Balancing the Grind with Nicola Tan, Director of Consumer Charge Cards at American Express

American Express recently surveyed 1,200 women from across Australia to learn more about how their lives have changed as a result of the pandemic.

The Amex Trendex reveals that despite the craziness of the past year, women remain ambitious for their own careers, but are also ambitious in other parts of their lives outside of work.

The COVID crisis has given women the opportunity to reassess what’s important in life and made them realise that maintaining work-life balance is more important to them than ever before, and that the continued support of their leaders and allyship of fellow colleagues will be key in them achieving it.  

We spoke with Nicola Tan, Director of Consumer Charge Cards at American Express to learn how her life and career has been impacted by the pandemic and how she maintains balance.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

In 2006 I went from working “agency-side” at a marketing agency, to “client-side” at American Express, and I never looked back. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was pregnant with my first child.

I was still trying to hide my belly at 18 weeks, desperately over-achieving, so that my leader wouldn’t think she’d made a terrible mistake hiring me! I needn’t have worried, my leader was thrilled for me and after a year away from paid-work, I was rehired at American Express on a flexible working arrangement (back before they were very commonplace).

Some 14 years later, I’ve held six roles at American Express, I’ve done part-time, job-share, work-from-home, and a few things in between! Over the years, I’ve considered switching to cause-related organisations, or trying my hand at a “start-up” endeavour, however I’ve accepted the truth that I’m a corporate kind of person.

I can support the types of organisations that I care about through my role – some highlights are Shop Small and American Express delicious Month Out – which give me the opportunity to back the small business and dining industries. Today, I head up our Charge Card portfolio, delivering extraordinary experiences for extraordinary people.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

This is a pretty special time. I’ve just landed my dream job looking after American Express’ Charge Card portfolio.  Most people will know the iconic American Express green card.

Today, we’re more famous for our Platinum card, which has exceptional benefits like access to our global airport lounge network, access to VIP experiences and a concierge which can arrange incredible travel and dining experiences for you.

With travel restricted, I’ve been busy working with the team to surprise our Platinum members with incredible offers at places they spend every day. 

Another, more secretive part of my role, is managing our Centurion membership (that’s the famous Black Card). Obviously I can’t disclose too many details about the perks of being a Centurion member, but I can tell you that our members have their own Relationship Manager, who can make the impossible, possible – and we’ve had some very elaborate requests over the years!

The people that I work with and the card members I meet, truly inspire me and change the way I see the world and its possibilities. 

The great thing about my role is that I’m currently doing it all from home.  So, my typical work day includes WebEx cameos from my dogs, two kids, and my partner bearing coffee (often clad in cycling lycra)!

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine? 

Yes, for sure. Working flexibly is one way in which American Express backs colleagues at each stage of their career and life. In fact, last year, our company was awarded the FlexReady Certification™ from FlexCareers, recognising our leading flexible work practices.

Pre-COVID I would work from home once every week or two. Truthfully, it wasn’t to better manage my personal goals, it was more that I found I could be more productive on days at home, when there was a lot to get through. I decided to start working from home full time in early March 2020 – a little ahead of the pandemic curve, and there was really no drama. 

American Express’ systems are all set to handle remote working locations. In the past year I’ve had team members working from Byron Bay, the Southern Highlands and the Mid-North Coast.

As a global organisation, some of my closest colleagues are based in different countries. Since working from home full time, my partner and I have started a daily routine of walking the dogs at 5pm.

Even if I want to log back in later, this little ritual is a great way to decompress, connect with my partner, and socialise with the four-legged residents of the neighbourhood (and their humans). I no longer take for granted the ability to work flexibly – I value it more than ever before.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal? 

The concept of “work-life balance” does resonate with me. I know for others (like our small business customers) work and life are inseparable.

I grew up in a “small business” family and my memories include hanging out at my parent’s shop after school every day, doing homework in the back room, and chipping in to serve customers when it got busy.

We didn’t really holiday throughout all those years, but somehow it didn’t matter, since work and life were all the same for us. I’m a little different in my own working life. My rule is that whatever I’m doing, I do that 100%.

If I’m in a strategy session at work, I’m 100% absorbed in that, and I’m not thinking about where the kids’ swim caps are. If I’m at the kids’ swimming carnival, I’ve planned my whole week and workload around this, and I’m not thinking about Friday’s work deadline. Some people are incredible at “juggling” in a given day, but I like to separate things as much as possible.

