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Equity and meritocracy aren’t necessarily at odds. How I had to figure out the big E to rethink our company’s diversity approach



Not everyone believes that equity belongs in a meritocracy. The very concept of meritocracy is now often considered a myth because it ignores structural inequities. And while I recognize that these inequities do exist in society, I respectfully disagree. In fact, equity can enhance meritocracy at work while enabling a business to scale new heights.

Our company has been on an equity journey for the past several years. During that time, I’ve learned a few big lessons.

True change requires the courage to say out loud what’s not working

In Synchrony’s case, we weren’t moving the needle fast enough when it came to developing and advancing diverse leaders. We needed to create space for colleagues to have honest conversations, where teams could make mistakes and have permission to test, learn and fail quickly–and then, pivot to something new.

It’s important to understand what you’re trying to achieve. Everyone has a different starting point. Everyone faces different challenges and can overcome those challenges with the right support. Prioritizing equity doesn’t mean you abandon evaluating people on their merits. No, it means you give individuals from historically underrepresented groups the tools that they need to compete on an equal footing with their peers. Head-to-head. You help position them to succeed on merit.

I have noticed that diverse candidates ready for leadership jobs often need an executive sponsor more than anything else–someone who will recognize their talents as well as provide valuable insights into the world of executive leadership–the expectations, the nuances, and the pitfalls.

To reach the executive ranks, you need someone in your corner. This is the kind of care, nurturing, and attention that non-minority candidates in corporations have historically received in abundance.

A difficult truth can be the catalyst for change

After digging into our data, we faced a difficult truth: The number of diverse employees– especially Black and Hispanic employees–at the VP level and above remained stagnant year after year.

So, we changed our strategies around the way we hire, develop, and advance diverse talent. We made diversity, equity, and inclusion a strategic business priority. We built in consistent data-driven reviews with senior business leaders and tied initiatives to their compensation programs with board-level accountability. We also curated leadership development programs that provide high-performing diverse talent with mentors, career coaches, and senior executive sponsors.

All of my direct reports and I devote time to these programs. Recognizing that development is a two-way street, we practice active listening to help us learn where improvements can be made and which barriers can be removed.

We also empower our people to embrace flexible work options. By allowing nearly all of our open roles to be located in any of our geographic locations, we’re supporting career growth and building a more diverse talent pool.

During the first three years of our initiative that began in 2020, nearly 40% of VP or higher promotions have been ethnically diverse, and 50% have been women. By December 2022, 49% of participants in our diverse leadership development programs were promoted. And we continue to strive for progress.

Personal stories on the road to meritocracy

I am struck by something a participant in one of our leadership programs said: “Equity means giving underrepresented groups what they need to be made whole.”

Her name is Monica Evans. As part of the program, Monica shadowed her executive sponsor who is a C-suite leader, attending strategy sessions and observing him as he led his own team.

In one-on-one discussions, the senior executive coached Monica on everything from the intricacies of profit and loss statements to the importance of deepening her professional network. The experience not only strengthened Monica’s own leadership skills, but she said that it helped quiet the “inner critic” that had been holding her back and broke down the myth that being successful requires perfection. Her sponsor and mentors gave her the confidence to take risks and explore new opportunities.

As she gained exposure to different leadership approaches, Monica developed a leadership style authentic to her own life experiences. Previously, Monica hadn’t planned on pursuing a senior vice president role for one of the company’s major business platforms (Home & Auto), but when the role opened up, she decided to go for it. Monica was one of several candidates who applied, and after a rigorous interview process, earned the position.

This is an important point. Our focus on equity is not intended to give anyone an unfair advantage. When it’s time to compete for a particular job or promotion, there are no quotas, no grading on the curve. We provide the candidates with the tools and the rest is up to them. A diverse candidate who is up for an executive role is evaluated on the merits, like everyone else.

I want to build the most capable team and believe the best way to do that is by devoting resources to putting all members of all communities in a position to achieve equal outcomes. If the resulting team is diverse, I count it as a win. Studies have shown that diverse teams are more productive, creative, and perform better. In the end, we aren’t just helping our people and our communities–we are driving long-term growth. Providing everyone with the tools they need to compete fairly strengthens business and the country’s economic competitiveness–and we must never miss an opportunity to do that.

Brian Doubles is the president and CEO of Synchrony.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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