Marla Carson is the Director of Culture and Engagement at SEI. She shares the importance of both formal and informal feedback in creating a workplace culture where both individuals and organizations can thrive.
Marla Carson is the Director of Culture and Engagement at SEI, a technology and investments company. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in psychology and then received her master’s degree in counseling from Villanova University. She loves the opportunity she has to help improve the culture at SEI and help people be able to work together as effectively as possible.
Troy Blaser (00:05):
Hello, welcome to another episode of Simply Feedback. The podcast brought to you by LearningBridge. I'm your host, Troy Blaser. Our guest today is Marla Carson.
Marla Carson (00:15):
Hi, glad to be here, Troy.
Troy Blaser (00:17):
Thank you for joining us today. I do really appreciate it. And I'm looking forward to our conversation today. Marla is the director of culture and engagement at SEI. How do I describe SEI? A technology and investment company?
Marla Carson (00:31):
Yes. Yeah, financial services, it's kind of like that FinTech mix that people talk about now. But we started that, you know, 50 years ago. So it's financial services and technology offerings for our clients.
Troy Blaser (00:45):
You bring the technology that makes the financial services industry work.
Marla Carson (00:49):
Troy Blaser (00:50):
And you bring the human part of the company, or into the company, right. So you're not necessarily working in technology, but you're helping with the company's culture, helping with employee engagement, things like that.
Marla Carson (01:05):
Yep. Exactly. No finance, no technology here.
Troy Blaser (01:09):
So background is a degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. And you came right from there to SEI is that right?
Marla Carson (01:18):
That is right into an HR role, straight out of college, because I didn't know what else to do with a psychology degree because University of Pennsylvania tells you to go back to school right away. And that wasn't my parent's plan so HR was, it was great.
Troy Blaser (01:33):
I actually have a daughter in college right now and she's studying humanities and is facing a similar, what do you do with this when you're done?
Marla Carson (01:40):
You're trained to do nothing, but it's awesome, you're a great person in the end, yeah.
Troy Blaser (01:44):
Yeah, absolutely. It's, I mean it's a fascinating thing to study for sure. Marla, I'll start just by kind of asking one of our favorite questions to kind of kick off the conversation. And that is if, if you don't mind, would you tell us about a time that somebody gave you feedback that, you know, maybe had an impact on your life or an impact on your career?
Marla Carson (02:05):
Yes. This is always a hard question for me to say like a time or a place. But the feedback that I really appreciate the most and I thrive on is when someone seeks me out to help or be involved. With carrying the message that they value my input or my perspective. That for me is feedback that like just keeps me motivated and engaged. And that truly means the most to me really. I don't know how else to explain it. And so the people who've done that throughout my career and the way my career has worked that I get to be involved in a lot of things is really the, that's the impact. That's what keeps me here.
Troy Blaser (02:45):
Yeah. So, you know, it's sort of indirectly saying, we know who you are, Marla, and because of who you are, we want you to help us with this project or this team, or whatever it might be. And that is sort of that approval that you get to say, Hey, I'm on the right track here because these people value my point of view.
Marla Carson (03:02):
Right. That's feedback enough. It doesn't have to be formal. It doesn't have to be something specific, but I know that if they're asking me to be involved then that's feedback right there. That's great.
Troy Blaser (03:13):
Yeah. That's really interesting. So you went to school to study Psychology, came to SEI, was psychology something you always wanted to study or was there a particular turning point where you said, Hey, I thought I was going this direction, but I'm going to go into this direction or go to SEI afterward. Is there a particular turning point that led you to be at SEI and to be there for a long time?
Marla Carson (03:37):
Yeah, so two things. No, I didn't know I wanted psychology. I thought I was going to do graphic design, but I'm going to date myself here, when I was dabbling, I was very, like, into art. When thought about it, I wasn't really computer savvy. Let's just put it that way and things weren't done on computer. So it was kind of like a shock that things were leaning towards a digital perspective on graphic design. And I was like, well, that's not what I'm good at. I'm good at being creative and like drawing things and, you know, whatever. So it was kind of funny. So I had taken a psychology class my last year in high school and love, love, loved it. So that kind of, both of those things at the same time swayed me towards psychology. I started SEI like I said, with no clue.
