception of American Express as an employer (specifically, that it provides a strong work-life balance) and the desires of high potentials already working within the company. Knowing that high potentials value meaningful work above work-life balance, she goes against the tide and actively messages the quality of work to prospective employees. As a second example, she uncovered that technology experts sometimes misread and overlooked recruitment advertisements, failing to see the relevance for them specifically in working at American Express.
The Employer Brand at American Express was defined as Challenging Work with a Purpose and is something that both Christy and Kathleen believe strongly that American Express can deliver on. Keeping true to this core brand, individual campaigns were launched to make the brand tangible and easy to understand. For example, a recent campaign titled For a Living focused on the Purpose component of the brand, headlining all the ways employees at American Express made a difference to their customers and the broader community. By focusing on the impact of their work, from protecting against fraud to delivering money thousands of miles away, employees demonstrated that their jobs had purpose. The campaign utilized a combination of videos and testimonials to make the content resonate with current and future employees.
In managing the Employer Brand, Christy segments her audiences, considering both the information they would like to receive and how they would like to receive it. As mentioned earlier, American Express is in the midst of a digital transformation that has required the company to compete for highly skilled technologists. To get potential applicants to take notice of American Express as an employer, a campaign titled Powered by Innovation, Engineered by You expresses what life is like as a technical expert at this particular moment in time. Specifically, employees have a unique opportunity to create products and systems that will transform how payments are conducted, touching the lives of millions of customers globally.
Christy’s goal was to ensure that the best technical talent recognized this opportunity and would seriously consider working for the company. By using a highly targeted campaign, Christy was careful not to compete against the "fundamental truth" about what it means to work at American Express. The campaign serves up plenty of Challenge and Purpose, acting as one translation of the Employer Brand.
Since 2006, American Express is reaping the benefits of a thoughtful and professional talent acquisition strategy. Although there is still work to be done for creating a healthy pipeline of highly sought after talent, their Employer Brand has made them competitive against other destination employers. The magnitude of the change extends far beyond talent acquisition. Defining an Employer Brand helped Kathleen express an unified vision for an integrated talent management strategy. Knowing what attracted and retained the best talent provided the groundwork for virtually all other talent management activities.
Key to the success of American Express was recognizing that talent acquisition could not be approached from a project perspective. To sustain the brand and ensure consistency, on-going investment was required. Quantitative data was balanced with the qualitative in developing an EVP, while consistency was strived for across geographies and business units. Memorable campaigns, that were extensions of the core brand rather than competing against it, were created around authentic employee experiences to build transparency and trust.
Through their hard work and dedication, Kathleen and Christy have created an Employer Brand that meaningfully contributes to the reputation of American Express and complements its consumer brand. They have set a standard we should all aspire towards.
For more insight on Talent Acquisition, check out Chapter 2 of Misplaced Talent: A Guide to Better People Decisions, available at Amazon (www.amazon.com/gp/product/1119030943) and Barnes & Noble (www.barnesandnoble.com/w/misplaced-talent-joe-ungemah/1120747931?ean=9781119030942).