Never stop learning. In high school, I opted out of that one computer science class but I didn’t lose my interest in technology. I studied Linguistics in college which is actually very relevant to computer science. It was my first job at a consulting agency where I stepped into the world of business and technology when the light bulbs went off for what was possible. Being open to new ideas and experiences led me from majoring in the classics in college to where I am today. I’m a lifelong learner and I thrive in roles where I am required to adapt and respond to various challenges.
Have you ever noticed how often we equate success with more? Whether that’s more products, more profits, more activities or more accomplishments, we buy into the belief that we have to do more to have more to be more. And that will sum up to success. And then along comes The Great Resignation. Where employees are signaling that the “more” that’s being offered — even more pay, more perks, and more PTO — isn’t summing up to success for them. We visited with leaders who are redefining what success means now. Their answers might surprise you.
Carol Juel is Executive Vice President, Chief Technology and Operating Officer of Synchrony, leading overall information technology strategy and digital transformation.
As a business leader and technologist, Carol is responsible for building Synchrony’s technology and operations strategy, including the company’s focus on end-to-end technology and operations solutions, creating seamless customer experiences, driving how the company will operate and modernizing engagement with millions of cardholders.
Carol currently serves on the boards of Brighthouse Financial and Girls Who Code. She is also a member of the Advisory Board for University of Connecticut’s School of Engineering.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
I think back to my time in high school when I signed up for an advanced computer science class but opted out because I was the only girl in the room. It was intimidating and I felt out of place.
Because I remember that feeling of not belonging so clearly, I make it my priority now to create a culture of inclusivity. That experience led to my passion around helping people grow their careers, solving the gender gap in technology and inviting someone to sit at the table. When you walk into a meeting, you will most often see women sitting in the back or in chairs off to the side. I always invite them to sit at the table. Encouraging people to bring their diverse perspectives enhances the discussion. This may seem like a small action — but taken together with other steps, the impact can be significant.
We all have myths and misconceptions about success. What are some myths or misconceptions that you used to believe?
I grew up believing that success was something static and already defined by others — a fixed thing you decided to work towards and if you didn’t achieve it, you had failed.
How has your definition of success changed?
As I gained more experience and understanding, I realized the importance of defining success on my own terms and not allow others’ definition of success inform decisions in my professional and personal lives.
The opposite of success is not failure, it’s learning. When you try something and it doesn’t work, what have you learned from it? That shift in mindset is how you can set yourself up to achieve. It becomes much less scary to try new things, to set stretch goals, if you know that you’re going to grow learn from it. Being a working mother during the pandemic was incredibly hard but I tried to find a success every day, take deep breaths and be present in the moment. Take failure out of the equation and pursue what matters most to you. Don’t let other people’s pre-conceived notions affect the trajectory of your life.
I believe having a flexible definition of success centered on what you learned and how you got there is a cornerstone of being an empathetic leader, as it positions you to share what you’ve learned and have compassion for those experiencing something similar.
The pandemic, in many ways, was a time of collective self-reflection. What changes do you believe we need to make as a society to access success post pandemic?
The corporate world has come a long way in striving for gender equity, but there is more to do to build the pipeline and keep women in the workforce. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted women in the workforce, especially working mothers who are trying to balance the demands of work while also running a household. That could mean helping a child with homework, taking them to sports practice, cooking dinner. They might also be tending to an elderly or sick parent. Companies can enact policies that help all employees feel supported by investing in benefits that support work flexibility, child care support and mental health resources. Businesses can also establish pathways for upward mobility by offering skills training and creating an environment where anyone can apply for new opportunities.
What do you see as the unexpected positives in the pandemic? We would love to hear a few of your stories or examples.
History has shown us that the best innovations can come after a challenging event or period of time. What happened at Synchrony during and after the pandemic was a widespread adoption of an Agile mindset and approach. That entailed empowering our people to make faster decisions and innovate at speed so we could better meet the needs of our partners, customers and employees. With nearly everyone working remotely, people who previously didn’t speak up felt empowered to share ideas and perspectives. We fundamentally changed the way we worked and in so doing, we infused Agile principles into every corner of the business, listening, learning and quickly adapting. As a result, the company quickly deployed digital capabilities for our partners and launched major credit card programs with Verizon and Venmo.
We also applied Agile innovation processes to support employees in ways we hadn’t in the past. As a mom of three young children, I knew the summer 2020 was going to be hard, with daycare centers and summer camps closed. I worked with a team of volunteers and our HR team to design an innovative, virtual summer camp experience for our employees’ children. More than 3,700 campers logged on to engage in activities — including dance, arts, and STEM. The classes were led by high school- or college-aged children of our employees who were then mentored by Synchrony employees. This became a virtuous cycle of helping. We took the feedback and learnings to recreate the program in 2021.
Supporting our employees and their families has been of the most rewarding experiences of my career.
“Caring” has always been one of Synchrony’s foundational values, but living through a pandemic while still helping the company succeed, reaffirmed our commitment to be a people-first company. Now a combination of agile techniques, prioritizing employees’ wellness, and emphasis on flexibility will inform our leadership team’s decision-making.
We’re all looking for answers about how to be successful now. Could you please share “5 Ways To Redefine Success Now?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
1 . Be brave, not perfect. This is something Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, has shared from her own experience and in encouraging girls to take risks and learn to program. Coding is so much trial and error and it teaches girls that failure is just part of the process — being brave enough to try is the real win. That can be applied across skillsets.
2 . Don’t buy into the myth that you need to do everything yourself. Ask for help. I had an incredible opportunity to rebuild Synchrony’s technology foundation when we were becoming a public standalone company. I remember meeting with top leadership and asking for a major investment, and our CEO Brian Doubles, who was then our CFO said, “Go make it happen.” I got started immediately and built a strong team. Those are the kinds of moments you remember forever.
But life doesn’t always play out on the schedule that you would choose. When Synchrony became a standalone company more than seven years ago, I had recently given birth to my twins. My husband has always been a great source of support, I just had to learn to ask for it. I remember telling him that I needed him to take on more responsibilities at home so that I could help lead the technology build for a Fortune 200 company. That is true partnership — I had a strong team at work and a strong team at home.
3. Get comfortable with being a little uncomfortable. This is how you grow — and it might take the form of learning a new skill, starting a job where you feel a bit out of your depth, or even navigating through a pandemic.
In early 2020, when faced with an unprecedented challenge, we prioritized health and safety and set a goal of moving nearly our entire workforce home quickly. To make this happen, we ensured employees were equipped with the technology needed to do their jobs remotely, without sacrificing the highest level of security. And we adopted Agile principles in earnest — starting with our executive leadership team. It was difficult to accomplish everything while working in a new way that was unfamiliar to some people, but as a result, we protected our people and ensured business continuity. We emerged as a stronger company and became stronger leaders. We fundamentally change the way we work, pivoted to new business priorities and quickly adapted to massive technology and societal shifts.
4. Make diversity and inclusion a priority. It’s been proven that the best business decisions and results come from a diverse set of experiences. In addition to researching a company, you can do your own discovery during an interview. For example, a company might say it offers flexible work arrangements and an inclusive culture. Don’t be shy and ask how they ensure equal and inclusive opportunities for people who work from home versus in the office. You could also ask for an example of a senior leader who has leveraged the company’s work from home policy.
You’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you. It’s critical that you can see yourself succeeding there, so you want to inquire about pathways and skills training opportunities that will support your career and help grow diverse, inclusive leaders.
5. Never stop learning. In high school, I opted out of that one computer science class but I didn’t lose my interest in technology. I studied Linguistics in college which is actually very relevant to computer science. It was my first job at a consulting agency where I stepped into the world of business and technology when the light bulbs went off for what was possible. Being open to new ideas and experiences led me from majoring in the classics in college to where I am today. I’m a lifelong learner and I thrive in roles where I am required to adapt and respond to various challenges.
How would our lives improve if we changed our definition of success?
If we continue to see success as a zero-sum game, where the only alternative is failure, we will limit what we can achieve, and create more stress for ourselves. Changing our mindset to look at what we learn along the way can lead to opportunities. We might end up going in a direction we hadn’t previously considered.
What’s the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of our redefined success? And what advice would you offer about overcoming those obstacles?
An ingrained fear of failure and not being perfect can hold people back, particularly young girls, from opportunities that could develop their interests and propel their futures. Be brave to try new things and explore subjects that don’t come naturally. And remember — if you don’t excel right away, you haven’t failed, you’ve learned.
It’s also critical to identify mentors, champions and sponsors who can help bring different perspectives to guide your personal and professional growth.
Where do you go to look for inspiration and information about how to redefine success?
I’ve always counted on my family to help me redefine success and priorities — whether it was work and friends, or friends and children, children and work. My family has always enabled my ability to balance personal and professional — even more so during the pandemic.
If my work-life balance is out of sync, my teams’ will be, too. Getting this right is one of my top priorities. For me personally, when the stress started to build during the pandemic, I had some in-depth conversations with my kids while building Legos. There is nothing like a second grader to put things into perspective.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she or they might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to meet Melinda Gates. The work Melinda does through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to empower women and girls, bring about transformational change in the health of communities and societies and improve equity around the world is inspiring.
One of my favorite reads is her book “The Moment of Lift,” which centers on gender equity and what’s possible when you lift somebody up. Reading about the moment when rockets achieve their ‘moment of lift’ when her father worked at NASA to the need to break barriers for women in STEM remind me of the tremendous advancements all of us can make by uplifting women.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.