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Podcast: Leadership during times of change

June 18, 2020
clock 17 MIN READ

We’re excited to bring you our new podcast channel, The Intersection. Join us here, where investments and technology meet. On this podcast, thought leaders and movers and shakers come together to discuss what’s shaping the future of business, community and culture.

Episode 1: Leadership during times of change

Our CFO, Dennis McGonigle, shares his thoughts on the resiliency of our workforce, the challenges he’s faced as a leader during the current crisis, and what’s surprised him during the past few months.  Enjoy Episode 1.  

"I am extremely proud of how everyone I work with, close to 4,000 employees, has responded to this immediate change in how we operate."

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Megan McCloskey: Hey there, I'm Megan McCloskey and you're listening to The Intersection, SEI's new podcast. 

Why did we choose The Intersection as the name? Because at SEI, we focused on driving change where investments and technology intersect. We also like to tell the stories of the people who help us drive that change at SEI, in the industry and in the community.

We're excited to bring you those candid conversations. Our very first guest is our CFO, Dennis McGonigle. Dennis has been at SEI since 1985, helping guide us through our evolution and various global events. He's sitting down with SEI's head of global communications Leslie Wojcik, to discuss some timely topics. He's sharing his thoughts on the resiliency of our workforce, challenges he's faced as a leader during this time and what surprised him over the past few months. Take a listen.

Leslie Wojcik: Dennis, thanks so much for taking the time today, I know you're incredibly busy. So here we are -- I can't believe I'm going to say this -- a few months into our remote work environment. I have to say I, myself am incredibly proud of the way that we as a company, have seamlessly transitioned into this environment. What's hard to prepare for, is leading people for this type of change. So I guess my first question for you is, what are the things that we did as a company to help prepare ourselves for a situation like that?

Dennis McGonigle: So first I'll just say, I agree with you 100 percent. I am extremely proud of how everybody that I work with, close to 4,000 employees, how everyone has responded to this almost immediate change in how we operate. That's been just a blessing to be a part of actually as a professional, as a person.

In terms of how we were able to move pretty quickly into this environment (I shouldn't even put "pretty" in front of that word). Very quickly in this environment. I think it really starts with what we were just mentioning, we mentioned about people, that we have a very strong, innovative team-oriented client-centric flexible culture. Without that, I think this would have been a much more challenging transition. I would point to our culture first, I think that our culture has continued to serve us well, even though we're not all together in the same physical space.

Secondly, we have an enormously talented workforce. To the extent there were new things to be learned, for us to implement in this environment, our workforce is very responsive to that. So getting up to speed on what needs to be done and then putting in an execution plan to get it done. The preparation of our technological talent and resources, our operational talent and resources and all the teams that support them in their work. It really helped us get from point A to point B very effectively.

Finally, I would say in preparation, that while we might bemoan over the course of years, our business continuity planning exercises, our disaster recovery planning exercises, our tabletop exercises and the things we do with external organizations in disaster planning and resilience planning -- that really served us well when it came time to implement. I really thank the employees over the years that have participated in those exercises and those activities, because that really laid the foundation for us to accomplish what we've been able to accomplish. That and everybody's laptops being upgraded to Windows 10. I think that also helped. Now the timing of that could have been, could have been better my own laptop included.

Leslie Wojcik: How have your leadership strategies shifted during the pandemic?

Dennis McGonigle: Hopefully not that much, hopefully I'm the same leader that I was two and a half months ago or three months ago. I would say that I've had to get more oriented and pay particular attention to the exactness of communicating and communications, as well as the planning of meetings and times to speak to different individuals that I work with.
One of the things I really miss, that as a leader you have to have had to adjust to, is the informal interactions I would have with individuals around campus, as you, as you move around. It's amazing how much you can get done in a quick two or three or four minute interaction with someone on the fly. I find now, that you have to plan for those two or three or four minute interactions, and they generally turn into 20 or 30 minute interactions, which also is something you have to adjust to, which is the time element of engagement with others.
You wind up having to write more and certainly you have to pick up the phone and call more, just so you keep those touch points. But I would say that I've made adjustments much more on that front. Like all of us, it feels like we're doing our normal job, plus the COVID 20 percent, as I call it. Maybe for some of us, it's the COVID 50 percent. So I think just adjusting and keeping a good balance between the things we have to deal with, relative to the situation we're in, without losing sight of, and not doing the things that are relevant to the long-term success of the company. It's a bit of a balancing act, but we can't forget about the long term here.

