"Every team should overachieve": Amex's financial innovator, Karen Penney

08 June 2015 -


One of Amex UK’s leading executives on her management style, the power of music and the leadership traits she most admires

Colin Marrs

As one of the leading executives in the UK wing of American Express – and now a CMI Companion – Karen Penney has established a strong management style as a financial innovator. In 2010, she was behind the company’s ahead-of-its-time Carbon Savings Assessment Manager, which enabled corporate clients to measure their air-travel CO2 emissions at the touch of a button: a tool that was piloted in some of Europe’s biggest firms.

That streak has continued right up to the present, with 3 June’s announcement that Amex has teamed up with hotel solutions provider HRS Corporate on a “Paperless Travel” scheme that enables business travellers to keep paper invoices out of the picture while they’re crossing the globe.

Here are her thoughts on management and leadership, and other life lessons.

1. What was your favourite subject at school?

I loved English: I went on to study English literature at Oxford. I also really enjoyed sports, and still do... I’ve always been very competitive.

2. What was your first job?

In a record shop during the school holidays, selling singles. I’m quite a music fan – I always win a 70s music quiz!

3. What mobile device(s) do you use?

A Blackberry, an iPhone, an iPad, and a laptop!

4. What is your biggest achievement in business?

The role I have today is my biggest business achievement – making sure every team is overachieving and putting the customer experience at the heart of everything we do.

5. What is your biggest regret in business?

I’ve never run my own business.

6. How has your business sector changed since you began your career?

The massive increase in regulation. Increased regulation is a common hurdle for financial services companies around the world.

7. Who is your business hero?

Different people – I have had some really good managers in the past, and worked with some great people. I particularly admire female business leaders who juggle being at the top of their game with family life.

8. What is the trait you most admire in other businesspeople?

Those who say they can sleep three hours a night!

9. What about particular skills you admire?

I’ve always admired people who are inspirational speakers and are able to really captivate an audience.

10. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?


11. What is the one thing about your job you could do without?

So many emails – they have replaced phone calls and personal interaction to a large extent.

12. How would you describe your management philosophy in one sentence?

To be happy, to be awesome, and to help others achieve both those things!

13. What was your best holiday?

A climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro, which was given to me as a birthday present. It took three days to go up and two days to walk down and I didn’t realise how exhausted I was until it was finished! We laughed the whole way and had a fabulous guide making sure we made it to the top.

14. What is your favourite day of the week and why?

Thursdays, after I have completed my 6am personal-training sessions for the week!

15. How do you unwind away from work?

I like to walk in Richmond Park. I run, read all sorts of fiction, socialise with friends and family and love going to the theatre or ballet.

16. What is your favourite film?

The Shawshank Redemption – I don’t watch many films more than once, but this is the exception.

17. What is your favourite smell?

Lots… coffee, baking bread, mown grass – and Chanel No.5!

18. What music do you like?

Motown and soul.

19. What keeps you awake at night?

Not much – I aim for eight hours of sleep, although it’s normally six.

20. If you could, what advice would you give to yourself aged 20?

Stop worrying about the future – it will happen. Just work hard and enjoy what you do.

Karen Penney is vice president and general manager of American Express Global Corporate Payments and Small Business Services UK.

Find out about support services for inspiring women at CMI’s Women in Management Network.

For further thoughts on developing management styles, find out about CMI short courses and qualifications.

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