Synchrony Financial’s Tech And Operating Chief Brings Agile Practices To The Executive Team
By Peter High
Carol Juel has been the chief information officer at Synchrony Financial since the company’s creation, after it spun out from General Electric just over seven and a half years ago. She had worked at GE for the decade prior to that. In the early stages of Synchrony Financial’s existence, Juel had the opportunity to think about new beginnings as to how a modern technology organization should function to best support a new, already scaled and growing business.
Like many CIOs, Juel introduced agile methods as a primary process to develop new initiatives within the technology realm. Like many peers of hers across industries, the iterative approach, engaging the intended audience and users in the process from ideation through to completion ensured a better end product, and it reduced the risk that time and money would be invested only to conclude with a collective yawn from customers, for example. Every project has degrees of uncertainty and risk associated with them, especially if they are truly innovative. If you are batting 1.000, you are not innovating, after all. Therefore, when contemplating scenarios where uncertainty reins, greater degrees of cross-functional collaboration are essential, and they can get the collective batting average higher for the technology and digital teams as a result.
Come March of 2020, we all entered perhaps the greatest period of uncertainty as the consequences of the pandemic on our personal and professional lives began to be reconciled. The progress Synchrony Financial IT had made in instituting agile gave Juel an idea. Why not make the executive team (the chief executive officer and his reports) an agile team of sorts? One of the key aspects that Juel thought would facilitate setting a path during unprecedented times was the concept of the daily stand-up meeting. “Agile stand-up meetings, for those who have never been to one, are a very specific meeting,” said Juel.
“Once or twice a day, the team gets together to communicate information. You’re talking about what you need, you’re making decisions and you’re talking about blockers. [By the conclusion of each meeting], everyone is clear about the actions that need to be taken, who is accountable and what’s going to get done by the next agile standup meeting.”
This was the new way of working for the Synchrony executive team, but those executives already had seen the great strides the technology team had made in leveraging the same methods, and this made the case very easy for Juel to implement this among her peers and with her boss, the CEO. “It was a conversation on an afternoon, and by the next morning we had our first executive-level stand up meeting.” Juel served as the scrum master for the team, helping the team streamline the methods used to achieve their goals.
The advantages were legion. Issues were discussed as soon as they were identified, common approaches to rectify those issues were developed almost immediately and with broad buy-in from across the team, the consequences of those decisions were monitored real-time and any course correction could be made quickly. The speed of decision making hastened and the pathway to value shortened just as fast.
“There was so much uncertainty at the outset of the pandemic. What consumer spending was going to look like? How would the job market evolve? Having tools as a leadership team that allowed us to work differently to respond to this unprecedented set of challenges was exciting.” This fostered a broader agile cultural change across the company. As the executives learned more about these methods, they began to deploy them with their own teams. Thus, the speed of all teams began to hasten in ways akin to the change that the technology team had experienced in the early stages of its agile journey. Juel credits these changes as critical factors in allowing Synchrony Financial to launch both Verizon’s and Venmo’s first ever credit card programs. Both happened in record times remotely.
The agile approach led to creative thoughts on how best to enhance the experiences of employees during trying times. As it became clear that normalcy would not return by the time schools let out for the summer, it also became clear how disruptive it would be for many to have kids at home all day without typical summer outlets like camps. This is where the immersion of the executive team in the agile principles shined. The leaders of Technology, Marketing and Human Resources worked together to design the camp. “The goal was to help school age children to have engaging activities that would be inspiring,” Juel said. “Older kids could help design programs for younger kids. Employees served as mentors for all, and different employees took responsibility for developing different modules.” These would include everything from learning how to do a cartwheel to STEM classes.
Not only did this fill a need that was a source of anxiety for employees, but it strengthened the community across Synchrony Financial, as employees helped other employees’ children.
A little more than a year into the pandemic, in April 2021, Brian Doubles was named chief executive officer of the company. As with any leadership change of this magnitude, it provided a reason to rethink Synchrony Financial’s operating model. One of those would bring technology and operations together under Juel’s leadership, as she took on the role of chief technology and operating officer. As technology became more pervasive across the operations, the tie between the two became clearer, and in a period of dramatic change the value to be derived by linking these functions in a new way was profound.
As her influence inside of Synchrony Financial grew, so too did her reputation outside of the company, as well. She would be asked to join the board of Brighthouse Financial in the fourth quarter of 2021, joining a select but growing group of enterprise technology leaders who have been asked to join boards.
By thinking more expansively about her role as a technologist, Juel fostered resilience in the business operations (eventually taking over responsibility for business operations), resilience in the families of employees, and became a board-level tech executive in the process. This is a great example of the great work done in IT finding broader applications and increased value through the creative thought process of a strong leader.