Leslie Wojcik: You have a lot of functional areas that fall under you, from risk management to marketing. Can you tell us about a specific challenge that you and your team has faced in the last three months and how you have overcome that?

Dennis McGonigle: I do have a lot of different groups that work with me, ranging from revenue generating market oriented teams to infrastructure facilities. If you draw the two ends of the spectrum and then everything in between. So my day is always a variety. Now I always come into work and not know exactly how the day's going to play out because of the variety of areas that I'm involved in, which is great. That's one of the things I love about my job. I think in this environment, it's all back to the other question. It's making sure I have balance amongst all of those, that they're all getting the attention that they need or deserve or are warranted. Or at least are getting the touch points to know that they're, that I'm thinking about the work they're doing day in and day out.

So that's maybe an adjustment. There's been a more acute focus on workforce development type issues in this environment. There's focus on capturing the learning we're getting from this environment. Now we are living one large experiment in how to work and in a new way to how to work. So making sure we're attentive to what we're learning about that, across the full spectrum of all the areas I have as part of my responsibility set. Sharing with each other, hopefully, some of those learnings.
I would say the biggest challenge has probably been coordinating some of the areas that have overlapped or have connectivity. When you can sit around a table in Oaks, it's very easy to do that, particularly if the people sit around you. But, now you have to really plan for it and and really keep your listening skills attuned to hearing what everyone's saying, so that you make sure you connect those dots if they're not being connected normally. It's been fun in a way, as crazy as that sounds, it's been a challenge. If a challenge is fun, this has been a lot of fun.

Leslie Wojcik: I said repeatedly, it's been a great learning experience, especially, for me in my role, but it really has been fun. I couldn't agree more. What are a couple of the things that have surprised you, whether it be about our company or even personally?

Dennis McGonigle: Well, I wouldn't say much has surprised me on the work front, relative to how everyone has responded, because that's the SEI that I have always known. They're the people I've always known. So whether we're dealing with the 2008-2009 financial crisis and everything that was going on back then, or whether we're dealing with the latest blizzard of...pick a year that we get hit with the blizzard and how people respond to that.
Or something like this, which none of us have ever experienced before. That hasn't surprised me. But, if I'm surprised by anything, it is frankly the lack of complaining, that every engagement seems, almost every single one, people are upbeat, positive. We're talking about work, nobody's bemoaning the situation they're in. Nobody's bemoaning the particular task at hand, it's more, how do we continue to work, make progress, and get through it in the best way as possible.
I would say that's also true on the personal side, that while there're little complaints here and there, the things we miss, certainly miss in life. I don't know that I would call that complaining as much as it's an obvious reality, the situation that we do miss things, that we can't take advantage of today in our current situation, particularly seeing other people. But I would say that everybody... I think the little things that used to bug people are gone, are out the window.
Hopefully when we get through this and we will get through this... I feel like we're actually closer to that than we may be hearing, I hope we don't forget that the little things, little annoyances in life really are, just that. The big picture is what we should continue to focus on. So that's been, I would say a pleasant part of the experience.

Leslie Wojcik: I couldn't agree more. I think positivity goes a really, really long way, not just for yourself, but for everyone else around you, if they're having a bad day, positivity really, truly does go a long way.

Dennis McGonigle: Yeah and humor, I think the ability to laugh, even in times like these and I don't mean the most recent times of what's gone on over the past three or four days. Just in general, day-to-day things that you can find humor in and share a laugh with somebody, I think really makes you feel better.
There's definitely science behind that. If you laugh, you feel better. So I would suggest that: people make sure you laugh every day. At yourself particularly. I probably find a lot of humor in my own behavior. I do every morning when I look at my hair, in this environment where I can't get a haircut, it's very funny.

