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How Diversity Drives Innovation: In Conversation with Margaret Keane, CEO, Synchrony

Speakers: Margaret Keane, CEO, Synchrony

Margaret Keane, Chief Executive Officer of Synchrony shares how to make the connections between diversity and innovation through examples of how the organization elevates ideas from employees coming from the intersection of cultures and intustiries, helping to illustrate how leadership shapes the way for creating an organizational culture that is foundational for fostering a great place to work for all.

Show Transcript
Julian Lute:

From the main stage today we're having keynotes, we're going to have folks sharing their own personal journeys of leadership but we're also going to have a series of conversations. I want to introduce the first conversation that we're going to have from the stage today. This first leader really believes that all leaders have a moral obligation to prepare their people for the jobs of the future. She is a champion of the people on the front line because she actually began her career in a call center. I'm talking about Margaret Keane, who is the chief executive officer of Synchrony and one of our summit co-chairs. She can tell you all about herself but I want you to know that she's been named one of Fortune's most powerful women for the past three years. Help me welcome Margaret Keane to the stage. We're learning.

Margaret Keane:

Learning.

Julian Lute:

All right. Another one of my favorite people is an accomplished journalist with features in Fortune and Wall Street Journal and the New York Times amongst other publications, very, very passionate about health, especially cancer. I had a chance to speak with him last year and his passion for people truly shines through, as well as his pension for simplicity. He really understands our mission deeply and he knows how to connect with people. Please help me welcome the editor in chief of Fortune Magazine, Clifton Leaf.

Clifton Leaf:

One thing I told the organizers here, the whole GBTW team was, please don't make me follow Michael Bush. Please. Whatever you do, don't make me follow Michael Bush. Just another round from Michael. He has changed the conversation. He has brought this idea of a great place for all. Leadership for all into the conversation. I really want to acknowledge that. Thank you. And to kick us off, what better person than Margaret Keane, who you've made this your mission right from the start. When you first split off Synchrony from GE and then you had your IPO. Before you did anything, you were thinking about what should be our culture, what should be our mission? Long before you thought of everything and a huge part of that was diversity and inclusion.

Margaret Keane:

Totally. As a matter of fact, I go back, because obviously spinning off a company doing an IPO is exhausting. We did the IPO in July and in September I brought my whole leadership team together to talk about culture and you had to see their faces. They're like, what?

Clifton Leaf:

Culture. Yeah.

Margaret Keane:

Culture. And I talked a lot about what did we want to be as a company and we started out by laying out what we thought was a good purpose and then our values and from that we've really built, I think, honestly an incredible culture. A culture where we really believe anyone in the company can be successful and we want to make sure everyone feels that passion that they can be successful.

Clifton Leaf:

For 23 years, Fortune Magazine has been publishing this list, The 100 Best Companies to Work For with our great partners at Great Place To Work who do all the work, I should point out but each time we look at a lot of perks in one of those perks really stood out for me this year, which was that that Synchrony will pay up to $24,000 for tuition costs for your employees and $5,000 for those who are part time workers. That's not a perk. That's a statement.

Margaret Keane:

It is a statement because one of the things that I think has struck me for most of my career is I've been in operations, I've worked in operations, I worked in call centers. Guess what, there's a ton of diversity in call centers. Our hourly workforce is our most diverse workforce. How do we give these people the opportunity to elevate themselves? And there's many things we can do but one of the most important is helping them with the cost of tuition and I think one of the interesting things and you heard this last year, DJ talk about it, his my HR leader.

Margaret Keane:

We talked a lot about what else can we do, not only for our employees but for our communities and we've actually expanded that tuition reimbursement for people willing to get their degree in education and healthcare. If we get a call center rep who works with us for five years while they're going to school, we get a great, highly energized employee for five years and guess what? They're going back in the community and doing great things and I think if you can make that virtual circle where you're helping the employee lift themselves up and then you're really giving back to the community at the same time, it's great.