Marla Carson (04:21):
The part of the company that I started at was called mutual fund services. And when I came home, my parents asked me if I knew what a mutual fund was. I came home like with the offer, right. And they said, do you even know what a mutual fund is? And I said, no, but clearly, that wasn't required and they want me, so, great. So, I thought, I am going to be at this company for a little while and I'm going to get my graduate, my master's degree in counseling and I'm going to quit and be a school counselor and have my summers off and have kids. And it's going to be like the perfect life. That was my plan. And SEI is going to pay for it.
Troy Blaser (04:58):
Yeah, of course.
Marla Carson (04:59):
It was also part of my plan. And so in the course of, it took four years to get a master's degree part-time in the evenings. And by the time I finished, I had a different role. Like I wasn't HR anymore, which I wasn't very good at cause that's a bunch of rules and I'm not really good at that. So, I had a new role with one woman who was starting a workforce development area that was a little bit like, it's not more, not really HR, but all the fun side. And the most, the biggest turning point was that the material that I was learning in grad school, like, assessments and just even like a lot of the counseling, I was able to use at SEI, which I thought I never, ever would be able to use. But I was able to bring assessments kind of to SEI. You know, like Myers Briggs is where I started.
Marla Carson (05:50):
And that was, you know, really exciting for me to be able to like bridge that gap between what I thought I needed to change and do somewhere else. And have it happen within work. And then I just was able to get involved with more things. I love my boss. I love the people I was working with. And, yeah, that really, I mean, I'm here 25 years later. It's like, that was, I think the like early turning point. And then I've continued to be able to do things that I never thought I'd be able to do. And I've also, so I'll also add for anybody listening, who has come up against this, I've also turned down opportunities at SEI. With, like thoughtfully, but things like running, like I was kind of, I would be in charge of something or start up something like learning and development.
Marla Carson (06:40):
We didn't have that. Right. So I was as good as they got in the learning development department, but once it grew to a certain point, or there were changes that needed to be made, they said, do you want to run in? And I was like, no, we can find someone that's created this. I will, I would like to do what's next. Like, I would like to kind of be engaged and involved in what's next or what do we need next? So I have turned down kind of more stable, like predictable roles. In my career that really shaped, like the fact that I can do what's timely and necessary for the company. It's interesting. I'm very lucky to be in that kind of a position, but it took some risk involved along the way.
Troy Blaser (07:21):
So even though you've been SEI for 25 years, it sounds like you've been able to find new challenges and new opportunities, you know. So yes, you're not getting a whole new job at a whole different company, but you're finding different ways to explore and to grow inside the same company.
Marla Carson (07:41):
Yep. And it takes, I was just about to say, it takes trust, kind of. Like they trust me enough to let me do what I do. And I trust them to turn down some of those opportunities and think that it's not like career-ending. I also have turned down things because of lifestyle, right. So I have three children. I had them all while working at SEI, it's been great. And I had to make decisions like, what do I want from work? And what do I want from life? And how am I going to kind of try and bring my best, try, I use the word, try, to both. Because I know the capacities and I know what I want to bring, and I know how I can do that best, you know, or I'm learning.
Troy Blaser (08:21):
Yeah. Well, I have to say I'm right there. Kind of in the same boat with you, I've been at LearningBridge for over 20 years now. And you know, I talked to a lot of the different people, a lot of different companies, and mostly that's unusual to stay at the same place for so long, but, just like you I've been able to find different challenges, different opportunities here at LearningBridge. So it's still a delight to come to work every day, you know? So, you know, I mentioned at the beginning, you're the director of culture and engagement. Maybe that, I don't know if you guys probably don't use titles that much at SEI, but can you tell us a little bit about what that means to be thinking about culture and engagement there at SEI?
Marla Carson (09:04):
That's also a great question. I always think of office space when they ask, like, so what would you say you do? Like, and that's a really hard question for me to answer. Even for my kids, they have no idea what I do.
Troy Blaser (09:15):
Oh, my kids think that I type. That's what I do for a living is I type.
