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4 Lessons on Leadership During COVID-19 from Synchrony CEO Margaret Keane

4 Lessons on Leadership During COVID-19 from Synchrony CEO Margaret Keane

Over the past few weeks, some employees at financial services company Synchrony have been surprised by video calls.

The person on the other end of the line was their CEO, Margaret Keane, calling to check in on people and thank employees for going above and beyond during this challenging time of COVID-19.

“Almost everyone thinks I’m calling their number by mistake,” Margaret explained on the most recent Together webinar hosted by Great Place to Work®. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m actually calling you.’”

The reason Margaret takes time out from her busy schedule leading a company of 16,500 people is that she says the pandemic is not a time to cut back on rewarding and recognizing employees. If anything, the health and economic crisis make moments of appreciation more important.

“I want you to know that, as the CEO, I know you’re doing great work and you’re stepping up,” Margaret said.

Margaret is the first of a number of executives who will appear at the Together discussions, which we designed to help business leaders like you navigate the coronavirus crisis. The next webinar will take place Friday, May 15.

The emergence of COVID-19 earlier this year posed dramatic challenges for Synchrony. The company provides private-label credit cards and card-related services for retailers, both large and small. Many of Synchrony’s employees work in call centers, speaking with clients’ credit card customers. What’s more, Synchrony is a global organization with operations in the US, the Philippines and India.

In describing the actions she and her team have taken in recent weeks, Margaret offered four main lessons for business leaders.

1. Be bold

Around March 10, Margaret announced that Synchrony call centers would be shut down and employees would work from home until April 31st. Declaring such a long break from typical operations took some by surprise. “People were shocked,” Margaret recalls.

But she was inspired to act this decisively by something she learned from St. John’s University in New York City. Margaret is a trustee of the university, and in early March she saw the school taking measured steps, such as bringing study-abroad students home.

But those partial responses soon required more dramatic action as the scale of the pandemic grew. “I said, ‘You know what, you cannot make incremental decisions here,’” Margaret said. “‘This thing is going to get away from you so fast.’”

2. Lessen the financial and mental load

Margaret’s move to close the company’s call centers and equip thousands of customer service representatives to work from home was all about keeping employees safe. Synchrony leaders also have taken actions to support work-life balance and ease employee stress when it comes to financial and emotional well-being.

At the outset of the pandemic, customer service representatives were given additional cash payments—$500 to full time employees and $250 to part-time staffers.

The company has hosted calls with medical and psychological experts available to answer questions. And Margaret and other senior leaders have held weekly webinars to address topics ranging from the virus to the company’s cash position.

3. Be the calm in the storm

At first, those calls were audio-only. Then Margaret decided the leaders should appear on video. That way, employees could see the confidence in leaders’ faces directly. 

“Being calm and just being hopeful, I think, is really important,” Margaret said.

“When something bad happens, that is when you, as a leader, have to be the calmest. And when people make mistakes, you have to be calm,” Margaret said. “Because, believe me, great people are going to feel so much worse about that mistake than you are.”

4. Trust your people to do their thing

This is a time to empower employees, Margaret said. Even though she acted boldly to shut down the call centers for an extended period, Margaret has worked to avoid micro-managing her team.

“You make a decision and you get out of the way as the CEO and let the experts do the job,” she said. “And then all you’re really doing as the CEO is just making sure you’re supporting everyone.” 

For Margaret, that support can take the form of a call to ask someone how they are doing or thank them for good work. She may surprise that employee.

But no, it’s not the wrong number.

Are you trying to find calm in the chaos? Join our next Together conversation and get more of the employee engagement and company culture advice you need on our dedicated COVID-19 HR resources page. If you want support for surveying your employees and creating a stronger workplace culture, contact us here. 


Ed Frauenheim