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American Express's UK Country Manager shares her lessons in leadership

·8-min read
Photo credit: Helen Abraham Photography
Photo credit: Helen Abraham Photography

Charlotte Duerden is the UK Country Manager for American Express. She leads a workforce of more than 5,500 colleagues and is responsible for all the company’s activities in the UK.

In 2020, Charlotte was listed as one of HERoes top 100 women executives in the UK, leading by example and driving change to drive gender diversity in the workplace. As one of the few women leading a business in the financial sector, she passionately believes that it is her responsibility to pay it forward, making it easier for those who follow.

Here, she shares the invaluable lessons of leadership she has accrued in her career.

The three most important qualities for a good leader are…

"Authenticity. I’ve realised from a past experience how draining and counterproductive it is to present an image of what you think people are expecting to see. When I decided to be me – to do the job the best way I knew, not the way I thought someone wanted me to be, I performed way better. Being me means showing up every day as the best I can be but also not being afraid to show my vulnerabilities. No one is perfect or has all the answers and it is amazing the difference you can make to others by showing those vulnerabilities, making it ok for them to acknowledge their own.

Courage. Both of your convictions and the courage to challenge assumptions or to take a different path. Behind innovation and progress, you’ll always find stories of everyday courage. Whether that’s taking on the role that scares you, helping your team make that decision they know they want to, or speaking up when you disagree.

The ability to listen, because leaders need perspectives and insights other than their own. It is important to listen to the experiences of others, not just their perspectives and never more so than when it’s uncomfortable. The Black Lives Matter movement has proved to be a massive learning experience for many leaders, including me. There were times when I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t have all the answers, which as a leader, you often feel you should. A good leader will embrace the discomfort and value the opportunity to learn."

My personal strength as a leader is…

"Coaching. I’ve found that helping people realise their career aspirations and dreams, to see them develop and thrive, is one of the most rewarding experiences I can have. When I was a new people leader in my twenties I was afraid to give feedback, as I was worried how the person would react. It was a painful lesson but no one benefits when you avoid tough conversations. Feedback is essential to us all – the good and the bad – no matter how senior you get. And with feedback comes the coaching that helps people achieve their ambitions."

Photo credit: Helen Abraham Photography
Photo credit: Helen Abraham Photography

The biggest priority for my business right now is…

"After the unpredictable times we’ve been living through, growth is a priority for us, as it is for most businesses. However, one of the areas I’m focussed on is Equity, Inclusion and Diversity. Ensuring that every one of our 5,000 plus colleagues in the UK is able to bring their whole self to work is key to their success and ours.

But the responsibility doesn’t stop with colleagues. We have an opportunity to make positive impact in all the areas that our business touches including in the communities where we live and work and I’m really fortunate to work for a business that believes it’s our duty to do so. Indeed, we’re committed to helping shape a more diverse, inclusive, equitable and sustainable society."

The economic outlook may be uncertain, but I’m mitigating risk by…

"Staying relevant. We are living in fast moving times so understanding our customer and responding to their changing needs is more pressing than ever. The value we offer them at any moment in time needs to consistently meet and exceed their expectations. Our starting point is that our customers will always find it’s more rewarding to be with American Express so it is incumbent on us to keep listening and to keep adapting."

I keep my team motivated by…

"As well as making sure they have a stake or role in the Company vision, people need to know that their work is meaningful and that they’re empowered to challenge the way that it’s done and to innovate. There’s a lot of personal growth that goes hand in hand with that opportunity. I think that knowing you’re continuing to learn and develop in the course of your role is incredibly motivating. Stagnating or plateauing is not. It’s certainly been true for me – it’s leaning into the new and difficult business challenges that have on reflection, provided me with some of the biggest leadership growth opportunities."

The hardest decision I’ve had to make as a leader was…

"I think all leaders find themselves in situations where they have to make a tough call between options A and B or have to stop something before it starts. But what’s really hard is when I have to call time on something I have instigated and passionately believed. It’s a hard admission but you need to recognise when you are not getting there and when time and resource could be more effective elsewhere. It can feel like you’re losing face or even knock your confidence. However, along with there being a business upside, what I hadn’t anticipated was the courage my decision gave others to ask for help with challenges they faced or things that weren’t going according to plan."

The worst mistake I’ve ever made as a leader (and the lessons I learnt from it)

"No one likes to admit their mistakes but of course I’ve had those moments where you think there’s no way back and you’re lying awake at night worrying about it. But there is always a way out and how you get there is to ask for help! Leaders are not always the best at asking for help and I found this out the hard way. Once I made peace with not needing to be the expert in the room it become easier to demonstrate why I was there: to start asking the critical questions and providing the crucial feedback and direction the team needed from me. I made that transition because I looked to other leaders, I asked for help and I learnt that’s what leadership truly is."

An effective leader will always…

"Provide a roadmap. By that I mean the vision and direction for where we are going as well as some of the way-markers that we expect to pass on the way. I also think it’s a leader’s job to get rid of the organisational barriers that might impede the journey. At the same time, teams need to know what’s expected of them and able to make decisions (and importantly mistakes) along the way. They need to be enabled to be successful."

An effective leader will never…

"Seek consensus. There’s so much research out there that shows us that diversity of thought drives better business outcomes. So, if you want to deliver different and innovative thinking you need to make sure you’re hearing all the voices in the room. That means you need to learn how to live with, indeed encourage dissent. The meetings can be more challenging but that’s how the outcomes will be stronger. And when you take a different route you need to stay accountable - sharing when it works and essentially when it doesn’t."

My role model for leadership is…

"I think it’s important to seek out the learning opportunities that come from all the people we meet and work with - either by observing how they operate or asking them. But if I had to pick one role model it would be one of my former leaders at American Express. What makes them stand out for me is how they seek to truly know their team, understanding that you get the best out of people when you really see them and not just what they do at work. Their approach helped people truly bring their whole selves to work and also engendered huge loyalty from every member of the team."

The one piece of advice I’d give to a new leader is…

"I think it’s important to understand that leadership is not a point of arrival, it’s a lifelong study. You will always have new challenges to face, new complexities, new people. You’re not always going to get things right and it’s important to not beat yourself up, but you do need to reflect on what you’ve done and how you could have done it better.

So learn, always, and don’t let that prevent you from being bold; from taking courageous decisions and making calculated risks. Being prepared to fail and learn will set you up for success as a leader."

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