Margaret Keane:

On the other hand, we're doing a lot around technology and kind of bootcamps as well because I think we're all realizing you don't always need a four year degree and so we're paying for bootcamps now. We're training employees and by the way, some of these employees are leaving us. They're not staying with us. We're actually training them to go out into the workforce. DJ and I, we're just out in one of our call centers where four people were graduating and actually had already got jobs. They actually got great raises, great responsibility and the funniest thing is they were all sad about leaving Synchrony but we really congratulated them because that's changing and making a real difference for the workforce in our communities.

Clifton Leaf:

That's absolutely ... I mean, congratulations. And we talked a lot about the circular economy. Usually we think in of sustainability as the sort of ideas that sort of dust to dust but you're really talking about a circular economy in terms of paying it back financially, career-wise, having people go up from a call center, get trained, become one day a CEO and guess who did that? You did that. You started as a call center employee collecting bills for Citibank at $5.50 an hour.

Margaret Keane:

Which was a lot of money by the way back then. It was a great job because you could work as many hours as you could. You would just come in and they'd give you a bunch of calls to make and I needed money so I was working really hard.

Clifton Leaf:

You've lived this life though and that does translate into how you think about your team. You are a leader for all because you've lived that

Margaret Keane:

Well and I think I always talk about ... look, I was a woman back then, obviously still now but-

Clifton Leaf:

Still now.

Margaret Keane:

I'm still a woman but I'm 60 years old. If you go back, I started in 1980, when I started in the call center. Women weren't moving up. It wasn't like there was a lot of people picking us up and really helping us in our career. I was very lucky in that I worked really hard and someone there asked me to do some extra work for him. I did and then he actually sponsored me to go on the management trainee program and honestly I don't think I would have done that. I don't think I would have known to even do that and I think a lot of times people who got their head down and are really working and trying to make ends meet, don't always look up and see that possibility of what could happen and you could ask DJ, I go out and visit our sites a lot and I write names down. I'm like, what about that person? What about that person? How are we doing on that person?

Margaret Keane:

And we have a series of development programs from ... one is called Step, where we work hard to get our salary work is into an exam trial, which is great. About 70% of the people that go to that program, it's two years actually get promoted, which is great but now we're trying to say, "Okay, how do we accelerate them even further?"

Clifton Leaf:

75% of those I read get promoted-

Margaret Keane:

Yes.

Clifton Leaf:

... That's a very-

Margaret Keane:

That's a very big number but we want to do more and so we're constantly looking at how do we lift people up, how do we really get them to have an even great opportunity inside the company.

Clifton Leaf:

One of the challenges you said is that, I remember there's a story of you, you had left Citibank, you rose to the top of US retail operations, recruited by GE and you're in a meeting and it's your first chance. You've been there three months and the great Jack Welch is in the room, right? And you're about to go sit somewhere and you go sit against the wall and somebody grabs you and moves you into [inaudible 00:08:54].

Margaret Keane:

Yeah. You can imagine I left Citi at GE, Molly there a couple of months and we should all take a moment to recognize Jack as a leader, an incredible leader. I was sitting in the back row, which is what you did, right? You kind of hide, make believe I'm not here and my boss at the time said, "No, Margaret, you need to come up here and sit next to me. You deserve to sit here."

Clifton Leaf:

Sit at the table.

Margaret Keane:

At the table.

Clifton Leaf:

But this is a big thing. You're experienced-

Margaret Keane:

This is Jack's conference room. This is where the guys sit. The white guys by the way. It was very intimidating.

Clifton Leaf:

But I want to get to this issue about, you said that a lot of people, particularly women and minorities were sitting against the wall. In other words, they'll put themselves there because they see this table of white men and they feel ... and you've had to fight against that instinct and when you coach people, you say, "Ask, demand a seat at the table a little bit."

