Talent Matters
Talent Matters
Talent Matters is a blog series exploring how nonprofit leaders have achieved real-world results through an emphasis on talent.

How do I balance responding to today’s business priorities while keeping an eye toward future growth? How do I create a motivating work environment that best leverages my staff’s individual and collective strengths?

As a corporate leader, these are the kinds of questions I ask myself. Developing talent that is prepared to respond to a fast-changing global society is a challenge for all sectors, but as other contributors to this series point out, nonprofits are plagued with a unique set of challenges.

At American Express, attracting, developing, and retaining talented leaders is a critical business priority, and we believe that the nonprofit sector needs a similar level of support and commitment. Nearly 10 years ago, we focused one area of our grantmaking on leadership development in the nonprofit sector, and in partnership with the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), we created a robust Leadership Academy franchise in 2008.

Last year, we initiated a third-party evaluation to better understand the impact of the Academy, and to answer basic questions such as: “To what extent did the program further graduates’ leadership expertise?” and “What difference has the experience had on graduates’ careers?”

The study included focus groups and an in-person evaluation of the Academy, as well as an online survey of 224 graduates who completed the course over the past five years, which saw a 55 percent response rate (double the standard response rate for this kind of survey).

Not surprisingly—and indicative of the need for support in this area—74 percent of respondents said the Academy was the first intensive, multi-day leadership development training they ever had. Here are some of the highlights of our research:

  • 93 percent of participants are still working in the nonprofit sector
  • 70 percent have been promoted or taken positions with greater responsibility
  • 64 percent are still in touch with others who participated in their Academy group
  • 73 percent cited the value of a national network of peers (from the Academy), who have similar experiences and a common language, as extremely meaningful

Both the quantitative and qualitative data revealed that the Leadership Academy had a profound impact on graduates, and that participants have sustained important leadership behaviors, including (with quotes from respondents):

  • Working more effectively and empathetically with others. “The Academy helped make me a better manager of a more diverse staff. Before, I had a different perspective of how to motivate and support people. It has meant a lot to my growth, since I’m managing many more people than I ever had to do before.”
  • Sustained increase in self-awareness, and understanding of personal strengths and weaknesses. “The Academy helped me see that I can have great ideas and vision, but if I can’t bring others along, those ideas and vision are useless. I had to learn to bring strategic alignment to my team and organization.”
  • Inspiration to continue growing and developing personal leadership. “The confidence I gained from this experience has allowed me to speak to my superiors about taking on more leadership within the organization. I’m being more proactive about my ideas and plans to help the organization. I’m focused on how I can contribute, as well as where I need to strengthen my skills.”
  • Being more decisive, strategic, and effective at delegation, as well as more confident about and adaptive to managing organizational change. “The Leadership Academy, especially the coaching sessions, helped me open up and become more vulnerable with the people I lead. This, in turn, has established more trust between us and allowed us to move forward to higher levels of effectiveness.”

Today, the Leadership Academy includes nonprofit partners from around the globe, including Ashoka Changemakers, The Thunderbird School of Global Management, and Common Purpose, in addition to the Center for Creative Leadership. Each Leadership Academy is tailored to fit cultural nuances and serve different nonprofit niches, such as social entrepreneurship or international-facing nonprofits. By the end of this year, we will have hosted more than 50 Leadership Academy sessions in six countries, including the United Kingdom, India, Japan, Mexico, and Canada, supporting more than 1,500 nonprofit and social sector leaders. Additionally, nearly 15,000 leaders worldwide have benefitted from American Express leadership programs and grants.

We continuously challenge ourselves to improve on, expand, and disseminate resources and learning from these programs. Based on feedback, we’ll launch a new Leadership Academy portal to share best practices this year, and we have plans to enhance our alumni network. Our goal is to reach more individuals and, ultimately, help their organizations achieve greater societal impact.

During a leadership discussion with Academy participants, American Express CEO Ken Chenault said that one of the most important actions you can take to make leadership development a daily activity at your organization is to go through the process of creating a “Plan A” for your senior leaders: “You create your Plan A by defining the likely challenges and needs of tomorrow, inferring the leadership qualities required to meet them, and building those qualities systematically in staff who have true leadership potential.”