Leslie Wojcik: You and Al right?

Dennis McGonigle: Yeah, I feel like I'm back in the seventies. Not cool.

Leslie Wojcik: So we, as a company, our workforce team leverages Gallup strengths and your five strengths are; responsible, learner, intellection, context and deliberative. Explains why I usually have to give you a lot of information before you give me an answer. What are a few of your strengths that you've leaned on, during the last three months, whether it be for yourself or for your team?

Dennis McGonigle: Hopefully for the benefit of the company, I'm certainly a learner, in trying to make sure I understand this virus as much as possible, particularly the elements of it that are impacting our ability to work in the same physical space. Then, what are the different government agencies, federal, state, local, other countries. There are other geographies where SEI operates. I'm trying to stay attuned to all of their changing rules and regulations, so that we can be in a position to best inform our workforce about our plans and our planning, as we make decisions going forward.
I probably spend more time on that than I would, certainly would like, or probably even needed to, but that's just learned. Context is also always important in that. Because I don't think that's all my strengths. I don't think I have any more than any other, I just think they're all applicable in this environment. But context is, as you know in working with me, that I'm always interested in the context, what exactly is the context of what we're about to say or about to do.
Back to communication, deliberative is probably more, you have to plan a little bit more. Plan your week out better, you need to make sure you can organize better, make sure that you get the right people at the right time, in conversations. But I would say all my strengths are probably in play as they're defined by Gallup weaknesses too. I'm sure.

Leslie Wojcik: So when we look forward, what are the opportunities that you see, that excite you, whether it be for us as a company SEI, or you personally, professionally?

Dennis McGonigle: I think for SEI, the opportunities are as large and broad as they were when we got into this. I think our business strategy has been really sound. Yeah, I think we're in a fortunate position in that some of what we're trying to accomplish has taken longer than we would like, but our conviction is only higher, about what and where we think the opportunities are.
Our patience is ever-present to let it play out. We are, I would say in a position of better momentum now than we were this time last year, across all of our businesses. The unfortunate thing about the virus hitting when it did is, is just that. That our momentum was really picking up and this hit it a little bit, in terms of slowing it down. But I think as we have adjusted that momentum will start to accelerate again.
So I'm very, very bullish on SEI. You've probably heard me say this in other presentations, that I've never been more bullish about the company and its history or my history with the company at least, that's 35 years. So we have much richer, deeper, stronger strategic assets to grow the company off of. I think if we continue to sustain and support and emphasize the innovative, collaborative, open nature and transparent nature of our culture and how we want to work together, we'll unleash the value of those assets. More so than we have, over the past 10 years. So I'm very, very bullish and very excited to be a part of that for a long time. So that would probably speak to my future as well. I'm not going anywhere, why miss the fun when its, when we're just getting going.

Leslie Wojcik: So before we move into our last little bit, I'm curious, I've had a lot of time to reflect in this remote environment. What are you most grateful for? When you look at these last three months and everything that we've gone through as a world, what are you most grateful for?

Dennis McGonigle: Probably the obvious ones are certainly my family and not just my immediate family with my children and grandchild, but my more extended family that you have less opportunity to see in this environment. So clearly that... I'm Roman Catholic, so being away from mass is something I really miss. I'm looking forward to next Sunday when we can get back to church.
For those that are maybe listening, that aren't Roman Catholic or Catholic, I cannot underestimate or tell you how important the mass is, for those of us that practice the faith. So, not being able to access, that's been kind of a personal difficulty or personal issue. But beyond that, I mentioned this earlier that when it comes to work, I mean, I love the people I work with at SEI. Whether I work with them day in and day out, or whether I have worked with them over the years, but don't work directly alongside of them anymore, or just the people that you have a chance to meet, whether it's waiting for your sandwich in the cafeteria, that you just turn around to somebody and say hi and introduce yourself, or you're next to in the salad bar line, or you bump into at a happy hour. I don't know what the future holds relative to our ability to get back a hundred percent. That's clearly something that I miss, the energy and camaraderie that comes from that, is hard to replace via Webex or via Zoom, as hard as you might try to do that. I love the virtual happy hours, you can have some laughs, but they're nothing like the real thing. I miss bartending!

