Women in Business Q&A: Karen Penney, VP and GM, American Express Global Corporate Payments and Small Business Services UK

Karen Penney is the Vice President and General Manager of Global Corporate Payments and Small Business Services UK at American Express, an industry leader in corporate payments and management solutions. Within this role, Karen is responsible for driving American Express' corporate payments sales growth for small, medium-sized and large businesses in the UK Karen has worked for American Express since 2002, holding several senior positions. Before joining American Express, Karen was Director of Sales and Account Development at AIR MILES Travel Promotions Ltd and also held positions at Citibank, Diners Club and Bankers Trust based in the UK. Karen is a passionate advocate for women in business, and is a regular speaker at events such as IoD's Women as Leaders, and Management Today's Inspiring Women.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
A turning point in my personal and professional life was being made redundant on my return from maternity leave. I was forced to be flexible, embrace the change and use my network to get where I wanted to go.

Since then, I've learnt to thrive under pressure and have undertaken a lot of challenging activities in my personal life that have allowed me to look at things from a different perspective. For example, climbing Kilimanjaro and participating in team triathlons has made me focus on not rushing to get to the top but following the 'slowly but surely' mantra. The idea of something being a marathon not a sprint can definitely be applied to my professional life and has helped me to appreciate my current environment rather than rushing to get to the top.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at American Express?
My professional experience to date has largely been in financial services - I joined American Express as a VP with solid account development and sales skills under my belt. Working for a variety of companies has taught me to be flexible, not to be afraid of new environments and now I am better equipped to deal with change. I believe a good leader is always nimble in times of change.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at American Express?
The day to day role I play at American Express - making sure every team is achieving and putting the customer experience at the heart of everything we do - is a huge business achievement in itself. On a personal level, I'm hugely grateful for being able to working for fabulous bosses who have taught me, pushed me forward and generously sponsored me.

In terms of challenges, times of change can be unsettling for those involved. However it's important for us to adapt to changing market needs, and at such times it's been necessary for me to pay particular attention to maintaining engagement within my team.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Don't worry about the future. Just work hard, enjoy what you do, and it will happen.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
You can't do it all on your own - collaboration is hugely important and when you start as a single contributor, networking and building relationships have a big part to play in your personal success and career progression.

Also, it isn't a competition; sometimes you need to let others take the glory.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It's no secret that achieving a work/life balance when you are in a senior role can be a challenge. Personally, I like to walk in Richmond Park, read, socialise with friends and family or go to the theatre or ballet.

I've also found that working from home is a huge help for me, as is believing in the importance of what you do in the day to allow you to switch off in the evening. Of course that doesn't mean you never have to work in the evening, but it's important to be flexible and take some of that time back in the day occasionally.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think that confidence can be a huge barrier for women in their professional lives. Research has shown that if you show a woman a job description they would focus on the parts that they can't do rather than those that they can, whereas men are more likely to focus on the positives. We need to help women overcome their discomfort when talking about their level of knowledge and experience and accept that people are expected to grow into a role.

I think women also tend to network less than men and therefore are presented with fewer opportunities for professional growth from others. Instilling a corporate culture that extends its support to both genders is one of the best methods that companies can employ to help readdress this balance. This could be by developing leadership and sponsorship schemes for women such as the Pathways to Sponsorship initiative and informal 'lean in' mentoring circles at American Express, or just encouraging male managers to become advocates for their female counterparts and realise the benefits of having different thought processes.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My mentors have not only provided support with various business issues, but they've also been especially valuable in demonstrating the behaviours of a successful leader such as straight talking and humility.

The best advice I had when starting out was to be authentic by developing an understanding of how to balance my professional and personal attributes. Allowing your colleagues to see the 'real' you is what helps them understand and relate to you as a person rather than as a boss or team leader, which makes working together much easier and more enjoyable.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I've had some great managers during my career, in particular I really admire Susan Sobbott (President of American Express Global Corporate Payments). Susan created the American Express 'Shop Small' initiative which encourages people to support their local, independent shops and businesses and is now a global initiative. Susan is a hugely successful businesswoman and has succeeded in juggling being at the top of her game with being a mother.

What do you want American Express to accomplish in the next year?
I'd love American Express to increase its relevancy to more organisations in the UK market. Businesses aren't always aware that we have a range of solutions that cater to small and medium sized as well as large and global organisations.

Whilst our heritage is in travel and expenses, we've also helped a lot of companies with cash flow through working capital solutions, and this will continue to be a focus for us next year.