My first boss: Hannah Lewis, American Express UK country manager

The people who helped shape business leaders

Hannah Lewis started her Amex career in 2008. Photo: Amex
Hannah Lewis started her Amex career in 2008. Photo: Amex

As country manager, Hannah Lewis has full responsibility for Amex’s 6,000 staff in the UK. As a female leader of one of the biggest financial services’ names in the UK, Lewis is also a huge advocate of giving her staff the necessary opportunities and confidence to help them reach the top.

This year LinkedIn recognised American Express in the UK as one of the 25 best workplaces to grow your career.

I started my career at Boston Consulting Group and I suspect that Niamh Dawson has no idea how influential she was on my career.

She was a straight-talking, no nonsense Irish woman. She stood out as she was one of the first women I had come across who had found a way to balance work and her home life.

Read More: My first boss: Nick Hampton, Tate & Lyle CEO

She was working part-time, but unlike others she wasn’t either working round the clock and not seeing her family, or being part-time but really working full-time and being paid less.

She was prepared to draw some clear boundaries, prepared to be who she was. She was influential with clients but she was also confident and prepared to say there were other things she needed to do as she was dividing her time. This was 20 years ago and at the time the was quite unusual in the industry.

Her authenticity and willingness to be upfront and direct really made a difference.

New York, New York, USA - July 22, 2011: A horizontal studio shot of two American Express credit cards samples ready to apply for.
The Amex Gold Card was launched in the UK in 1981. Photo: Getty (magnez2 via Getty Images)

Translating this into Amex when I joined in 2008, my first impactful leader was Sujata Bhatia, who is now COO at Monzo.

I worked with her for five years but she was the first person to take a bet on me as she really believed I could progress in the organisation. She spent a lot of time coaching and mentoring me, and was the first to promote me through the first two or three levels of my career at Amex.

Like Niamh, she didn’t feel that she had to conform to the perceptions of senior female leaders.

I then worked with Charlotte Duerden, who was my predecessor and is now chief customer officer of International Cards at American Express. She gave me the confidence that it was possible to do things my own way, she made me believe.

Read more: Dr Chibeza Agley, Obrizum co-founder and CEO

She helped me build on what Sujata had done with me; showing me that it was okay to be ambitious and want to be country manager, but that I had to own that aspiration and ambition.

I am a straight-talking northerner, I studied engineering but when I graduated in the early 2000s, I never expected to get to a senior role.

Watch: Amex reports record revenue, but still misses estimates

More than anything I needed to get my own mind around to the idea that you don't need to look like someone in a power suit to be a leader. The leaders at Amex have played a huge role in building that belief, that having authentic leaders is way more powerful than having a lot of people wearing power suits and being someone else.

I began to understand what leadership meant at Amex. It's about getting the most out of people, and helping the staff to deliver as a collective. To do this we need to set a clear vision for the team and then empower them to do it in their own way.

Read More: My first boss: Ipsos CEO Kelly Beaver

When I joined Amex 15 years ago, I didn’t know I would end up where I am now. A lot of my colleagues feel the same. It’s an organisation with lots of different opportunities within the business. I’ve worked in the commercial, merchant, consumer businesses and had roles across marketing, business development and lending.

Now it’s important that those of us who have been fortunate to achieve these positions help other people and achieve their aspirations — and this is not just about women either.

The new American Express offices in Brighton UK
The American Express offices in Brighton, UK. Photo: PA (Simon Dack)

20 years ago being ambitious may have been viewed with negative connotations, particularly for some women. But today you need to be willing to put yourself out there, say what you want to achieve and evolve the skill sets to meet those goals.

Read More: My first boss: Anna Lundstrom, CEO of Nespresso UK&I

What I love about payments is that everyone needs it, but no one wants to spend that much time thinking about it. As a consumer you just want to know it works and enjoy the rewards and benefits which come from it.

Over the last 15 years we’ve gone from cheques being commonplace to paying with your mobile phone, the potential for innovation is what makes it so exciting.

Amex is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the first American Express card being launched in the UK

Watch: Is it financially worth going to university?

Download the Yahoo Finance app, available for Apple and Android.