The Key to Getting More Women in Senior Leadership, According to 1 EVP

Linda Zukauckas. Photo courtesy of Linda Zukauckas.

Linda Zukauckas. Photo courtesy of Linda Zukauckas.

Profile Picture
July 17, 2024 at 6:34PM UTC
Linda Zukauckas, EVP and Corporate Controller at American Express, knows what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry. That’s why she has dedicated her time to heading a number of platforms at AMEX that promote the development of women leaders. She was recently named the global executive sponsor of the Women’s Interest Network, the American Express platform for women’s development and leadership around the world. 
Earlier this month, Zukauckas took her expertise in promoting gender inclusivity to Paris. She spoke at the annual Women’s Forum about the success of the American Express Women’s Interest Network and the success of the AMEX re-entry program, a program that offers tools and networks to individuals who have taken a break from their career.
In a recent interview with Fairygodboss, she shared how organizations can work together to promote more women to senior leadership. Then, she shared her advice for individual women who want to help other women reach their full potential within any business.

How long have you been in your current role, and what were you doing previously?

I was named Deputy CFO of American Express in March 2018 — the first woman at our company to ever hold that position. Prior to that, I was American Express’ Corporate Controller, a position I assumed in November 2011. 

You’ll be speaking at the Women’s Forum on Nov. 14-16th in Paris about how traditional structures are holding organizations back with regards to inclusivity and gender equality. What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership in the finance industry?

The Center for Talent Innovation estimates that men are 46 percent more likely than women to have a sponsor: someone who takes an active role in your professional advancement. To truly advance and level the playing field, women need more senior leaders advocating on their behalf. 

Unfortunately, this is not a challenge that can be fixed simply through a structured program. These types of relationships tend to develop organically through informal networking opportunities. Because sponsors can have such a major impact on career development, I have been a firm advocate for American Express women to have the access and time they need to develop these types of relationships. There are a couple of programs that I am pleased to share have really made a difference at American Express. 

The first program is a Shadowing program we launched in 2015. A woman executive (the “Shadowee”) accompanies one of our senior-most leaders in the company (the “Host”) throughout a day to experience “a day in the life," so to speak.  This initiative provides high-performing women executives with the opportunity to gain insight into the daily management, decision making and leadership skills required for the senior most levels of the organization. 

The second is a series of Golf Clinics, which our Executive Women’s Interest Network launched in 2010. These outings create a comfortable and fun setting for mid-level leaders to seek out sponsors, and for executives to connect with protégés.  

 Through these programs, our female executives are establishing new relationships with leaders who may one day become sponsors or advocates. They are also acquiring valuable skills to help them navigate a broad range of corporate situations – giving women confidence to share their point of view with senior leaders, and to accept an invitation to join a business partner for a  golf event. These are small steps, but they help move the needle to ensure women can find the sponsors they need to help them advance in their careers. 

We hear a lot of talk about making the workforce more inclusive. But when push comes to shove, it can be difficult to make real change; the rhetoric doesn’t always match the reality. What do you think are some of the steps companies can take to ensure their workforces actually become more diverse and inclusive?

Creating an inclusive environment is at the heart of American Express’ culture and it is a goal I am firmly committed to as a leader. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, leaders at American Express never rest. We are always looking for areas to improve and new strategies to retain and attract top, diverse talent. In fact, we recently launched a comprehensive training program focused on inclusive leadership, aimed at equipping leaders with strategies and skills for leading inclusive teams. We believe this is critical to effective decision-making, team collaboration, and management. Our investments in meaningful programs like this have helped drive an environment where our colleagues feel they truly belong. 

As a senior woman in finance, a field that tends to be male-dominated, I recognize that through my words and actions, I have a responsibility to set a tone for inclusivity across my organization. My goal is to create an environment where women’s voices are represented and heard, and that they are empowered to take the risks they need to truly flourish. This is the essence of inclusivity. 

Some companies are diversifying their talent pool with re-entry programs that offer tools and networks to individuals who have taken a break from their career. Who are the primary beneficiaries of American Express’s re-entry program, and how has American Express benefitted?

To further diversify our talent pipeline, our Finance organization recently launched a special internship program for both men and women who have been out of the workforce at least two years.  This past summer, we had a cohort of six interns join our organization over a three-month period. The goal was for each employee to learn about American Express, gain experience within the Finance function, and see if returning to the corporate world at this time felt right. 

The initiative was a success. Many of the interns received offers to join us full time, and we are already planning for our next class of return-to-work interns. Overall, our organization benefitted by discovering top talent we might not have had access to otherwise. Our interns all had rich, diverse life experiences that they have been able to leverage on their return.  

What advice do you have for women hoping to re-enter their industry after a long break?

Be patient with yourself. Whenever you begin a new job at a new company, there will be a major learning curve,  even if you haven’t taken a break from the workforce. In the interview or internship process, really assess the culture of the company and if it is a mutual fit.

As a rule of thumb, I believe it typically takes three months to learn a job, six months to do it well, and nine months to truly add value. Work with you leader to determine a solid development plan to get up to speed and ensure your success for the short, medium and long-term. 

As you reenter the workforce, you will likely find that certain aspects of your industry have changed – some areas might be more challenging, whereas others might feel easier. Build on your strengths. But also seek out feedback and guidance to improve on the areas where you may not have as much background. 

You were recently named the global executive sponsor of the Women’s Interest Network, the American Express platform for women’s development and leadership around the world. What, in your opinion, are the qualities of a successful women’s resource group?

Our Women’s Interest Network is centered on three pillars – growth, community, and candor.  
Growth refers to a focus on education and tactics – determining the skills most essential to achieving success and providing the necessary development opportunities to make it a reality. Community is about building a strong network of women both at the company and beyond; this ensures women have the resources they need to seek out valuable mentors and sponsors that can help them propel their careers. Candor is about providing women with forums to openly discuss challenging topics, such as barriers to advancement, politics and unwritten rules by ensuring senior leaders know what is holding us back, so we can move forward together. 

By focusing on a limited set of priorities, resource groups of all kinds can have a truly valuable impact on helping women and other diverse groups move forward. 

What advice do you have for women looking to help other women professionally?

Don’t hesitate – just do it. Put yourself out there.  Proudly display your own “open for business” sign. My door is always open to women in need of a sounding board or seeking my advocacy. I also think it is important for us to be deliberate in our actions to help other women — pick up the phone and ask if a mentee wants to grab lunch, join a colleague resource group, speak up for other women in meetings, and always search for opportunities to serve as a mentor or sponsor. The most impactful relationships are those that develop organically.  

Why women love us:

  • Daily articles on career topics
  • Jobs at companies dedicated to hiring more women
  • Advice and support from an authentic community
  • Events that help you level up in your career
  • Free membership, always