“Good leaders are fueled by a purpose” – Lessons from the American Express Leadership Academy

Sanergy is dedicated to fostering the professional development of all our teammates — especially the young people who have recently assumed managerial roles. In keeping with this commitment, we encourage and support colleagues to participate in development opportunities and to own their career growth. Earlier this month, Sanergy teammates Sarah Lebu, Eric Machango, and Dennis Koome participated in the American Express Leadership Academy at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Upon their return, they sat down with us to share some of the highlights and lessons from their experience, discussing how they can apply what they’ve learned to improving their own work and the organization as a whole.

What was the most interesting thing you learnt?

Dennis Koome: I learnt that leadership is more than just possessing the technical skills required for a job. Good leaders are fueled by a purpose: in everything they do, they have a reason for doing it (strong belief); they stand for strong values; they have people on whom they can rely (mentors, family, friends); and most importantly, they strive to leave a positive impact from their leadership.

Eric Machango: In Kenya’s cultural context, leadership is often characterized by formal authority. At Thunderbird, I had a chance to examine the idea of leading outside of the formal structures of authority and hierarchy. No matter your organizational position, part of your success depends on being able to influence people over whom you have no formal control. I learnt practical strategies for influencing those I work with in order to accomplish workplace goals. This will be extremely helpful in my management position.

Sarah Lebu: I found the session on change management very inspiring. We dived deep into influencing change from the middle of an organization, something that resonates with me in my current management role. I am looking forward to sharing some of the insights with my teammates.

Who was the most interesting person you met or heard speak?

EM: The Leadership Academy was one of the best experiences of my life. I met a lot of fascinating people from all over the world and had the opportunity to learn about different cultures. I would particularly like to single out Professor Mary Teagarden, the academic director of the program and one of the professors who lectured us on multicultural leadership. Her mastery of global leadership and social issues was admirable. She has a way of demystifying complex concepts into simple layman’s terms through her storytelling skills, and her true desire to help others shines through in every interaction with her.

DK: I was grateful to have a chance to meet Professor Teagarden, Professor Mary Sully de Luque, and Andrew McCullough from the Washington Ireland Program. It was intriguing to hear Professor Teagarden speak, and she did an excellent job as the academic director for the program. Professor Sully de Luque was very chatty and went out of her way to learn about the participants and our backgrounds; we shared stories, joked around, and learnt from her why it’s important for global leaders to understand cultural diversities. Andrew was one of the participants; he and I traded many stories about working in multicultural contexts.

American Express CEO and Chairman Kenneth Chenault discusses Personal Brand and Leadership with the participants.

SL: The CEO and Chairman of American Express, Kenneth Chenault, spoke to the group on Personal Brand and Leadership. He offered insights into his own personal career growth, sharing lessons on how to grow leadership ability throughout a career. One inspiring example he offered is how American Express’s employees reacted to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Their New York office lost 11 teammates during the attacks. As the CEO, Kenneth was expected to be in charge. However, he was not around New York when it happened and was unable to reach his colleagues at the office. The New York-based staff, mostly call center employees, took charge of the situation and made decisions on their own, overcoming the crisis. Kenneth pointed to this as a great example of leading from the middle of an organization, saying, “The power to influence change does not come from hierarchy. In fact, a frontline employee can have just the right influence!”

What was the most fun activity, session, or discussion?

SL: Throughout the program, there were a series of breakout sessions and individual project consultations with the course facilitators. On the final day, all 30 participants from 10 different organizations regrouped into their home organizations and delivered on an independent project addressing a challenging need in their own organization. I loved hearing all these presentations and getting to learn about the needs of organizations across the globe and how they address them. I was able to share a few of Sanergy’s best practices with other teams, and they were positively received.

(From left) Sanergy teammates Eric Machango, Sarah Lebu, and Dennis Koome at the Thunderbird School of Global Management

EM: Away from the classroom, the organized side trips were exciting. We got to go to Cave Creek and experience live bull-riding and cowboy culture, which I had only seen in movies. Such cross-cultural experiences will help strengthen my sense of connection with people whose backgrounds differ from my own.


DK: I loved going to Cave Creek; it was my first rodeo! In addition, it was the turning point for the entire program: we got the chance to interact with each other outside the classroom setting, which helped improve our ability to work together during the sessions.

What most surprised you about your experience?

SL: As part of the program, there was an off-campus dinner at Buffalo Springs Resort. Although informal, this activity opened my eyes to the possibilities of learning outside the classroom. Interacting with other participants, I learned more about the contexts of their countries and their respective organizations. During a follow-up session later on global mindset leadership, other participants referenced the discussions they’d had at dinner. These casual conversations gave us context to what we’d been learning in the classroom.

DK: I was impressed by the level of efficiency at which Americans operate. There was such perfection, from the adherence to traffic lights, to the timing of subway trains, to the participants’ level of knowledge.

EM: I had ideas of what America is like, thanks to Hollywood movies and CNN. But touring the United States gave me a whole different experience. Besides the glamour, I was amazed at how hard-working Americans are. At Thunderbird, everything was in its place; the grass was perfectly mowed, and the streets were super clean. All the lecture materials were well prepared in advance. My lecturers never arrived late, not even once. I loved this culture of perfectionism. It was a great lesson for me.

What are you most excited to implement from your time at the Leadership Academy?

DK: I want to first check myself; I want to understand my beliefs, values, and purpose and build on them. Only then will I be able to share and hopefully embody these values for my teammates.

Dennis, Sarah, and Eric present their final project for Leadership Academy instructors and participants.

SL: My fellow participants and I received considerable support from the course faculty with our project. The goal of the project is to support the Talent team in designing a comprehensive leadership management program for Sanergy’s junior and existing leaders. While at the campus, we incorporated ideas into our thoughts, including best practices from other teams. I am excited to work with L&D to roll this out!

EM: Dennis, Sarah and I are very passionate about our project for growing Sanergy’s young teammates into capable leaders. I’m looking forward to implementing what we’ve developed!

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