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

ED FRAUENHEIM

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Ed Frauenheim

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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

Ed Frauenheim is a former Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work®. He provides insights and shares stories about how great workplaces are better for business, better for people and better for the world. Ed has spoken at numerous events, published articles in FortuneWired and Inc. and co-written three books, including A Great Place to Work For All.

The data science behind this list from Great Place To Work®

Great Place To Work® has been surveying employees around the world about their workplace experiences for 30 years. We have developed a set of themes and metrics that not only predict whether employees feel their workplace is great, but predict retention, agility, and overall business success.  

Using our proprietary Trust Index™ survey, we measure the core of what we know creates great workplaces — key behaviors that drive trust in management, connection with colleagues, and loyalty to the company.  

The survey enables employees to share confidential quantitative and qualitative feedback about their organization’s culture by responding to 60 statements on a five-point scale and answering two open-ended questions.

Employees tell us whether leaders are accessible, communicate honestly and clearly, and if their actions match their words. They tell us whether they feel respected as individuals, if they receive training benefits, appreciation, support for their well-being and opportunities to contribute. They tell us whether they believe their company is fair related to pay, profits, promotions, recognition, favoritism and opportunities. They tell us if they are proud of their work, their team, and their company, and if they feel they make a difference and their work is meaningful. And they tell us whether they enjoy the people they work with, feel cared for and can be themselves.  

List rankings are based on this employee feedback, which we analyze to determine the extent to which this experience is shared by the full workforce. Great Place To Work measures the differences in survey responses across demographic groups and roles within each organization to assess both the quality and consistency of the employee experience. Statements are weighted according to their relevance in describing the most important aspects of an equitable workplace. 

The best companies create great work experiences not just for management, but also for their part-time employees on the front lines, for those who’ve just joined and those who’ve spent their whole career there, for every race and ethnicity, gender, neurotype, or other demographic in the organization – we look at it all. Companies with the broadest set of employees who report positive workplace experience receive the highest rankings on lists.

In addition to analyzing employee feedback, for National List’s for companies in the Medium and Large size categories, we also consider what a company can tell us about their programs and workplace strategy. Each company also answers six essay questions that provide greater insight into how, and why the organization is great for all people. Responses are rigorously evaluated and cross-reviewed according to Great Place To Work’s research-driven criteria. From what companies share in datapoints and essays, we identify the organizations that offer the most generous, caring and innovative cultures that reflect a genuine commitment to meet the diversity of their people’s needs inside and outside the workplace as validated by what employees themselves report in survey results.
Where an industry list is being revealed (i.e. Healthcare, Technology) additional information provided from an organization in the form of a culture audit will not be considered; rather we analyze employee feedback from the Trust Index survey with the above methodology.

Because employee feedback drives these rankings, surveys must meet strict requirements for how they are distributed and the percentage of employees who respond to ensure they accurately represent honest feedback from the company’s full population. To be eligible for the list, companies must be Great Place To Work Certified™, have 10 or more employees in the country they are being Certified, and be operating in the industry relevant to a specific Industry list if applicable (i.e. Healthcare, Technology). If categories are being listed within a National list, category break downs are as follows: Companies with 10-29 people were considered for the Micro category; those with 30 to 99 people for the Small category; companies with 100 to 999 employees were considered for the Medium category; and those with 1,000 or more for the Large category. Some lists in certain countries may combine categories in which case that will be specified in the list breakdown.
While essay responses provide important context for rankings, only survey data can garner a list placement.

The data science behind this list from Great Place To Work®

Great Place To Work® has been surveying employees around the world about their workplace experiences for 30 years. We have developed a set of themes and metrics that not only predict whether employees feel their workplace is great, but predict retention, agility, and overall business success.  

Using our proprietary Trust Index™ survey, we measure the core of what we know creates great workplaces — key behaviors that drive trust in management, connection with colleagues, and loyalty to the company.  

The survey enables employees to share confidential quantitative and qualitative feedback about their organization’s culture by responding to 60 statements on a five-point scale and answering two open-ended questions.

Employees tell us whether leaders are accessible, communicate honestly and clearly, and if their actions match their words. They tell us whether they feel respected as individuals, if they receive training benefits, appreciation, support for their well-being and opportunities to contribute. They tell us whether they believe their company is fair related to pay, profits, promotions, recognition, favoritism and opportunities. They tell us if they are proud of their work, their team, and their company, and if they feel they make a difference and their work is meaningful. And they tell us whether they enjoy the people they work with, feel cared for and can be themselves.  

List rankings are based on this employee feedback, which we analyze to determine the extent to which this experience is shared by the full workforce. Great Place To Work measures the differences in survey responses across demographic groups and roles within each organization to assess both the quality and consistency of the employee experience. Statements are weighted according to their relevance in describing the most important aspects of an equitable workplace. 

