Why Many Leaders Don’t Build Inclusive Cultures And How AMEX Aims To Change That


Most of us have heard a great deal in the news about how organizations are attempting to build diverse, inclusive cultures. Yet thousands upon thousands of employees have shared openly on social media and other avenues that their experiences at these organizations are anything but inclusive. A Latino senior colleague of mine, for instance, recently explained to me how his former (well-known) organization touted their great progress in diversity, yet his day-to-day experiences, and those of his Latino colleagues, were continually fraught with exclusionary and discriminatory messages and behaviors from leaders and others.

To learn more about how leaders and organizations can actually walk the talk, do more than pay lip service, and build truly inclusive cultures, I was excited to catch up this week with Sonia Cargan, Chief Diversity Officer of American Express. In this role, Cargan is responsible for the global diversity and inclusion strategy and ensuring that American Express remains an employer of choice among top diverse talent.

Cargan shares below her perspectives on concrete steps to build diverse, inclusive cultures, and why she’s so passionate about leading this charge.

Kathy Caprino: Sonia, what’s the difference between diversity programs and programs focused on inclusion?

Sonia Cargan: Diversity is about representation, creating an organization that reflects a community or the customers you serve. Inclusion on the other hand is about ensuring you are creating a culture in which diverse employees have a voice and feel like they belong.

These two concepts go hand in hand. If you have a diverse employee base and you don’t have inclusion, chances are you are not going to keep those diverse employees for very long or they won’t have as much impact on your business as you’d like. Organizations have to work on both issues simultaneously to be successful, which means most diversity and inclusion programs serve both purposes.

Additionally, the key to unlocking the organizational benefits of diversity is through inclusion. Research from Deloitte shows that “diversity + inclusion = better business outcomes.” According to Deloitte’s research, organizations with inclusive cultures are two times as likely to meet or exceed financial targets and six times as likely to be innovative and agile.

We believe that a diverse and inclusive workforce provides a competitive advantage in the marketplace and serves as the foundation to drive our business transformation. We want the talent we recruit and develop at every level to come from all walks of life.

Our diversity and inclusion strategy is designed to increase the diversity of our talent in order to reflect the next generation workforce and the customers we serve and promote an inclusive culture in which differences are embraced and colleagues are enabled to reach their full potential.

Caprino: Why do so many organizations and leaders fail at building successful cultures that are both diverse and inclusive?

Cargan: As you’ve identified, culture is key. For many years, organizations were talking about the importance of diversity but they weren’t examining the experience of diverse employees in an organization. They didn’t know if their cultures were truly inclusive.

Leaders can talk about the value of diversity, but if diverse employees don’t see it manifested in policies or if they don’t feel as if they can bring their whole selves to work and or grow in their organizations– it’s not real for them, which means it’s not truly a part of the culture. You’re not being inclusive.

To know if diversity and inclusion is truly embedded in a company’s culture, you have to examine it at every employee touchpoint.

This is something we did. We recently conducted a colleague lifecycle assessment to benchmark our diversity and inclusion offerings against the industry to determine how we could further inspire an environment where differences are embraced and colleagues are enabled to reach their full potential. To embark on this large-scale project, we took a data-driven approach drawing on behavioral science research.

We learned we were doing many things right. We also learned we had some opportunities.

The lesson here is that you can never rest when it comes to diversity and inclusion. You have to keep examining your culture to drive meaningful improvements that reflect where society, business and communities are going.

Caprino: What are leaders, managers, and HR directors not understanding and why isn’t there more success here?

Cargan: Leaders and managers need to be very deliberate about how they talk about inclusivity and how they show their organizations that it matters.

At American Express, our senior leaders are committed to creating an inclusive environment for our diverse employees and show their commitment in various ways.

First, they are very thoughtful about how they talk about inclusion. In talking to their teams and in inclusive leadership forums they say, “Inclusive leadership is simply good leadership.” Our employees are highly motivated to be great leaders so attaching inclusivity to leadership is critical in getting our employees to pay attention to how important this is for their and their teams’ success. They convey that this is table stakes for what it takes to be a good leader at American Express.

Their behaviors also show how much this matters to them. They make it a point to join our emerging diverse leaders for dialogues and to hear their perspectives about how to improve American Express.