Margaret Keane:

It's very funny. Last night, Florence's in the audience. Florence has an accent. He's from Romania and when he was presenting in one of our meetings, he said, "Do you remember what you did to me?" And I was like, "Well." He was sitting in a back row like I was in the back row not feeling like he ... I said, "Hey, get up here. Nobody can hear what you're saying. We can't hear you come up here." And I pay attention to this. I pay attention to where people are sitting. I pay attention to are people contributing? Sometimes you have to pull people out. You have to give them that confidence to say something.

Clifton Leaf:

I'd just love to see a show of hands. How many people have to fight that instinct to sort of sit against the wall. Just show your hands if you have to fight that instinct. Yeah. It's a fair number of you but this is part of what leaders can do. As you say, you write down the names of people. How do you grab people by the hand and say, "No, you belong here. You get the shot to sort of have your voice be heard." And everyone's voice should be heard but particularly in these kinds of leadership meetings.

Margaret Keane:

Well, I talk a lot to people about if you're in the room, you're there for a reason. You're not just there to decorate the room. You're there because someone thinks you can contribute so contribute and I think a lot of times, particularly diverse people, they're always looking, should I say something? Shouldn't I say, am I going to be ... they got this little voice in their head going on and somehow we have to cut those voices off and it takes leadership to help people through that, I think.

Clifton Leaf:

Yeah. And it takes some visibility too and you make a point of ... you actually of the financial services companies down the Fortune 200, Fortune 500. You have the one of the most diverse boards of directors and the point is, is not just to show this to the world but because you want a diversity of opinions, a diversity of experiences. This is really important to you.

Margaret Keane:

Well, it's really important because more and more I want people to look up and see people like themselves and I think one of the greatest opportunities I had, I got to create the board from scratch and believe me, it's not as easy as you think to get names that are diverse, you have to take chances on people. There's been a lot written about this. A lot of times people always want a sitting CEO or retired CEO, CFO, guess what? A lot of them are white men because that's [inaudible 00:12:38], come up the ranks so if you're going to have diversity, you have to look outside that criteria.

Margaret Keane:

Now you want to make sure you're putting competent people and with the right skills and I thought against some of that to get what I consider to be a very vibrant, diverse board and what's really incredible about our board is they actually participate in our diversity. They will come, we do an event in every summer, 500 people in the company. We do a diversity symposium. Our board comes to that event. Our board will talk at a panel but more importantly, they go to the dinners, they participate with our employees.

Clifton Leaf:

It brings up a big challenge though at companies which is that you're going out there, you're hiring, this is our room full of human resources professionals and you have what some call the resume trap or the experience trap and somebody had to have checked all these boxes in a lot of the great talent out there, the really wise people who have grit and insight from the world don't check those boxes and so how do you find them?

Margaret Keane:

You got to fight against that. This is what I always say, we know more about the people who work for us than the people who were looking on the outside. If I have such a diverse workforce in our exam population and they're coming to work every day and they're doing a great job and they're participating in various activities inside the site and we see them in a leadership role that maybe they don't have the four year degree but they have a two year degree, well we know them. Why wouldn't we want to spend more time with them than spending a lot of money hiring people from the outside that we don't know anything about.

Margaret Keane:

Just getting us to know our employees and taking what I call shots on goal. Look, not every one of these are going to work out perfect but believe me, you know who you have working for you and there's a lot more we can be doing as leaders to really pull those people up.

Clifton Leaf:

Yeah. What are some of the sort of mistakes that we make on this front? What are some of these assumptions that just prove out to be wrong?

Margaret Keane:

Oh, well.

Clifton Leaf:

It can't all be easy questions, Margaret.

Margaret Keane:

No, I know. Look, I'll tell you what I think we've done well and where I think we are now like raising the bar. We have a bunch of diversity networks, all the ones you would consider out there. Probably one of our unique ones. We launched a native American network last year because we do have a site that is in that community and it's been very, very eye-opening to be honest, to learn about the struggles that native Americans have inside our borders of the United States but I think we have not made the kind of progress we want to make with African American males in particular and Hispanics and I think this past year we really looked ourselves in the eyes and said, wait a minute, we're patting ourselves, we're on all these lists, we look great but you know what? We really haven't moved the needle here.

