The Diversity Card: How to Sponsor and Create Networks for Future Leaders

By Margaret Keane, President and CEO, Synchrony Financial

This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on October 6, 2016

Recently, much of our leadership team and I attended our annual four-day Global Diversity Network Symposium. Some might wonder why a CEO and several board members from an S&P 500 company would spend so much time discussing diversity, a topic that is often seen as purely an HR focus. The answer is that a diverse workforce is key to our success as a business.

Innovation thought leader and speaker Frans Johansson points out how diversity drives innovation and great ideas come from the intersection of different cultures and industries. The greater the variety of experiences on your team, the more likely that team is to come up with the next game-changing idea. That’s why I’m always surprised when people say they look only at a resume, not a person’s background, so as to make sure they’re getting “the best and the brightest.”  The best companies have created systems that allow them to do both. Diversity is not a sacrifice, and it’s not about being politically correct. Diversity for diversity’s sake IS in fact a valid goal. It’s a competitive advantage with real business value in order to understand and connect with the increasingly diverse customer base that all businesses must reach.

Here are a couple of components that I believe can help companies continue to develop and embrace a culture of diversity.

Focused, but Inclusive Networks

Like Synchrony Financial, many companies have built diversity networks that represent women, African-American, Asian American, Hispanic, LGBT, Veteran and Disability groups. Implementation of these groups is a positive step, but it isn’t enough.

In the years we spent building and refining specific groups, we found they were not always effective in creating the diversity we wanted in our organization. They continued to develop in silos. In order for these groups to succeed, it was useful to encourage employees to join groups they might not be considered for strictly face value. We call these people “group allies.” Recently, one diversity network ally told me she joined the group to pay tribute to her disabled daughter. It’s how she “fights for her daughter to have the same opportunities in life as anyone else.”

Today, we have men playing roles of increasing importance in our Women’s Network, and we have executives of other ethnicities as key sponsors of our African-American Network. These people learn a tremendous amount from the network they join, and also bring a different perspective to conversations both inside and outside of group meetings.

This kind of thinking has also changed the way we recruit and develop employees. For example, in the past, when we recruited at the National Association of Black Accountants convention, the African-American network would have sole responsibility. Now, we send representatives from the Women’s Network, the Veteran’s Network and the LGBT Partnership Network too. Most people don’t have just one identity; they have a combination of many.

The Power of Sponsorship

Bringing various groups together also provides more opportunities sponsorship, which I define as vigorous advocacy from a more senior person working on your behalf – behind the scenes. Sponsorship is critical to moving people with nontraditional backgrounds up through the ranks.

I owe much of my own success to this kind of sponsorship. I was well established in my career when I joined GE in 1996 and was hired into a highly visible leadership role. Still, I was new to the company and my natural inclination was to sit in the back row at leadership meetings. One day, a top executive said, “Come sit next to me. You belong up here.” It completely changed my perspective on what I was capable of and felt I could accomplish.

I know of many women that have had similar experiences. In the business world, there is still a tendency for women to fall victim to the “Three Little Bears” syndrome in which you’re either seen as too tough or too nice, but never just right. I believe the single most important thing a leader can do is get talented people to the table, both literally and figuratively. I constantly push my team to look at candidates who don’t often get opportunities in financial services.

Corporate America is in for a massive transformation. As boomers retire and millennials increasingly move into management positions, you will naturally see more diversity in corporations. But we can’t simply sit around and wait for demographics to drive change. Now is the time to create programs that build a pipeline of diverse leadership candidates and ensure we are creating organizations with the best and the brightest, ready to serve the customers and employees of the future.


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