What Are You Working Forward To? The Changing Definition of Ambition

I grew up in a typical Irish Catholic family, with six kids in a blue collar neighborhood in Queens.  My parents taught us that simple dedication and hard work were what made for a successful and honorable life. That was the accepted ambition within the families I grew up with in my neighborhood.  I knew early on that I wanted a different career path than the rest of my family, so I became the first to go to college.  The goals I was working forward to were really breaking the mold, both in my family and in a finance industry that had very few female leaders.

Now my kids are breaking the mold again. They are Millennials, and have a mind of their own just like me. As I watch them now enter the workforce as college graduates, I am learning how this generation is redefining ambition. Millennials want to pursue a passion and find purpose on the job, take control over their time, and be active in their social networks and communities. These are things many of us value, but in the past had often sacrificed in exchange for a better salary or the next step up the corporate ladder.

Perhaps there hasn’t been a realistic path to realizing these ambitions until now. Along with people’s attitudes, the economic environment has drastically changed. Thanks to the rapid pace of innovation, we’ve seen a drive in disruptive technologies and workplaces, but many Americans and businesses are still struggling. At the same time, the new generation entering the workforce is demanding more of employers and of society to make a difference. Worker demographics are shifting as well and becoming more varied, with women, multiple generations and cultural backgrounds having an increasingly strong voice. It has forced us to redefine what ambition and success mean and to create new pathways to get there.  The new ambition is tapping into our most human of instincts – to work forward so we may better ourselves and the world around us.

Company leaders must not only serve the ambitions of employees, but also of partners and customers. Compassion and respect are at the heart of great service. In college, my first job was in collections, and I’ve never forgotten the voices of customers who wanted to pay their bills, but just didn’t have the means, sometimes because of circumstances which were unanticipated and of no fault of their own, like a medical emergency or job loss. My ambition is to ensure that my company and I “do the right thing” for our customers every day, whether it’s being compassionate to their needs or identifying the next innovation that will enhance their experience with us.  It is our job to help every person and business we serve realize his or her unique ambition, any way we can.

To attract and retain the best talent, companies today are more focused on finding new ways to meet employee expectations and help realize their ambitions. Flexible work environments, creative workspaces, and acceptance of diversity are now assumed.  For the most engaged employees, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” — and having a strong culture with a clear purpose and values that truly define the company and represent greater ideals.

There are three components I believe companies should focus on to build a positive culture that allows employees to achieve their ambitions:

  1. Giving Back
  2. Empowering Professional Growth
  3. Fostering Diversity

Giving Back

A company’s approach to philanthropy and the community speaks volumes about its culture. It is an opportunity to extend its values and make a positive difference. It’s no longer simply about writing checks, but real engagement.

At Synchrony Financial, we realize that many working families in America today are barely making ends meet – some families combine the income from two or more jobs in order to provide the basic necessities to their families. A big part of our stated purpose is “improving the quality of each life we touch,” something that reaches beyond financing.

In response, we launched a new philanthropic program called Synchrony Families That Work, which focuses on the needs of today’s working families. The program provides grants to nonprofit partners in order to help homeless or struggling families break the cycle of poverty, supporting school educational and childcare programs to provide desperately needed resources and services. It’s also important for our employees to give back, so we give them time off for it and have designated September our Global Month of Caring, when employees around the world will rally together to volunteer in their communities.

Empowering Professional Growth

As today’s companies evolve, employees can develop with them or look to satisfy their ambitions elsewhere. These days it’s even more of a challenge to retain great talent. Our approach is to reinforce a culture of empowerment and innovation. “Innovation Stations” with cross-functional employee teams are exclusively focused on developing forward-thinking opportunities and technologies for our business.  A new “Empowerment Station” gives associates an important voice in how we can improve customer service, building their self-confidence and leadership. They can develop and advance into managerial positions across the company through a dynamic learning program called Skills Training for Evolving Professionals (STEP).  For recent graduates, we offer our Business Leadership Program (BLP) which provides them the opportunity to rotate among business functions and gives them exposure across the company so they can find their ideal fit and true ambition.

Fostering Diversity

I am a firm believer that diversity across genders, cultures and generations can be a competitive advantage for businesses. We have seven diversity networks at our company that represent women, ethnicities, and are inclusive of veterans, people with disabilities and the LGBT community. In addition to supporting employees and serving community causes, these networks are incubators for new ideas that give us a fuller perspective about developing our talent pool and serving our customers.

American businesses used to train employees to fit in with the company. Today, companies need to learn how to fit in with employees — building a shared spirit, a culture with strong values and purpose, and a place where they want to grow.

It’s a different way to think about helping employees and customers succeed, but it responds to our new reality. I’m excited to embrace the changes in what they are working forward to, because as we help individuals and partners fulfill their ambitions, we all succeed.

Margaret Keane in President and Chief Executive Officer of Synchrony Financial.