Margaret Keane:

What is going on? And so we're taking a little bit of a step back. We're looking at all of the slates for the last 12 months for jobs that are VP and above. We're going to look at who was on those slates, who didn't get the job? I think Michael said something. The person always comes in second. Do we have some of that going on? And look, I have made it a bit of a mandate to my leadership team, we're going to change this. We are going to change this and it's going to be a push from a lot of different sides because I really believe that it's great that we can pat ourselves on the back but if we don't, and you said it, my leadership team is diverse but not as diverse as it could be, right?

Clifton Leaf:

Right.

Margaret Keane:

How do we pull those people up so that at the right levels we all look the same of what's outside in the environment outside our companies so a lot of work going on here

Clifton Leaf:

I'd like to talk about a part of diversity and inclusion that we don't often talk about, which is financial inclusion. I mean you grew up working class neighborhood in Queens, your dad was a cop, he died early. You were the first person in your family to go to college and when you worked at that call center this was again $5.50 an hour was, Hey this is a great job. But there are a lot of people now in call centers that are this is the best job that they ever had in some cases but it's still not going to necessarily give them the kind of financial security forever. How do you deal with the idea that you as an employer have some sense of responsibility?

Margaret Keane:

Look, we do have a responsibility. I think we have a responsibility and I'd say this, I'd start at the top and say we can't ask our employees to come in every day and take care of our customers if we're not taking care of them. I start with that. The second is we have to make sure we're paying a fair wage. We are at $15, actually that's a starting wage. A lot of our employees are above that. We have great benefits. We talked about tuition reimbursement but I think there's another piece to this, which is we are working hard. We offer a lot of things like 401k. Guess what? A lot of people don't sign up for it. We've done some research where auto signing them up now. When they come in they're going to have to tell us now because that's a big savings for them.

Margaret Keane:

Our employees are all bonus eligible. Based on their performance, they get a bonus at the end of the year. You know what it's game changing for them. They could plan a holiday or vacation, something that maybe is out of the day to day. We have worked hard at having Fidelity come in and do financial workshops but I don't think we're done yet because I think the other part of the financial is really what I call wellness and we now have piloting life coaches at some of our call centers because one of the things we continue to realize, they don't even realize all the benefits we have. They're running a million miles an hour. They're working, kids, whatever. We now have piloting this in, in one of our Ohio sites where this person is there every single day doing sessions with employees who may be need help with childcare while we give emergency childcare days, 10 of them by the way.

Margaret Keane:

There are things out there that people don't even know we have and we're trying to look at the whole person so it's financial, it's wellness and it's really helping them understand the benefits that they have. We actually changed this year too. We had sick days and these days and a lot of different days and they were in different categories. We just told everyone, you have 15 days to use as you want and that gives a lot of freedom to people. I think that's really important. I think you got to look at financial and just overall wellness of the person.

Clifton Leaf:

A lot of people may not know that you were a digital disruptor before it was cool to be a digital disruptor. Back in GE when you were running the retail card business there. I mean you were really thinking about the future of big data and machine learning, analytics, brought that very, very early into Synchrony. Part of the other side of this, even though the exciting side is that you learned so much about customers and transactions and you make sure that there's a stability in terms of making sure people don't fall, take on too much credit rather than they can afford but the flip side is, is that we're seeing a lot of jobs disappear in this new age and what is the responsibility for corporations in terms of re-skilling and adapting their workforces for a 21st century economy?

Margaret Keane:

Well, this is a little bit what I touched on. One, we do have a responsibility. I feel a big responsibility because many of our call centers are in locations where we're the number one employer or second employer. We're a big part of the community and we don't want to impact that community. This is why we're doing the bootcamps. It's why we've expanded tuition reimbursement. We are re skilling. We're looking at jobs that maybe today we use contractors for and saying why can't we use our own employees and training them? We have a series of what I would call pilot programs going on in different parts of our company to really make sure we're getting people set up for the future. Excuse me.

