How the Best Workplaces in Finance Are Leading the Industry in Innovation

FinTech. AI. Blockchain. Mobile banking. These terms have become part of the lexicon at every company in the finance industry. But as these companies focus more intently on innovating for the future, the attention to workplace culture can easily get de-prioritized if not neglected altogether. At the 60 Best Workplaces in Financial Services and Insurance, employee engagement and trust are just as important as discussing innovation. This year’s ranking, just published by Fortune in partnership with Great Place to Work, includes companies that are focusing on Innovation By All, the approach that great business leaders take to empower every member of their team to innovate. (Read more about the concept in “How Every Company Can Inspire All Employees to Drive Innovation.”)

Synchrony Financial, a former division of GE that was spun off and became a publicly-traded company in 2014 and appears at No. 27 on this year’s list of the Best Workplaces in Financial Services and Insurance, is an innovation leader. At the Great Place to Work For All Summit in late February, Fortune’s deputy digital director Kristen Bellstrom sat down with DJ Casto, the Chief Human Resources Officer at Synchrony, to talk about how the company is encouraging every employee to participate in the innovation process, and how transparency is the best policy when discussing AI with its team members. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.

See the 60 Best Workplaces in Finance and Insurance

Kristen Bellstrom: After splitting from GE, is there something that you kept from the GE culture, or something that you decided didn’t fit with what you saw as the future of Synchrony?

DJ Casto: GE was very well-known for its leadership development. They had a ton of great iconic leadership programs, and we wanted to ensure our employees felt that we were going to give the same level of commitment and investment in leadership development. So, we kept it, and we took their early leadership programs, and modified them to become more specific to us.

Bellstrom: As the HR leader, what did you do to help people sort of transition to this new culture?

Casto: Well, we had a great culture to start with, and we kept reinforcing that along the way. We want to double down and protect the things that got us here. We want to celebrate our heritage. But then also lean in to this company we want to be. We called ourselves an 85-year-old startup. We started with financing GE appliances, and now today, we’ve got these amazing partnerships with PayPal and Amazon, that are really future-forward. And so, we must continue to be more agile than we’ve ever been before. We want you to be the great leaders that you’ve always been, but we also want you to think about agility. We want you to ensure that you’re being a critical thinker and creative. Because if you’re not focused in those areas, and we’re not all moving forward in that same direction, the competition is going to beat us. We have to instill this winning culture at Synchrony that’s going to allow us, in an uber-competitive time, to really differentiate, and win new and different clients, PayPal being one of those.

Bellstrom: I’d love to hear a little bit about how you’ve tried to build this culture of innovation at Synchrony. I know that you have innovation centers. How do they work?

Casto: We have empowerment stations, and we have innovation stations. We’re 17,000-plus employees in the U.S. as well as Asia. Of those, around 13,000 people are in our contact centers. These are the individuals that are answering the calls from our customers, our cardholders, and they oftentimes have the best ideas. And so, what we tried to do is create a formal way that encourages our employees that when they see something is broken, when they feel like they aren’t anchored in providing the best customer experience, if they feel like one of the other cards that are in their wallet are providing a better service, in an area that we aren’t offering today, tell us about it. And so, we dedicate time when our associates can come out of their jobs, into these innovation stations or empowerment stations, and really work together on solving problems. We also have a system where employees at any level in the company can cascade these new ideas and concepts that they’ve seen out in the market, or internally, within Synchrony, so that we can look to them and help prioritize our strategy for the future, to ensure it’s really meeting our customers’ needs. They are on the front lines every day, listening to our customers

Bellstrom: As a head of HR, you help employees with the anxiety around that idea of job losses because of technology, and how you guys are working to train and re-skill people so that they might move into different jobs.

Casto: It’s a great question. I’ll be honest with you. If you would have asked that question to me probably six months ago, I might have a little bit of a different answer, because I was trying to be a little more conservative in the messaging, to try to minimize the fear for our employees. But what I realized is, in the lack of our narrative, a narrative was forming by our employees. And so, we needed to become more proactive than reactive on what some of our commitments were going to be. Our CEO Margaret Keane got the entire leadership team together, and we said, “What is our obligation? What is our responsibility in this space?” And what we said is, “We do have a moral responsibility, as a company, to ensure that we are creating and … ” I love this word … “intensifying the learning and development opportunities we’re providing for our employees for up-skilling efforts.” But what does that really mean? We talk to our associates and say, “Super agents are coming,” but we haven’t defined what a super agent is. And what we’re basically saying is that through the unlock of technology, our associates will be able to … instead of being in collections and customer service and fraud, down the road, they probably will be able to do all of it, versus being siloed in certain areas, because technology’s going to allow that to happen. It’s going to allow them to focus on that more strategic work, and the tactical elements hopefully are sun-setted through technology and leveraged through AI.

Casto: We recently had a global town hall with all of our employees a couple weeks ago, and we brought up this discussion. We said, “Listen. We don’t have, again, all the answers, but our commitment is to be honest and transparent as we’re on this journey.” And what I said to all 17,000 of our employees, “All of our jobs will change and be impacted by AI and technology. Will some jobs sunset? Absolutely. But also, some new jobs will come online, and then other jobs will just modify, as the technology helps to advance the work.” And so what we’re trying to do is engage our workforce early on, to be more proactive in investing in themselves.

Casto: We also just launched a new initiative. We’re very proud that on July 1st, we’re going to $15 an hour as an entry rate for all of our employees across the board. It’s a big investment from the company. But as we made that investment to take them to $15 an hour, we also had some silos that were being built based off of our historical comp philosophies, between collections and customer service and some of these roles. We eliminated that, as a part of some of our changes. And so now, employees can easily do lateral promotions into these different areas. That allows them to compete for future jobs in a better way. We also went to our employees and said, “If you are willing to sign up for boot camps to help you get coding skills, and learn some of these new technology skills, we will fund it for you.” It’s test and learn, and that new agile methodology, where they will start to partner with these organizations to do these boot camps, and potentially get trained for jobs outside of the organization. And so, they could have an opportunity to leverage those new skills even faster than us. And we’re going to pay for it, and we’re going to help invest in them to compete for these jobs of the future.

Bellstrom: We’re in an incredibly competitive talent market right now. What are you doing to compete?

Casto: At the end of the day, I still have a ton of great jobs. And I will have a ton of great roles in technology, and I’ve got individuals in my contact centers that are investing in themselves right now and getting engineering degrees. I can leverage those degrees across my entire company. So, I still want to keep the best talent, but you go back to “What is our vision?” Our vision is to help individuals achieve their ambitions. And for us, if our employees have this ambition where they want to help, and invest in themselves in certain areas, be it healthcare or education, we’re okay with that. And I actually think it’s going to allow those other employees that want to stay with us, respect us even more. They say that we’re actually living our values, living our vision. I think that’ll allow us to retain the best talent in the future, and it helps us just to be a moral, responsible leader, in the communities in which we do business.

See the full interview from the GPTW4ALL Summit here. Also read the full list of the Best Workplaces in Financial Services and Insurance.

Christopher Tkaczyk is the chief content officer at Great Place to Work and is a former editor at Fortune and Travel + Leisure.

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