The best companies create great work experiences not just for management, but also for their part-time employees on the front lines, for those who’ve just joined and those who’ve spent their whole career there, for every race and ethnicity, gender, neurotype, or other demographic in the organization – we look at it all. Companies with the broadest set of employees who report positive workplace experience receive the highest rankings on lists.

In addition to analyzing employee feedback, for National List’s for companies in the Medium and Large size categories, we also consider what a company can tell us about their programs and workplace strategy. Each company also answers six essay questions that provide greater insight into how, and why the organization is great for all people. Responses are rigorously evaluated and cross-reviewed according to Great Place To Work’s research-driven criteria. From what companies share in datapoints and essays, we identify the organizations that offer the most generous, caring and innovative cultures that reflect a genuine commitment to meet the diversity of their people’s needs inside and outside the workplace as validated by what employees themselves report in survey results.
Where an industry list is being revealed (i.e. Healthcare, Technology) additional information provided from an organization in the form of a culture audit will not be considered; rather we analyze employee feedback from the Trust Index survey with the above methodology.

Because employee feedback drives these rankings, surveys must meet strict requirements for how they are distributed and the percentage of employees who respond to ensure they accurately represent honest feedback from the company’s full population. To be eligible for the list, companies must be Great Place To Work Certified™, have 10 or more employees in the country they are being Certified, and be operating in the industry relevant to a specific Industry list if applicable (i.e. Healthcare, Technology). If categories are being listed within a National list, category break downs are as follows: Companies with 10-29 people were considered for the Micro category; those with 30 to 99 people for the Small category; companies with 100 to 999 employees were considered for the Medium category; and those with 1,000 or more for the Large category. Some lists in certain countries may combine categories in which case that will be specified in the list breakdown.
While essay responses provide important context for rankings, only survey data can garner a list placement.

The data science behind this list from Great Place To Work®

Great Place To Work® has been surveying employees around the world about their workplace experiences for 30 years. We have developed a set of themes and metrics that not only predict whether employees feel their workplace is great, but predict retention, agility, and overall business success.  

Using our proprietary Trust Index™ survey, we measure the core of what we know creates great workplaces — key behaviors that drive trust in management, connection with colleagues, and loyalty to the company.  

The survey enables employees to share confidential quantitative and qualitative feedback about their organization’s culture by responding to 60 statements on a five-point scale and answering two open-ended questions.

Employees tell us whether leaders are accessible, communicate honestly and clearly, and if their actions match their words. They tell us whether they feel respected as individuals, if they receive training benefits, appreciation, support for their well-being and opportunities to contribute. They tell us whether they believe their company is fair related to pay, profits, promotions, recognition, favoritism and opportunities. They tell us if they are proud of their work, their team, and their company, and if they feel they make a difference and their work is meaningful. And they tell us whether they enjoy the people they work with, feel cared for and can be themselves.  

List rankings are based on this employee feedback, which we analyze to determine the extent to which this experience is shared by the full workforce. Great Place To Work measures the differences in survey responses across demographic groups and roles within each organization to assess both the quality and consistency of the employee experience. Statements are weighted according to their relevance in describing the most important aspects of an equitable workplace. 

The best companies create great work experiences not just for management, but also for their part-time employees on the front lines, for those who’ve just joined and those who’ve spent their whole career there, for every race and ethnicity, gender, neurotype, or other demographic in the organization – we look at it all. Companies with the broadest set of employees who report positive workplace experience receive the highest rankings on lists.

In addition to analyzing employee feedback, for National List’s for companies in the Medium and Large size categories, we also consider what a company can tell us about their programs and workplace strategy. Each company also answers six essay questions that provide greater insight into how, and why the organization is great for all people. Responses are rigorously evaluated and cross-reviewed according to Great Place To Work’s research-driven criteria. From what companies share in datapoints and essays, we identify the organizations that offer the most generous, caring and innovative cultures that reflect a genuine commitment to meet the diversity of their people’s needs inside and outside the workplace as validated by what employees themselves report in survey results.
Where an industry list is being revealed (i.e. Healthcare, Technology) additional information provided from an organization in the form of a culture audit will not be considered; rather we analyze employee feedback from the Trust Index survey with the above methodology.

Because employee feedback drives these rankings, surveys must meet strict requirements for how they are distributed and the percentage of employees who respond to ensure they accurately represent honest feedback from the company’s full population. To be eligible for the list, companies must be Great Place To Work Certified™, have 10 or more employees in the country they are being Certified, and be operating in the industry relevant to a specific Industry list if applicable (i.e. Healthcare, Technology). If categories are being listed within a National list, category break downs are as follows: Companies with 10-29 people were considered for the Micro category; those with 30 to 99 people for the Small category; companies with 100 to 999 employees were considered for the Medium category; and those with 1,000 or more for the Large category. Some lists in certain countries may combine categories in which case that will be specified in the list breakdown.
While essay responses provide important context for rankings, only survey data can garner a list placement.