My version of “balance” has changed over the years. Pre-kids, it was pretty much all about work, and that represented excellent balance as far as I was concerned. While the kids were young, I had to strike a different balance to manage my energy levels.

These days, my kids are teenagers and I may be skewed a little more to work, but at the same time I know I’m modelling to them what it’s like to have a job you enjoy. They love hearing about my day (the successes and the failures!) as much as I love hearing about theirs.

I also think about work-life balance over a longer timeframe – not a day, a week or even a year. I look at the balance of work and life over a lifetime. I’ve never taken a year off, but I fully intend to retire young(ish) and spend all my time at the theatre!

5) How has Amex supported you in maintaining work-life balance and performing your role during the complexities of a global pandemic?

Some of the best support I’ve received from American Express during the pandemic was the permission and encouragement to have fun, step away from my desk, share some of my “home life” and even meet new colleagues. 

Highlights include a cooking class with our philanthropic partner, Two Good, where my teammates demonstrated both culinary and comedic talent (and I made a knock-out noodle dish!), “Coffee roulette,” a video-conference coffee catch up with colleagues I’d never met before, and a company Step Challenge that resulted in a wave of “walking meetings” across the business.

Our leadership committed to zero Covid-related job losses in 2020 globally and this gave me and my team the reassurance and calm to focus on what we could do. It turned out to be an incredible year for events – virtual and Covid-safe. We held American Express delicious Month in, Vogue American Express Fashion’s Night In, virtual entertainment and online masterclasses. 

American Express also has a program called “Real Mates” where colleagues receive incredible training so that they can support anyone in the business who might be struggling, and need a confidential chat with a supportive “mate.” This program has really helped remove the stigma of asking for help – just knowing that there’s a supportive ear and that you’re not alone.

6) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life? 

I mentioned my daily dog walks! Additionally, I’ve really taken charge of my health. The Amex Trendex survey revealed that 39% of Australian women say that working virtually has enabled them to be ambitious in other parts of their lives outside of work.

This rang true to me. I have Type 1 Diabetes and I’ve always managed “fine” – perhaps sacrificing a little self-care in order to live a “normal life.” Part way through 2020 I reassessed my priorities and decided to demonstrate the same ambition for my health that I have for my work. I treated it like a work project. I fine-tuned my care regime and improved my diet and exercise. 

I’m really conscious of not letting this slip when I return to the office and will continue to work flexibly in order to prioritise health. The best news is I just got access to Chris Hemsworth’s’ Centr app (qualifying as both an employee and a card member) so now I feel I have the fitness part sorted, no matter what 2021 throws at me!

7) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

The book The New Leaders’ 100 Day Action Plan by Brandt, Check and Lawler was recommended to me and I’m finding it thoroughly practical.

One concept that really resonated is to ensure you and your team enjoy some “fast wins” within the first 100 days, rather than trying to boil the ocean. This gives yourself and your stakeholders much needed confidence in the early days, setting you up for ongoing success.

Prior to 2020, most of my podcast listening and reading was on the bus. I never used to spend much time in the car, but now I enjoy having the time to drive the kids to school each morning. They choose the songs on the way to school, and I switch to Coronacast for the return trip.

8) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

So many! I love my gadgets and I have an app for everything!

Video doorbell, robot vacuum cleaner, Kindle, Pinterest, Amazon ordering, the Resy app has the best Sydney dining options (full disclosure, Resy is now an Amex company), keypad door lock (no more getting locked out when I’ve lost my key), solar panels (new since working from home).

Video apps to stay close to family in New Zealand and Singapore, the Amex app to save offers to my card, Bands in Town (never miss your favourite band live, or virtual), Slack at work, Calm, Centr, Stridekick for team step challenges, and Service NSW – always at the ready for Covid-safe check ins!

9) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?   

Jacinda Ardern. She did make her work diary public, but I’d love to know what her idea of balance is, and how she achieves it. I also admire chefs and others who work in the night time economy, and love to know how they make it all work – Danielle Alvarez for example.

10) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

I have some advice specifically for parents. Never hide your enjoyment of work from your kids. They don’t want you to feel guilty, they want to see you happy and they are setting their own work-life expectations based on what they see of you.

Instead of “I’m sorry I can’t come to your swimming carnival, I have a meeting with my MD and I just can’t reschedule it”, how about “I’m really excited about a chance to present my new strategy to my MD tomorrow, I’ve been working on it for weeks and I hope he/she likes it. I can’t wait for dinner tomorrow night, so you can tell me how your swimming carnival went and I can tell you how the presentation went.”

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.