How HR can embrace its ‘opportunity to make change’

The role of the HR leader has evolved to the point where HR can be an authentic and proactive advocate for employees, says Synchrony CHRO DJ Casto.
By: | December 23, 2020 • 6 min read

Like most organizations, financial services firm Synchrony had to make immediate changes to contend with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the leadership of DJ Casto, executive vice president and chief HR officer, Synchrony quickly moved its 16,500-person workforce home in March and then worked to reinvent its talent strategy to meet employees’ emerging needs: enhanced flexibility, new resources for mental health and caregiving, and creative approaches to integrating work and life.

While policies and programs shifted, Casto says, the mission that underlies that work has remained the same: supporting the wellbeing of Synchrony employees, customers and communities. A people-first mindset has been core to Casto’s entire HR career.

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Before joining Synchrony in 2014, Casto spent almost a decade with PepsiCo, starting in the HR Field Operations team. He later became director of employee relations and then senior director of global organization development. When he joined Synchrony, he experienced a similar trajectory: He started as the HR leader for the corporate governance functions and transitioned to senior vice president of HR for the COO and CFO before taking on the CHRO role.

Casto recently spoke with HRE about how that role—and his work at Synchrony—have shifted in recent years and what he expects a post-pandemic world of work to look like.

HRE: How has the role of the HR leader, in general, evolved since you entered the HR industry?

DJ Casto, executive vice president and CHRO of Synchrony

Casto: When I first entered the HR industry many years ago, things were different. Today, HR leaders drive cultural transformation across the enterprise and help better position companies to compete and win. We now act as business partners, working directly with the CEO and senior leadership team. We have the opportunity to help make real differences both inside and out of the workplace and put our people front and center, which enables us to deliver for our partners and our customers. At a time when more will be asked of our employees, fostering an inclusive environment has become essential to retaining a diversity of thought and talent.

HRE: What else has changed in HR?

Casto: Major shifts, such as the changing business environment and the rapid pace of technology, have changed the HR landscape. Since the pandemic began, this has never been more evident. We have changed the way we work, accelerating agile, pivoting and responding quickly to our employees to get to where we are now.

Read more Insights from a CHRO HERE.

Thanks to the vision and leadership of our CEO, Margaret Keane, we have cultivated a culture of belonging where everyone can bring their whole selves to work. Leading with authenticity is key to ensuring a company’s culture can thrive. And it has made me a better leader. For example, during the pandemic, our CEO stood up biweekly meetings with all employees where we listened to their concerns directly. In response, we expanded our resources and benefits to address their immediate needs and their whole families’.

I believe the role of the HR leader has changed to be one that has the opportunity to make change. We have the chance to advocate for people every day and make a difference like never before.

HRE: How has the pandemic changed your priorities as CHRO?

Casto: The pandemic forced every company around the world to undergo what I call a “cultural stress test.” Could your company survive the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, adapt to the remote working environment, support your employees with progressive benefits designed in response to the pandemic, serve your partners, customers, communities and society, all while maintaining and enhancing what makes your company unique? For Synchrony and most great companies, our uniqueness—the reason why people want to do business with us, work for us, welcome us into their communities and invest in us—is not solely defined by our great products, but rather is differentiated by who we are and what we believe: our strong culture.

The pandemic has been a tipping point for transformation and to test whether you are truly living your values. After we moved almost our entire workforce home safely in March, we met the moment in order to emerge stronger as a company while ensuring that our values and our culture of caring endure. We transformed how we work, how we support our people and how we connect and engage, with a focus on being nimble and agile.

For example, post-pandemic, we are moving away from traditional offices to a “hub” model that gives employees the option to work at home full time while ensuring they can still meet in person. We enhanced our benefits in real-time around flexibility, mental health and childcare, extending our emergency care benefit to 60 days, giving employees choice around who cared for their loved ones and instituting Flexible Fridays, where we dedicate meeting-free time and encourage our employees to invest in themselves personally or professionally.

See also: How to treat remote work as an opportunity, not obstacle

By moving away from email to digital collaboration and virtual meetings, we also leveled the playing field for ideas, encouraging those who had previously been shy to now make their voice heard in this virtual environment.

Synchrony will continue to focus on the health and wellbeing of our people, partners, customers and the communities we serve. As CHRO, my priorities have remained the same in that regard.

HRE: Can you share more about how Synchrony’s approach to talent development has evolved since you’ve been with the company?

Casto: Synchrony has always supported and fostered training and talent development at every career stage. We believe that if you invest in your teams (in training, development, enrichment and opportunity), and they believe you are investing in them, they will bring their best, whole selves to work. The rewards of stronger connections include innovating at scale and retaining talent. We’re focused on preparing the workforce for the future by ensuring people adopt agile principles to meet changing business needs, gain critical experiences and effectively run their teams in a remote environment. As business requirements evolve, we also look at reskilling our employees to help evolve their expertise.

HRE: What do you think are the most important skills the next generation of leaders (in this new world) needs to have?

Casto: Adaptability, critical thinking and empathy are important skills for the next generation of leaders. Leaders today are going to need to feel comfortable with emerging technology, remote work and managing remote workers.

HRE: Who is your role model or biggest influence?

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Casto: This is a bit of a toss-up. My parents were incredible role models for me. They were hardworking, strong and courageous people. My mom worked as a contact center associate for waste management and then she worked at the local Department of Health and Human Resources, helping people with welfare benefits. And my father was a salesman.

The second was probably my professor at West Virginia University when I was studying accounting. I was at a crossroads. He shared with me how there was a natural synergy between a P&L and an HR degree that could enable me to be a good business partner—and still pursue my passion around purpose-driven work. I wound up getting my master’s in HR.

Today, doing what I do, every day, I have the ability to advocate and help someone. That fuels my resolve.

Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.