Kristina Fink was given great advice early on in her career. A leader at Bear Sterns (where Fink was acting as in-house counsel) told the young lawyer that it was probably time for her to get some law firm experience. Fink had come to Bear Sterns straight out of law school, and so her higher-up suggested that she should get some exposure to issues she wouldn’t presently be able to get at their investment banking firm. After three years, she could return to Bear Sterns in an elevated leadership role. That was 2007.
The plan would have worked perfectly had Bear Sterns not imploded during the financial crash of 2008, derailing Fink’s original intentions.
But the lawyer was used to the job search, and the sudden change ultimately led her to a path she never envisioned: corporate governance. Like many young lawyers, Fink had always assumed that she would be engaged in heady litigation straight away. She instead found herself at Clifford Chance, where she spent six years engaged in extensive governance and M&A work.
“I loved it, but I really tired of the deal work,” Fink told the podcast Women Governance Trailblazers. “I missed being in-house. I had honed my governance practice and decided to make that my focus. I found my way to Guardian Life Insurance. It was a private company, and I learned so much. I would probably still be there had it not been for the American Express job listing.”
The AmEx opportunity looked like her dream job: board meetings, shareholder interaction, and a return to an in-house role. After an extensive interview process, Fink joined the company. Fast-forward four years and two promotions, and she now serves as vice president, corporate secretary, and chief governance officer.
“It’s such a unique perspective where you’re able to proactively engage with everyone involved from all different angles,” Fink said in the Women Governance Trailblazers interview. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to influence and make sure that good governance is always in play.”
Fink takes her leadership responsibilities very seriously. Since coming to AmEx, she’s taken part in two different leadership courses, one from Harvard and another through Duke Corporate Learning. The latter course required some significant legwork—literally.
“I was so skeptical coming in because there was a sports component to this course,” Fink explained. “We had a soccer match, and I still remember strapping on shin guards while letting one of my managers know that I was going to be out of pocket for a while, and that they might have to handle putting up a board posting on their own.”
Fink said her skepticism was quickly put to rest. She forged meaningful connections with people scattered throughout AmEx’s global talent pool of sixty-four thousand employees, and the course analyzed the game and explained why certain people took on certain roles.
“I think these kinds of courses can be so valuable for an organization,” Fink told Women Governance. “But I also know that times are a little tight for that kind of spending right now. But even investing in a coach to come in and work with your team or doing an off-site can have a really significant impact on an organization. It’s important to take the time to really get to know the people around you.”
This mindset has proven to be beneficial for those around Fink as well. “Kristina is an exceptional leader who always focuses on collaboration and communication. Her keen intellect and breadth of experience bring people together to help achieve the organization’s goals,” says Francesca Odell, partner at Cleary Gottlieb. “It is a privilege to work with her and the whole team at American Express.”
The corporate governance landscape continues to demand more time of in-house leaders, and Fink has noted how important it is to look back on just how much change has taken place since she began her work in 2001. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG); culture building; cybersecurity; boardroom diversity; and business continuity management in the wake of crises like COVID-19 were barely a blip on the radar of corporate governance leaders twenty years ago. But as times continue to evolve, Fink will evolve right along with them, in cleats if need be.