Business development / Q&As

5 questions with Carrie Serio: How T. Rowe Price innovates with a customer-first approach

Serio leads a team of eight as the head of participant experience, working to create innovative solutions and experiences for the end users of products provided through T. Rowe’s retirement plan services.

Carrie Serio at T. Rowe Price's Owings Mills lab. (Photo by Margaret Roth)

When Carrie Serio picked up the phone for the first time in the offices of T. Rowe Price 15 years ago as a recent graduate of James Madison University, she had no idea that what started out as a way for her brother, an employee at the time himself, to get a $1000 referral bonus, would become a career of leadership in the financial services industry.

On her first day in a cohort of 10 — 40% of which are still Serio’s coworkers and 100% of which are still her friends — not only did Serio learn what a mutual fund was, but she fell in love with T. Rowe Price. The Baltimore-based company’s core values of putting clients first and working to help every single American save and retire is not only something that has been attributed to T. Rowe Price’s success in its 82 years, but is the foundation that has built a culture of empathy and fulfillment through constant learning in service to customers.

Over the years she’s worked with B2B institutional clients in the Retirement Planning Services group, through a leadership training program where she managed six different functional groups across the business, as a leader of back-office teams, and in starting up the first-ever Retirement Plan Services (RPS) underwriting team.

“That was a really cool experience and time in my life. But once that team was stood up I took a look at my resume and I had a lot of B2B experience, product experience, operations experience, and leadership experience, but I had never worked directly with the end user — our actual retirement plan participants. I wanted to do that,” she said. “I would say four years later the thing that gets me up and going to work every morning is really thinking about the people on the team and how they serve the participants that are a part of our plans.”

Now senior manager and vice president for workplace investors experience, Serio is the head of participant experience, leading a team of advocates for the employees of T. Rowe Price customers who participate in their retirement plans across the organization.

We sat down with Serio in the Owings Mills Digital Lab at the T. Rowe Price campus to learn how the participant experience team uses the SAFe methodology, an agile approach, to launch innovative products and experiences that are usable, achieve the necessary results, and demonstrate with data to T. Rowe’s customers just how awesome they are. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has your leadership style changed over time?

It was really helpful to become a leader in a more black-and-white type of organization where there were tasks to complete and there were easy grade levels to assign to those tasks. I was managing people who were in what was really an entry-level processing position where you could say you processed this correctly or you processed it incorrectly, you completed this number of work items versus your goal. The metrics were easier to manage.

When you are dealing with associates that tend to be a little bit younger or brand new to the organization, having that set of metrics that can guide them from a “Am I doing my work correctly?” perspective is really helpful. And because that was so black and white, it allowed us to have really clear conversations around how they were doing.

As the roles become more senior, the deliverables become more grey, the definition of done or done well is a little bit more arbitrary. I am glad that I had a chance to learn my leadership style in a more structured environment — it makes it easier to deal with the work side of things so that you can actually focus on the people.

I would say that over time I have probably become less of a hands-on manager. I can always improve upon that, but I have really had to learn to trust people. I’ve learned that you have to have empathy and really put yourself in your associates’ shoes. A lot of the leadership tenants that I think about relate back to: Any experience that you’re building, put yourself in those people’s shoes.

That and understand that people like feedback. When you’re dealing with really tangible metrics, it’s very easy to say you hit your goal or you didn’t. Over time, as you migrate into a role that is a bit more grey, you have the opportunity to provide a little bit of different, maybe more meaningful, feedback — which can be more challenging because it is more subjective. Over time, I have really learned that I can’t be afraid to give people feedback because they actually want that feedback. You just have to remember the “5 Hugs and a Kick.” If you’re delivering constructive feedback, I try to have a framework to say, here are three to five things that you did well, and here’s one thing you can work on.

There are always things that people can improve upon, but if you don’t start the conversation and end the conversation with something positive that negative is going to stick out and it probably is not even going to be actionable because people feel like a failure. You have to let them know that there are things that they’re doing well so that they continue to feel motivated and are driven to make that change. You have to make sure that you deliver that message of feedback or it is going to hurt them, it is going to hurt you and it is going to hurt the company as a whole.

What does innovation look like at T. Rowe Price? What’s the purpose of innovation here?

Innovation is intentional at T. Rowe Price to solve some of the really big challenges that we see. For example, if we had not created the RPS underwriting group and would have kept accepting business that was risky or costly and had coupled that with pressures on fees and pricing and the fact that these companies are no longer required to use T. Rowe Price investments, we would have been out of business years ago. We had to change the way that we do business in a way that kept our B2B clients happy, but kept us in business. In order to do that, we needed to think about different ways to solve problems that had been around for a really long time. “Just say yes” to that client was no longer an answer that we could give and be profitable. Innovation from that perspective became intentional because we were being asked to solve problems that were really difficult and without creative solutions we probably would have thrown in the towel.

From an overall organization perspective there are a couple ways that we have tactically implemented innovation.

We have an emerging solutions group within T. Rowe Price and literally their goal is to look at new technologies, look at new platforms, look at new ways of doing business and test them. Some of these tests will fail, but it’s the one or two that are the winners every year that we still see in place. We know personalization really sells and drives engagement with participants, but we were having a lot of challenges being able to deliver that at scale. Now one of our biggest wins from that emerging solutions team is a product that we have that is called Smart Video. It is run through a third party vendor. It gives every participant a two to three minute video that says, “Hey Carrie, here is where you are right now. You’re saving 4%. If you could save 8% this is how much money you’d have. You can click here to save that money.”

It is the #1 participant experience product that we hear that is why plan sponsors buy T. Rowe Price. That group being able to focus on innovation and the expectation that failure is going to happen and all of these emerging solutions aren’t going to become real solutions is what leads to this kind of success.