Clifton Leaf:

Reverberating.

Margaret Keane:

Yeah, sorry.

Clifton Leaf:

That's right. Yeah. You mentioned community a lot and I think this is great and I know Michael mentioned it and I think that's going to be a big theme as we go through the next couple of days. A couple of times we've been stressed, right? In Charlotte, there was a challenge, there was a same sex bathroom bill that was passed. A lot of corporate leaders stood up and challenged it. You were right in the front lines of that. Another example though was during natural disasters during the hurricane Katrina in Puerto Rico, you had a huge chunk of employees who were there who you didn't even know if they were alive, if they'd survived it but you really made an effort in some cases being their lifeline that provided water and ice and food.

Margaret Keane:

Yeah. Food for the family. I mean it was pretty amazing because obviously for days we didn't even have contact with our employees and we finally made sure everyone was okay. We opened our site, not so much to tell people you had to work but we provided all these things, ice, water and food and food, not just for them but their families and what was really amazing is the people said that in many cases they were taking the water and food to their neighbors. It went beyond just Synchrony employees.

Margaret Keane:

Look, I think in times of need sad to say the shooting in Dayton, you have a big site in Kettering. We had a number of employees impacted by that shooting and same thing. We went out there, we donated employees to a group in Dayton who was getting all these donations and didn't even know how to handle them. Look, you work and live in a community, you can't just close your doors when bad things are happening on the outside, right? You have to be there and our employees are incredible. I mean, they're out there all the time.

Clifton Leaf:

They want you to take a stand on these lend a helping hand. It's a big part of working at a place and feeling that sense of mission. Yeah. I want to talk a little, another aspect about community that takes us into the news a little bit. We've all been talking about Corona virus. You have a number of call centers where people are very close together. Part of your job as CEO is to protect them.

Margaret Keane:

Yes. We're talking about this like every 10 minutes. The good news, nothing happening so far in any of our sites but we're talking about work from home. We do have work at home call center apps. We're looking to see how we can expand that fairly significantly. We're looking at could we close off certain floors? We're doing all the things that everyone's doing. We're doing deep cleanings, we got hand sanitizer everywhere. We're doing all that kind of stuff. We've actually stopped any non-essential travel. We're telling people who are doing internal, let's not go to sites if you don't really have to. Why even open that up but look we're a financial services company, believe it or not, the government requires you to have a pandemic plan, which all of us have.

Margaret Keane:

I think the interesting thing is we're now getting to test the plan because you know it's one thing to have something on paper. It's another thing to really start putting the plan in place and you sent out employee Q&A's and there's 10 more Q&A's around that and I think hopefully this is not that bad and I think all of us as CEOs are going to learn a lot about how we operate and what we need to do in a situation like this because I don't think this will be the first one.

Clifton Leaf:

You're one of only a handful of women CEOs of major US banks. Those with more than $10 billion in assets. On Wall Street and the big Wall Street banks, there are no women CEOs. What is the barrier? And we've had a couple of people come close that sort of, as Michael said, this sort of like, Oh yeah, the almost and when are we going to see this change?

Margaret Keane:

Well look, I think a lot of it is just math a little bit and I think there are a number of women in fairly senior positions, whether you look at JPMorgan, where I have big hope James is going to name a woman. I really do but even Citigroup where they just named Jane Fraser in a big role. I think you're going to see that happen and I think it's going to be fantastic.

Clifton Leaf:

Okay. CEOs can't help but think about legacy and you'll be in this job for many years to come but do you think about what you want your legacy to be?

Margaret Keane:

I haven't really thought about that yet. I'm really focused on creating a great legacy here and hope to leave this company that is a great place to work on list every year but more importantly is a company that really has created a diverse and inclusive culture that we can actually be a role model for other companies.

Clifton Leaf:

I suspect it might have something to do with being a great leader for all. Thank you, Margaret.

Margaret Keane:

Thank you. Thanks so much.