The data science behind this list from Great Place To Work®

Great Place To Work® has been surveying employees around the world about their workplace experiences for 30 years. We have developed a set of themes and metrics that not only predict whether employees feel their workplace is great, but predict retention, agility, and overall business success.  

Using our proprietary Trust Index™ survey, we measure the core of what we know creates great workplaces — key behaviors that drive trust in management, connection with colleagues, and loyalty to the company.  

The survey enables employees to share confidential quantitative and qualitative feedback about their organization’s culture by responding to 60 statements on a five-point scale and answering two open-ended questions.

Employees tell us whether leaders are accessible, communicate honestly and clearly, and if their actions match their words. They tell us whether they feel respected as individuals, if they receive training benefits, appreciation, support for their well-being and opportunities to contribute. They tell us whether they believe their company is fair related to pay, profits, promotions, recognition, favoritism and opportunities. They tell us if they are proud of their work, their team, and their company, and if they feel they make a difference and their work is meaningful. And they tell us whether they enjoy the people they work with, feel cared for and can be themselves.  

List rankings are based on this employee feedback, which we analyze to determine the extent to which this experience is shared by the full workforce. Great Place To Work measures the differences in survey responses across demographic groups and roles within each organization to assess both the quality and consistency of the employee experience. Statements are weighted according to their relevance in describing the most important aspects of an equitable workplace. 

The best companies create great work experiences not just for management, but also for their part-time employees on the front lines, for those who’ve just joined and those who’ve spent their whole career there, for every race and ethnicity, gender, neurotype, or other demographic in the organization – we look at it all. Companies with the broadest set of employees who report positive workplace experience receive the highest rankings on lists.

In addition to analyzing employee feedback, for National List’s for companies in the Medium and Large size categories, we also consider what a company can tell us about their programs and workplace strategy. Each company also answers six essay questions that provide greater insight into how, and why the organization is great for all people. Responses are rigorously evaluated and cross-reviewed according to Great Place To Work’s research-driven criteria. From what companies share in datapoints and essays, we identify the organizations that offer the most generous, caring and innovative cultures that reflect a genuine commitment to meet the diversity of their people’s needs inside and outside the workplace as validated by what employees themselves report in survey results.
Where an industry list is being revealed (i.e. Healthcare, Technology) additional information provided from an organization in the form of a culture audit will not be considered; rather we analyze employee feedback from the Trust Index survey with the above methodology.

Because employee feedback drives these rankings, surveys must meet strict requirements for how they are distributed and the percentage of employees who respond to ensure they accurately represent honest feedback from the company’s full population. To be eligible for the list, companies must be Great Place To Work Certified™, have 10 or more employees in the country they are being Certified, and be operating in the industry relevant to a specific Industry list if applicable (i.e. Healthcare, Technology). If categories are being listed within a National list, category break downs are as follows: Companies with 10-29 people were considered for the Micro category; those with 30 to 99 people for the Small category; companies with 100 to 999 employees were considered for the Medium category; and those with 1,000 or more for the Large category. Some lists in certain countries may combine categories in which case that will be specified in the list breakdown.
While essay responses provide important context for rankings, only survey data can garner a list placement.

The data science behind this list from Great Place To Work®

Great Place To Work® has been surveying employees around the world about their workplace experiences for 30 years. We have developed a set of themes and metrics that not only predict whether employees feel their workplace is great, but predict retention, agility, and overall business success.  

Using our proprietary Trust Index™ survey, we measure the core of what we know creates great workplaces — key behaviors that drive trust in management, connection with colleagues, and loyalty to the company.  

The survey enables employees to share confidential quantitative and qualitative feedback about their organization’s culture by responding to 60 statements on a five-point scale and answering two open-ended questions.

Employees tell us whether leaders are accessible, communicate honestly and clearly, and if their actions match their words. They tell us whether they feel respected as individuals, if they receive training benefits, appreciation, support for their well-being and opportunities to contribute. They tell us whether they believe their company is fair related to pay, profits, promotions, recognition, favoritism and opportunities. They tell us if they are proud of their work, their team, and their company, and if they feel they make a difference and their work is meaningful. And they tell us whether they enjoy the people they work with, feel cared for and can be themselves.  

List rankings are based on this employee feedback, which we analyze to determine the extent to which this experience is shared by the full workforce. Great Place To Work measures the differences in survey responses across demographic groups and roles within each organization to assess both the quality and consistency of the employee experience. Statements are weighted according to their relevance in describing the most important aspects of an equitable workplace. 