For example, our most senior leaders joined about 170 of our most senior women at our two-day Women’s Conference earlier this year. They participate in initiatives like the Exec Women’s Interest Network Shadowing program, in which vice presidents spend one full day shadowing a senior executive. They make it a point to spend time with our emerging multicultural talent by joining the Exec Black Engagement Network and Exec HOLA (Hispanic/Latinx) summits.

As an organization you have to set a tone of at the top and then pair it with a myriad of other strategies to meet your diversity and inclusion goals and drive change.

Caprino: Sonia, why are you personally passionate about going beyond the numbers and truly making a difference regarding diversity?

Cargan: I am passionate about diversity and inclusion for a number of reasons. I am a diverse colleague at American Express. I’m a woman of color. I’m a working mom. I’m from the UK and have worked in the U.S. and Singapore so I have a world view. I joined American Express and have stayed at the company for more than 20 years because I believe a have a voice and that I can harness my diversity to impact the business. I want all of our employees across the world to have a similar experience.

Caprino: What are the statistics that show progress on this front at American Express, and what do AMEX employees themselves say about the culture there. What are your employee surveys/internal research revealing?

Cargan: We’ve been focused on diversity and inclusion for a very long time so we know progress doesn’t happen overnight. We’ve been working in this space for more than three decades and as a result we’ve built a culture where employees generally feel included and engaged.

We track inclusion in our annual employee survey through an inclusion Index, a measure of the extent to which colleagues feel included in their teams at American Express. If you compare the results of the index to other companies in our industry, you will find that our inclusion level for employees is quite high.

However, we want to continue improving and recently launched some new diversity and inclusion initiatives. One initiative is a comprehensive training program focused on inclusive leadership, aimed at equipping leaders with strategies and skills for leading inclusive teams so colleagues from all backgrounds can thrive.

Our Inclusive Leadership Experience is designed to motivate colleagues to engage in specific, effective behaviors for fostering an inclusive environment. The experience is based on the four pillars of Paradigm’s inclusive leadership framework:


Making equitable decisions is key to strong management. Research shows that barriers like unconscious bias influence decision-making, undermining objectivity and equity in key outcomes like hiring, performance management and promotions.


A sense of belonging is critical to health and well-being. It also has an impact on retention, engagement and performance. While this is true for all employees, those from underrepresented backgrounds are particularly likely to face hurdles to belonging.


Giving all employees a voice is essential to surfacing the best ideas. It’s also a key aspect of ensuring people feel included and valued.


To lead innovative, high-performing teams, leaders must invest in employee development and foster a growth mindset culture where people are inspired to set high goals, take on challenges, learn from mistakes, and grow their skills.

Through this experience, which we are rolling out to people leaders across the company globally, we hope to see even better inclusion scores, especially on the individual team level, from colleagues in next year’s survey.

Caprino: What improvements still need to be made?

Cargan: We continually focus on building more diverse representation. To this end, we recently established a new Vice President of Diversity Recruitment role. This vice president focuses on expanding the recruitment of women globally at the level of vice president and above, as well as under-represented minorities in the U.S. and building a pipeline of diverse prospective candidates.

We also created Diversity Recruitment Guidelines to help recruiters and our hiring leaders promote diversity and inclusion throughout the hiring process. The guidelines include tips on drafting successful job descriptions, sourcing candidates, reviewing resumes, interviewing, and making a hiring decision.

In addition, we’ve launched various programs and are working with internal and external partners including our employee networks to build a larger pipeline of diverse candidates for our Technology and Finance organizations.

Caprino: What are three key strategies that you recommend for leaders and HR heads to build more inclusive and successful cultures?

Cargan: Here are my suggested strategies:


Consider a diversity and inclusion assessment of your employee life cycle. That will help you identify the areas where you can be most effective and drive meaningful diversity and inclusion improvements for your specific organization.


Your leaders are your best ambassadors. Educate your leaders about the power of inclusivity and its role in good leadership. Help and encourage them to model that behavior for their teams.


As you build your diversity and inclusion programs, make them scalable yet customized. If you have a global workforce like ours, you need to create programs that work across the enterprise. Use local intelligence and data to customize them for the market and make them effective.

For more information, visit https://careers.americanexpress.com/Life.

For hands-on help to grow your career, work with Kathy Caprino, take her Amazing Career Project course, and subscribe to her Finding Brave podcast.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kathycaprino/2018/11/30/why-many-leaders-dont-build-inclusive-cultures-and-how-amex-aims-to-change-that/#76096e0a7e99

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *