Lead with Empathy: The employee/employer contract has changed. One of the biggest takeaways is to approach every situation with empathy. Listening and being open to change allows leaders to support their people and address barriers more proactively and creatively.

The number one leadership initiative in any organization today is improved coaching. Coaching empowers employees, empowerment drives engagement, and engagement drives performance. At its core, coaching is about transformation. Leading distributed teams requires transforming how we coach and changing our play calls and playbooks to get things done. As a part of our interview series called “Moving From Command & Control to Coaching & Collaboration; How Leaders and Managers Can Become Better Coaches,” we had the pleasure to interview DJ Casto.

DJ Casto is Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer of consumer financial services company Synchrony. He is responsible for engaging employees in Synchrony’s strategic business imperatives and building people-led development programs that strengthen culture, drive business growth and nurture the company’s talent as a competitive advantage. DJ is passionate about helping every employee live Synchrony’s values and is committed to community service. He currently serves on the boards of Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) and buildOn, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering urban youth to transform their neighborhoods. DJ is a father of three young children — Liliana (4), Gabriella (2) and Nico (1) — and husband to Leah.

Thank you for joining us to explore a critical inflection point in how we define leadership. Our readers would like to get to know you better. What was a defining moment that shaped who you are as a leader?

All companies have gone through a cultural stress test over the past several years. We all had to take a step back and ask, how did we lead with our values? Were we anchored to our mission? This is why values are more than just words on a page. This is where words matter, and actions need to be connected to those words.

Our CEO Brian Doubles and Chief Technology and Operating Officer Carol Juel championed an Agile mindset of testing and learning used in disciplines like software development and reshaped how we were operating as an executive leadership team, and that spread through the entire company. I adopted the same approach leading the HR function. As a result, I saw more creativity and innovation from my team. Our work is about responding to employees’ immediate needs and then flexing our priorities and being open to change. We sharpened our focus on the priorities that matter most.

The pandemic has taught many of us that everything about corporate life could be different. That includes the need for leaders to normalize courage, vulnerability and trust. For me, the importance of courage complements authenticity and vulnerability. You’re more vulnerable when you have more courage. It allows you to admit that you don’t know the answer, and that you have to do more work on it. Courage is providing real talk, real answers, less corporate speak and being honest with people.

John C. Maxwell is credited with saying, “A leader is someone who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” How do you embody that quote as a leader?

The two important things for me have been to stay true to our values — personally, and at Synchrony; and to be real, to be authentic. For years, leaders have worked hard to not show any vulnerability. One of the major lessons learned was that showing our human side and leading by example made us better leaders.

For instance, last year my wife and I had our third child, Nico, and I was able to spend several months at home with my family and took another break a few months later to use the remainder of my parental leave. The time I spent with my family (Nico, his sisters Liliana and Gabriella, and my wife Leah) is irreplaceable. I got to spend dedicated time with each of them. We made memories together that will last a lifetime.

Since then, I’ve been very open about the experience, encouraging all of our Synchrony parents to take advantage of the company’s generous paid parental leave which includes 12 weeks for all new parents (moms and dads) and an additional 10 weeks for birthing parents. It’s time to change the paradigm for all parents to know that when they need to show up for their families, it’s not going to harm their careers and that this time and experience will help them to become even better leaders.

How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?

For hybrid work to succeed, I believe a new kind of leader in corporate America is required, one that moves from managing to coaching. The terms “coach” and “manager” are often used interchangeably. However, they’re quite different. While a manager organizes work and processes to drive results, coaches drive team performance, helping their people achieve better results. Managers achieve results by pushing their employees from the top down through a hierarchy. Coaches achieve results by creating a continuous feedback loop that empowers employees’ development and growth where leaders ask questions and offer support and guidance (instead of answers).

In a constantly changing environment, leaders can no longer revert to command and control to be successful. Businesses need to rethink how managers manage and create a new coaching style of leadership. The goal is to harness your team’s superpowers and cultivate a high-performance culture to be successful.

We started our conversation by noting that improved coaching is the number one leadership initiative in any organization today. What are some essential skills and competencies that leaders must have now to be better coaches?

Great questions lead to great answers. The best leaders are those who have curiosity. Showing genuine interest in your people helps you understand the issues they’re facing and lets them know you care.

Along these same lines, leaders must commit to translate active listening to purpose-driven outcomes. This has been a game changer for Synchrony, prompting us to co-design industry-leading benefits and programs with our people. We offer maximum flexibility for all and we replaced the legacy annual review and ratings system with a new model designed to encourage more frequent coaching conversations between managers and employees.

We believe this approach creates spaces for candid conversations, levels the playing field for all, and drives clarity around achieving goals and accountability. Leaders that provide real-time coaching and revisit goals throughout the year will help their teams become nimbler and better meet evolving business priorities.

People leaders must also intentionally drive personal connections and activities that enrich their teams’ lives. This includes revamping how we onboard new hires and holding inclusive meetings consistently to ensure remote employees are engaged.

And leaders need coaches too (I have been working with my coach for over four years; she works with my team and I to help me be a better leader). That’s why we’re investing in leadership training to help managers effectively lead and maintain crucial connections in a digital or hybrid environment.

We are going all-in with our employees, reinventing what the workplace should and will look like — an environment that motivates and engages people to be their best. And it’s working — our applications are up and our retention and engagement levels are strong, driving great performance.

We’re all familiar with the adage, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” How are you inspiring — rather than mandating — leaders to invest in upskilling and reskilling?

Business leaders have a responsibility to their people and proactively prepare the workforce for jobs of the future through skills training and education. Employees also have the responsibility to take advantage of those resources to actively pursue new skills and ensure a better future for themselves and the company. Everyone needs to continue to focus on the future of work.

At Synchrony, we want to help employees step into new jobs of the future within or outside the company. We’ve done a number of things to inspire our people and the communities we serve to invest in upskilling:

  • We removed college degree requirement from 90% of our roles, opening up jobs to a much broader and more diverse pool of candidates.
  • We offer a robust tuition benefit of $20,000 a year for employees who want to earn degrees in areas relevant to their work or to serve the community via fast-growing roles in nursing and teaching; and up to $9,000 per year for technology certifications in fast-growing fields like cybersecurity, software engineering and UX design.
  • Our five-year, $50 million initiative called “Education as an Equalizer” helps expand access to higher education, skills training in high-growth fields, and financial literacy for underserved communities and our own workforce. This includes the Synchrony Skills Academy, a state-of-the-art facility at our Stamford, CT headquarters that provides tech training to adults from underrepresented communities and STEM programs to high school students in partnership with local nonprofits and educators. No industry can do it alone and we’re partnering with the public, private and nonprofit sectors to equip the next generation with skills needed to succeed.

Let’s get more specific. How do you coach someone to do their best work? How can leaders coach for peak performance in our current context? What are your “Top 5 Ways That Leaders and Managers Can Be Effective Coaches?”

Lead with Empathy: The employee/employer contract has changed. One of the biggest takeaways is to approach every situation with empathy. Listening and being open to change allows leaders to support their people and address barriers more proactively and creatively.

Trust your employees: One of the themes I’ve noticed around return-to-work conversations centers around leaders not trusting their employees. Especially as we navigate the complexities of hybrid work, leaders are worried their workers aren’t engaged, aren’t focused 100% on their company, and are generally “slacking off.” I believe winning companies increasingly rely on a management model based on trust and outcomes. When we trust our people, they perform better — and are happier doing so. If you trust your team and hold them accountable to outcomes, they’ll trust you and deliver.

Set clear expectations and ensure accountability: Developing a culture of active listening and accountability is critical. But it takes practice and effort. We have found that establishing a clear vision and strategy, defining measurable goals and holding teams accountable are key to growing high-performance teams. When we also act on employee feedback (via conversations, forums, pulse surveys), we can cultivate an inclusive, people-first culture we’re all proud of.

Communicate the “why”: If employees understand why a new initiative or change is important to the company, they will better understand their role within the organization and deliver strong results. Leading with intention paves the way to better results — both professionally and personally.

Prioritize employee well-being: It’s critical for leaders to value and support employees’ total wellbeing. For example, offering mental health and wellness benefits while demanding grueling schedules or not encouraging people to take time off would be disingenuous. At Synchrony, one of our core values is caring and we encourage our people to use free resources and benefits. This includes connecting with diverse wellbeing coaches and financial counselors, using Flexible Fridays where they can unplug from work in the afternoons and taking sabbaticals (employees can take up to 12 months leave while retaining benefits) or reducing their work schedules (for frontline employees).

We’re leading and coaching in increasingly diverse organizations. And one aspect of workforce diversity on the rise is generational diversity. What advice would you offer about how to effectively coach a multi-generational workforce? And how do you activate the collective potential of a multi-generational workforce?

There are now five generations in today’s workforce, which is unprecedented. Each generation is shaped by shifts in technology, society and life-changing events and it’s important for managers to understand and meet the diverse needs of their direct reports.

I believe the most effective way to coach a multi-generational workforce and harness their collective perspective is to establish respect, listen with intent and cultivate a culture of agility.

  • Establish respect: The issues facing the Boomer generation are different than those facing Gen Z. There is no one-size-fits all solution. Leaders should take a human-centered approach in understanding and respecting the fact that each individual desires different things from their careers and from their employers. Ignoring differences could leave employees feeling unappreciated.
  • Listen with intent: One of the most important things a leader can do is to ask how they can better support their people. Some employees just want to know that their manager is listening to them. The better you understand your team, the better you can help them grow.
  • Cultivate culture of agility: At Synchrony, we saw how Agile methods — fast iterations, minimum viable products — that have been successful in product development are now central to how we work. By embracing a culture of testing and learning, people across all levels and generations are encouraged to pilot creative solutions, develop new skills and share learnings.

You’re referring to emotional intelligence, in a sense. What are two steps every leader can take to demonstrate a higher level of emotional intelligence?

Create safe spaces that foster trust, candor and ongoing feedback. Leaders with a high level of EQ take the time to listen and understand where the feedback is coming from, how their actions or words are impacting others and what they might do better.

Leaders with a high EQ are self-aware and intuitive. Being aware of your own emotions and actions as well as those of others help leaders improve their communication and listening skills. Recognizing your own shortcomings and weaknesses and actively working to address them can also help leaders sharpen their EQ.

Words matter. And we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?

The most important word for all leaders to use right now is “trust.”

Synchrony offers our employees flexibility and choice to decide what works best for them — when and how they use our physical spaces and when they purposely come together. I want to pivot the discussion away from ‘when and how should you be in the office’ to doubling down on trusting our employees to perform. How do we focus more on the role of leaders and coaching? How do we make sure that we continue to execute and deliver on the outcomes that all our stakeholders need? And how do we sustain this way of working to allow our employees to be their best?

I’ve been reading “Deep Purpose: The Heart and Soul of High-Performance Companies” by Ranjay Gulati. The book is focused on the importance of communicating and inspiring your workforce around the purpose of your company and how your company’s purpose can drive greater performance and engagement.

Now more than ever, leaders play an essential role in motivating their people to do purpose-driven work. Managers also need support and grace when they don’t get it perfect each time. It takes dedication, investment and experimentation. I’m inspired and thankful for our leaders who trust and care for our people, which ultimately drives strong business outcomes. I can’t imagine being anywhere else or doing it any other way.

I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?

“Leverage Your Life Experiences.”

We all have different life experiences that drive different perspectives. If you can bring your life experiences to the table and listen to the life experiences of your team, you will get to better outcomes. I was a champion of a lot of our caregiver benefits at Synchrony, but I didn’t really connect with paternity leave or really understand that experience until I lived it with my wife who went through it. After going through the process of paternity leave myself, I am constantly thinking about how to use our various caregiving offers and, more importantly, how to encourage others to take advantage of them. I’ve learned that being authentic about my own experience helps our employees connect more with the benefits offered here. More importantly, it allows leaders to hear from employees about their life experiences so we can make the changes we need to better support our people.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!