Tim McClimon’s Turns a Moment into a Leadership Movement

How many times have you thought your life was headed in one direction only to have it take an unexpected turn? For Timothy J. McClimon, who serves as Senior Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility for American Express, as well as President of the American Express Foundation, a walk on his college campus forever changed his life.


McClimon was walking on the campus of Luther College, a small liberal arts college in Iowa, when the person who had been running the student coffee house–a place for students to grab a snack and listen to entertainment–stopped to ask if McClimon was interested in taking on the role. Little did McClimon know that running the coffee shop and booking bands for entertainment would lead to him becoming President of the Student Activities Council and then to a postgraduate job in student programming.


Law school and several corporate jobs later, McClimon found himself leading American Express’s corporate social responsibility function. That’s when he and his colleagues stepped up in a moment to start a movement. You see, the organization was looking for a way to identify a philanthropic initiative that aligned with American Express’s vision for community impact. This is the story of how American Express, under McClimon’s leadership, created the giving initiative: developing new leaders for tomorrow, which recognizes the significance of strong leadership in the nonprofit and social purpose sectors. More than 70,000 emerging nonprofit and social sector leaders worldwide have benefitted from American Express leadership programs, including the American Express Leadership Academy.  Since 2008, more than 3,600 emerging nonprofit leaders have participated in the leadership academy. Having gone through four of their programs, I can speak firsthand to what an amazing resource this is for nonprofit leaders. These programs have transformed me as a leader.


A Leadership Deficit?

The idea for a philanthropic pillar for leadership development came from three places, first, a study by the Bridgespan Group, a well-known nonprofit consulting firm, called The Leadership Deficit. The study asserted that the nonprofit sector was on the brink of a leadership crisis as thousands of baby boomers were approaching retirement. Its authors thought that for-profit leaders might have to fill the gap. McClimon agreed with the research but not the conclusion. There were enough leaders in the nonprofit sector but they needed more training and experience.


And then McClimon spoke with a number of nonprofit leaders including Michael Lomax, President of the United Negro College Fund. Lomax felt that Historically Black Colleges and Universities could have the best of the best resources–the best professors and facilities, the best programs, scholarships, and technology–but if they didn’t have good leaders, the institutions wouldn’t thrive. Institutions need leaders, not just resources, to have impact.


Finally, leadership development is a passion of Ken Chenault’s who was then CEO of American Express, and Chenault had been speaking about the importance of developing high potential, emerging leaders in the for-profit sector for many years.


A theme was emerging: a need for leadership development. This led the American Express Foundation to create the American Express Leadership Academy.  The Academy started with one program at the Creative Center for Leadership in North Carolina and since then, has grown to 21 programs in nine countries, training 750 leaders annually.


You might think that I wanted to write about American Express because I’ve gone through four of their programs (and trust me, I’ll do as many of the programs as I can), but it’s also because I’m truly inspired by their beliefs and what they provide participants. I’ve had the opportunity to attend the prestigious Aspen Institute, meet leaders from across the globe in New York and spend a year with the most amazing next generation leaders through the Independent Sector. With each program, I’ve learned more about myself, dug deeper to challenge myself, and been exposed to new principles of leadership. It’s through American Express that I first learned about adaptive leadership and a book called, “Leadership on the Line.” That book transformed my thinking as a manager, and it’s often the first book I recommend to new managers.  On the mountains of Aspen, I realized that I had a desire to become a thought leader and share my experiences with others. And it was through talking with American Express alums that I decided to launch this blog.


McClimon didn’t know where his walk across Luther College’s campus would take him, but that walk proved transformative not just for him, but for every person that American Express has touched through the Leadership Academy. I look forward to sharing with you in future posts some of the lessons and principles I learned through the Academy’s programs.


You Can Build Transformational Systems

I love the story behind the American Express Leadership Academy because it’s another great example of how leaders turn moments into movements. McClimon’s story gives me great hope that ordinary people like me and you can help build transformational systems that will better the world we live in.


It was a year ago this week that I was in Aspen for the American Express Leadership Academy 2.0 with the Aspen Institute on Social Impact and Philanthropy. If you watch this video that shares my journey, you’ll understand why I enjoy writing about social impact and philanthropy. What greater testament to the lasting impact of the Leadership Academy?

If you’re a nonprofit leader who wants to learn more about the American Express Leadership Academy, you can visit LeaderStories.org.


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