Leslie Wojcik: For those of you listening, Dennis and our leadership team often bartend at our company happy hours and we get a kick out of it. 

So this is our speed round and it's called this or that. You can't think, you just have to answer.

Dennis McGonigle: Okay.

Leslie Wojcik: All right?

Dennis McGonigle: Okay. I can't think? That's normal, that's normal.

Leslie Wojcik: Coffee or tea?

Dennis McGonigle: Coffee.

Leslie Wojcik: Phone call or email?

Dennis McGonigle: Phone call.

Leslie Wojcik: TV or book?

Dennis McGonigle: Book.

Leslie Wojcik: Sweet or salty?

Dennis McGonigle: Sweet.

Leslie Wojcik: Winter or summer?

Dennis McGonigle: Winter.

Leslie Wojcik: The beach or mountains?

Dennis McGonigle: Mountains.

Leslie Wojcik: I actually knew quite a few of those. Before we go. I know you love to read, give us a good book recommendation.

Dennis McGonigle: Well, it depends on the genre. So I guess I'll talk a couple of books I've finished over the past couple of weeks. One was about the first year and a half or so of London, Great Britain under the Blitz at the beginning of World War II is by Larson. It's essentially a compilation of a number of diaries and personal papers that range from Winston Churchill to his daughter, to some of the folks that surround Churchill during those times. So I thought it was a good read.

I also finished a book that's the biography of St. Paul, written by an Anglican minister in the UK. That is an individual, whether you are interested in him biblically or historically, certainly how to play a role changing the history of the world, but interesting book.
And then on the fiction side, I've gotten hooked on these two authors that write these: One writes about a Wyoming game warden. The author's name is CJ Box. He's just has these great, easy read stories about this Wyoming game warden who gets himself in all kinds of interesting situations. 

Then the other is about... Another author, his name escapes me but he writes about his character. His name is Wolf, he's a small skiing town in Colorado sheriff. He gets himself into a lot of interesting situations. They're the funner things I've been reading, versus the more serious stuff. And then coronavirus, all the time, reading a lot about that.

Leslie Wojcik: Well, thanks. You've beefed up our summer reading list and I can supplement it to what my kids have to read, all that fun stuff. But thank you so much for taking the time out of your day. I know you're, I know you're busy.

Dennis McGonigle: I'm no busier than anyone else. Trust me. I'll make sure that's clear. I'm less busy because everybody else does such a great job.

Leslie Wojcik: Well, you and the executive team have done an amazing job leading us through all this change. I know that there are so many teams behind all of that, that have supported our company and your support of our workforce. I mean that collectively amongst executive leadership it's clear to us that you appreciate us. So thank you again.

Dennis McGonigle: Thank you, thank you for your comment.

Leslie Wojcik: I do look forward to the day that we can chat in person!

Dennis McGonigle: Yeah same here.

Leslie Wojcik: Only if you get your hair cut first.

Dennis McGonigle: Well, I don't know. I might start parting it down the middle and go back to what I looked like in 11th grade, but that will be scary. I did that for my kids. Last weekend, I came downstairs with my hair parted like that. They ran out of the house, that was worse than me coughing.

Leslie Wojcik: I hope there's photographic evidence of that.

Dennis McGonigle: No, absolutely none.

Leslie Wojcik: All right, thank you very much for your time.

Dennis McGonigle: Thank you very much.

Megan: Thanks for listening to our new podcast series. We're looking forward to featuring more guests and meaningful conversation. Until next time stay well and of course we hope you'll meet us back at The Intersection soon.

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