Another thing that we’ve done is in 2017 we created our Linthicum Lab. That was another attempt for us to carve out innovation, but what we quickly learned is that that is a great way to get things done quickly, but we needed more and we needed to embed that mindset into every individual within RPS. The number of teams that was supported there grew, and we now also have this Owing Mills Lab.

It caught on like wildfire, and the core tenants are pretty basic: Co-locate your team, put the customer first, user centric design. It’s not rocket science, but when it is front and center and not only encouraged but required in terms of how things are being delivered, that innovation becomes more intentional.

And I know it is difficult to correlate financial services to innovation. I think in the past five years we’ve seen our competition become much more innovative. But we are not Amazon. We are not Zappos. We are not making all of these waves. So our innovation has to be tied to business results, and that is what has influenced a company like T. Rowe to utilize new technology that five years ago we would have never thought we would be using. Things like robotics — we now have robots that process our transactions for us, and while that to the outside eye may not sound innovative, it has allowed us to take associates that were processing those transactions and put them on teams to build the next best thing for our participants.

I think that innovation was fueled by a requirement that we had to be fiscally responsible and think of creative solutions. So our initial approach was let’s carve people out and do it. And then we realized that it is great to have people focus on innovation, but if we don’t have that mindset and that “challenging the status quo” happening on every single team, we’re not going to get the scale that we need in terms of driving innovative solutions.

What are the red flags that you look for when it comes to making innovation happen? What are the things an organization should not do?

Because of the environment that we are in where we are a B2B2C organization, a question we often get asked is, “What would sell to a plan sponsor?” [Editor’s note: The plan sponsor is the employer who sets up the retirement plan for the benefit of their employees.] In the past when we had really considered our plan sponsors or advisor our end user, it would create a solution that might look good on paper but their employees are never actually going to use. That’s innovation for innovation’s sake. For me, what I have learned is that you have to really build for your end user — our plan participants — and you have to be able to use data and insights that you get from that to prove to your buyer that they want it.

You also have to be able to demonstrate quick results. So even if it’s messy, get something out there so that you can get data to show results, which is really kind of the mindset of our agile structure. Have something in market in 12 weeks. If it takes longer than that, it’s too big — deconstruct it a little bit.

You have to make sure that the innovation is seen as an intentional enhancement to the experience not just the next cool thing that some of your competition launched. Frankly, we’re still challenged by that today. We go into these sales meetings with some of our competitors that have very large tech budgets and they are creating these bright shiny objects that say “Hey, buy us!” We will always lose if we try to win that battle because of our size. Our value proposition is really about service and putting the clients first. We really have to be purposeful in our innovation to show that we can keep up and outpace with technology, but that we’re not doing it just to sell you. We’re doing it because it works and because we believe in it.

How do you create a team that has a different mindset and ability to collaborate — critical characteristics for driving innovation? How do you find those people?

We have always had really strong associates working at T. Rowe Price. Our value proposition of client first is how we have hired associates for 82 years. The reality is that we didn’t go out and hire a bunch of people. We retrained the awesome people that were already here. The training was more of a tactical “How do you work in an agile perspective?” The empowerment that we gave them was, “You’re CEO of this particular product. This is your bucket of money. How would you spend it?”

Having that commercial accountability to their particular product, made them extremely engaged in the process. It also caused more creativity. People said, “They gave me money. They gave me a problem. I’m going to go out and I’m going to fix it.”

We had great people already working here, but hadn’t given them the tools or the empowerment to be as great as they could be. This shift took the greatness and funneled it into a way to execute — to not just wait to be told what to do next, but bring forward solutions.

If you think about it, 10 years ago, not that this doesn’t still happen today in other places, but a bunch of out-of-touch leaders sit in a meeting and say, “We should do this!” And then they go and tell people to go do that. That’s something that doesn’t work. Whether it’s T. Rowe Price or other companies, the solutions need to come from the people that are talking to the participants, or the plan sponsors everyday. They’re the ones that are going to be the catalysts for change.

Now at our leadership table what happens is we have 20 big problems in front of us and we ask “Which ones are we going to fund and invest in the next year?” That’s where the dollars happen, but none of the magic happens there — that happens within the teams. I think that’s the biggest shift that we’ve had. It makes me really proud to say that we were able to do a lot of it with the resources we had internally, supplemented with lots of great people that we’ve brought on board through attrition and new hiring. The requirement for anyone to be successful at T. Rowe Price: No matter what you’re doing, you have to be collaborative and you have to have empathy. Everything here is built on relationships.

What are some things that you do to make time for yourself?

I have two small children, one is four and one is two, so I don’t get a lot of me time but I do get a lot of kid time. Which is great, but at least once a month I need to have a night with my girlfriends. It’s important to me to have strong female relationships, and in my friend community most of us have been friends since high school or before. They are actually my guinea pigs; I ask them all the time, “Do you get anything from your retirement plan provider? How would you react to this email?” And they are like, “STOP Carrie!” They are my sounding board and we all have children around the same age, so we get together and have that adult time.

Another thing is that I started what I call my own “personal betterment plan” a few months ago. It started out with health and relationships, key themes that I wanted to focus on in my life. I haven’t attached any strict goals to it because I would find myself not hitting them and feel worse about it. So it’s really been about thinking about what I’ve done well and what I could do topically, whether its my husband, my kids, my job, my finances, to balance out what I’m thinking about so that I don’t get too fixated on one thing that I might not be able to solve ever.

All that and I have to laugh everyday. It’s my biggest stress reliever.

Connect with Serio on Linkedin.

Companies: T. Rowe Price
Series: Corporate Innovation Month 2019

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