The best companies create great work experiences not just for management, but also for their part-time employees on the front lines, for those who’ve just joined and those who’ve spent their whole career there, for every race and ethnicity, gender, neurotype, or other demographic in the organization – we look at it all. Companies with the broadest set of employees who report positive workplace experience receive the highest rankings on lists.

In addition to analyzing employee feedback, for National List’s for companies in the Medium and Large size categories, we also consider what a company can tell us about their programs and workplace strategy. Each company also answers six essay questions that provide greater insight into how, and why the organization is great for all people. Responses are rigorously evaluated and cross-reviewed according to Great Place To Work’s research-driven criteria. From what companies share in datapoints and essays, we identify the organizations that offer the most generous, caring and innovative cultures that reflect a genuine commitment to meet the diversity of their people’s needs inside and outside the workplace as validated by what employees themselves report in survey results.
Where an industry list is being revealed (i.e. Healthcare, Technology) additional information provided from an organization in the form of a culture audit will not be considered; rather we analyze employee feedback from the Trust Index survey with the above methodology.

Because employee feedback drives these rankings, surveys must meet strict requirements for how they are distributed and the percentage of employees who respond to ensure they accurately represent honest feedback from the company’s full population. To be eligible for the list, companies must be Great Place To Work Certified™, have 10 or more employees in the country they are being Certified, and be operating in the industry relevant to a specific Industry list if applicable (i.e. Healthcare, Technology). If categories are being listed within a National list, category break downs are as follows: Companies with 10-29 people were considered for the Micro category; those with 30 to 99 people for the Small category; companies with 100 to 999 employees were considered for the Medium category; and those with 1,000 or more for the Large category. Some lists in certain countries may combine categories in which case that will be specified in the list breakdown.
While essay responses provide important context for rankings, only survey data can garner a list placement.

The data science behind this list from Great Place To Work®

Great Place To Work® has been surveying employees around the world about their workplace experiences for 30 years. We have developed a set of themes and metrics that not only predict whether employees feel their workplace is great, but predict retention, agility, and overall business success.  

Using our proprietary Trust Index™ survey, we measure the core of what we know creates great workplaces — key behaviors that drive trust in management, connection with colleagues, and loyalty to the company.  

The survey enables employees to share confidential quantitative and qualitative feedback about their organization’s culture by responding to 60 statements on a five-point scale and answering two open-ended questions.

Employees tell us whether leaders are accessible, communicate honestly and clearly, and if their actions match their words. They tell us whether they feel respected as individuals, if they receive training benefits, appreciation, support for their well-being and opportunities to contribute. They tell us whether they believe their company is fair related to pay, profits, promotions, recognition, favoritism and opportunities. They tell us if they are proud of their work, their team, and their company, and if they feel they make a difference and their work is meaningful. And they tell us whether they enjoy the people they work with, feel cared for and can be themselves.  

List rankings are based on this employee feedback, which we analyze to determine the extent to which this experience is shared by the full workforce. Great Place To Work measures the differences in survey responses across demographic groups and roles within each organization to assess both the quality and consistency of the employee experience. Statements are weighted according to their relevance in describing the most important aspects of an equitable workplace. 

The best companies create great work experiences not just for management, but also for their part-time employees on the front lines, for those who’ve just joined and those who’ve spent their whole career there, for every race and ethnicity, gender, neurotype, or other demographic in the organization – we look at it all. Companies with the broadest set of employees who report positive workplace experience receive the highest rankings on lists.

In addition to analyzing employee feedback, for National List’s for companies in the Medium and Large size categories, we also consider what a company can tell us about their programs and workplace strategy. Each company also answers six essay questions that provide greater insight into how, and why the organization is great for all people. Responses are rigorously evaluated and cross-reviewed according to Great Place To Work’s research-driven criteria. From what companies share in datapoints and essays, we identify the organizations that offer the most generous, caring and innovative cultures that reflect a genuine commitment to meet the diversity of their people’s needs inside and outside the workplace as validated by what employees themselves report in survey results.
Where an industry list is being revealed (i.e. Healthcare, Technology) additional information provided from an organization in the form of a culture audit will not be considered; rather we analyze employee feedback from the Trust Index survey with the above methodology.

Because employee feedback drives these rankings, surveys must meet strict requirements for how they are distributed and the percentage of employees who respond to ensure they accurately represent honest feedback from the company’s full population. To be eligible for the list, companies must be Great Place To Work Certified™, have 10 or more employees in the country they are being Certified, and be operating in the industry relevant to a specific Industry list if applicable (i.e. Healthcare, Technology). If categories are being listed within a National list, category break downs are as follows: Companies with 10-29 people were considered for the Micro category; those with 30 to 99 people for the Small category; companies with 100 to 999 employees were considered for the Medium category; and those with 1,000 or more for the Large category. Some lists in certain countries may combine categories in which case that will be specified in the list breakdown.
While essay responses provide important context for rankings, only survey data can garner a list placement.