At a moment of unprecedented attention, investment, and opportunity for the emerging field of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), leaders are asking: Who is best preparing their organization for the society of the future? Who is innovating today to meet decades-long environmental and social goals? Who is setting standards that catalyze their industry’s change for the better? Who is defining what bold and aspirational look like — and how best to advance that work in practice?

Enter NationSwell’s ESG Next, an exemplary group of investors, executives, authors, philanthropists, social sector leaders, academics, and field builders who are helping to shape business as a force for social and environmental progress, advancing — and even pioneering — the most forward-thinking and effective programs, initiatives, technologies, methodologies, practices, and approaches.

For this installment, NationSwell interviewed Jennifer Skyler, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at American Express, about the importance of leveraging your core values in times of disruption, drawing new strength from embracing discomfort, and the timeless, underappreciated value of resilience.

Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: Can you walk us through what’s unique about how you and your team have approached ESG?

Jennifer Skyler, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, American Express: When I first joined in 2020, my team undertook a comprehensive process to refresh the ESG strategy and framework based on a materiality analysis of key stakeholder issues. That was an important first step — those first efforts culminated in the launch of our ESG Strategy and Framework which encompasses three core pillars: financial confidence; climate solutions; diversity, equity, and inclusion.

That framework guides us to drive action in alignment with our values and address the top issues that matter the most for our company and stakeholders. It provides the guiding principles, operational structure, and resources to be able to make meaningful, positive impact in people’s lives and the world we live in. 

By having a foundational framework in place to address those issues, we can set tangible goals, build action plans to achieve those goals and hold ourselves accountable for progress, and provide transparency into our efforts for our internal and external stakeholders. 

Behrman, NationSwell: How is the work you’re leading at American Express unique?

Skyler, American Express: We have a very special, values-driven culture. As Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, I carry the responsibility of championing the Blue Box values that our company and brand stand for, making sure all our actions and communications are tightly aligned to those values.

I joined the company in 2020 — and as you can imagine, that meant that my arrival was met with the unprecedented challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Before we even began to address those challenges, we committed to one core principle as our north star: that we would back our colleagues, customers, and communities above all else.

That commitment has since proven critical to how we managed to emerge as an even stronger company. From the early days of the pandemic, we doubled down on our backing of our stakeholders. We invested in the health, safety, and holistic well-being of our colleagues through expanded benefits and support programs. For our customers, we offered financial relief to those experiencing economic challenges and evolved our product benefits and services to meet their changing needs in the face of the pandemic. We also provided philanthropic support to economically vulnerable communities to help them address their challenges and support their recovery.

Those investments have paid off a great deal and put us in a strong position today, where we’re seeing great momentum across our business. Our customers and colleagues are sticking with us, and we are attracting many more to our workforce and card member base – all enabling us to deliver record growth rates that we’ve been seeing for several quarters now.      

Having gone through such a pivotal moment at American Express, I have an even greater appreciation now for working at a company with sound and consistent values that you can lean on during good times and bad times.

Behrman, NationSwell: Is there a significant program or initiative you’re leading into which other field builders should have visibility? 

Skyler, American Express: As Chair of the American Express Foundation, which facilitates the company’s philanthropic and community impact efforts and am deeply inspired by the work our nonprofit partners do to improve their communities. In December, we relaunched the American Express Leadership Academy, transforming the curriculum to help enhance the business and leadership skills of high-potential nonprofit leaders to meet the unique challenges of today. Since its launch in 2007, the Academy helped more than 165,000 social purpose leaders reach their potential.

This year, the theme of our Leadership Academy was resilient changemakers, and I think my overall thinking as a communications and corporate sustainability leader over the past few years has really embodied this idea. If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that we can’t foresee the future and the challenges we will face tomorrow. What’s most important is developing the right skills and having the tools to be able to effectively tackle life’s challenges– whatever they might be – and remain resilient.

More personally, I love to support small businesses, whether shopping in my own neighborhood or at local shops wherever I travel. I have now had the opportunity to turn this personal passion of mine into even greater real impact given American Express’ continued commitment to backing small businesses, like through our Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant program in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has awarded $2 million to 50 historically significant restaurants in the U.S. over the past two years and will provide another $1 million to 25 new recipients this year.

Behrman, NationSwell: To which leadership practices do you most attribute your success and efficacy?

Skyler, American Express: One of the behaviors that we’re expected to demonstrate as leaders is courageous and transparent leadership, which has been something I always believed in. Being courageous and embracing discomfort is necessary to be able to achieve growth and realize your full potential.

You cannot grow in your career without discomfort. You must be receptive to feedback and not be afraid to fail to make progress. That’s why I am always focused on challenging myself and my team to think differently, aim higher, and learn from both successes and failures to grow with each experience.

Behrman, NationSwell: What’s inspiring your leadership right now? 

Skyler, American Express: I’m a voracious consumer of so many different podcasts and media – often multiple screens at a time – so if I made a list, it would be ridiculously long. I like to hear all sides of an issue and stay on top of the fast-paced, ever-evolving environment that we operate in.

Of course, every now and then we need a break from the news cycle. Right now, I’m loving Daisy Jones and the Six on Amazon Prime as my respite.

To learn more about how our ESG Next honorees are shaping business as a force for social and environmental good, visit the series hub. American Express is a NationSwell Institutional Member. To learn more about membership in NationSwell’s community of leading social impact and sustainability practitioners, visit our site.