Marla Carson (09:19):
You type, I just talk to people all day long.
Troy Blaser (09:22):
Marla Carson (09:23):
Yeah. So I think it means what we needed to mean at the time. And that's like a weird answer, but, I'll give you an example. I started a design thinking program with someone, and they knew what it was and they kind of brought me in and I said, I have no idea what design thinking is, but it seems pretty cool, and it looks like we need it, right. So, fast forward a few years, like they, you know, they were just there for the onset and they dropped off and I started running it, and we have this huge immersive program around it. And for me, it's like, I don't have to be the expert in something, I like to kind of help bring that to SEI, make others the expert, if that's the, you know, if that's the case like this is, so for a while like that, for me, when I think about design thinking, yes, it's a learning opportunity, but it's also a way to work.
Marla Carson (10:19):
And so that's like, culturally, I want to see us using those techniques and those mindsets to solve problems and have it be a regular part of our language, right. So that's an example. I've done, you know, a lot with strengths and now that's part of our vernacular at SEI right? Like, what are your talents? How are you using them? Like, people know what that means when you talk about it. So, I think our culture kind of meets different things at different times, different focuses. It's really excited that while I continue along with these, some programs that we've begun, I'm able to kind of initiate some new ones. And, like now our, we need to focus on diversity and inclusion, right. We just, as a company have been doing things always, but it hasn't been a cultural, corporate focus. So like that is something new and something exciting that we're really putting some effort and resources towards it. So that is like, that'll be new for me too, right. I'm not an expert in that. And, but I'm really looking forward to learning more and more about that space and working with, you know, people who are passionate about it. So, those are just a couple of examples of,
Troy Blaser (11:26):
I love it.
Marla Carson (11:27):
Like what can fall into culture, you know.
Troy Blaser (11:29):
That's really cool. I, how do you incorporate feedback or assessments even if, to be more formal about it, but are there ways that you can do that in the different programs that you do? I know obviously LearningBridge has worked with SEI for a long time in the 360-degree feedback area. But I imagine you talked about Myers Briggs and maybe other assessments, what are some ways that you incorporate feedback to help meet some of the challenges that you see there?
Marla Carson (11:58):
That's a good question. I see one of the major challenges right now is retention. It already had started pre-COVID that people have opportunity and they want to know their net worth, they want to know their value. And if somebody else tells them their value is great, and we don't, then we're going to lose them, right. So, I think we really need to let people know they're appreciated and valued, now more than ever. So I think feedback is critical there. You don't want to wait until someone's given that message from outside. So we really have done a great job with, you know, you specifically mentioned the 360.
Marla Carson (12:38):
Like, we know that 360 is important for people to truly know how they're doing, right? That some are great at managing up, right. And some are just the opposite, but their teammates, you know, they're reporting, employees love them to death. We use a 360, at the right time or for the right people, meaning that those that are ready for and open to a ton of input. Cause that's what's really, really a lot of input. And those that like are open to making a few changes, and willing to invest the time in themselves, or like they're employee of their, you know, recommending a 360 for their employee to be successful. So we don't use it as a broad base exercise, but, if we did, I think that would become a routine check the box kind of situation, and nobody needs a full 360 for that, you know, just to like go through the motion.
Marla Carson (13:32):
So I think we use it thoughtfully and, but knowing that to get the different perspectives of feedback is really critical. You can't just go with one direction all the time. We've also used with you guys upward feedback, which is, I think just especially generationally, I think people want their voices to matter going up, right. And people need to know how they're doing from that direction. Specifically, because that's what makes the wheels turn every day, right? If your employees aren't happy and it's something that you are creating an environment that you're creating, then you should know about it. And it's really, there haven't been many formal avenues for that feedback. So we're trying to open up a few more of those as well.
Troy Blaser (14:16):
You always want to make sure, I mean, you know, you've got these great leaders, but if they're marching off in a direction and nobody wants to follow them and they don't know that, that's a problem, right. So the upward feedback, it's interesting that you say generationally, that's something that, as employees come in that they appreciate more at a younger generation than maybe the older generations would realize. I haven't thought of that before.
Marla Carson (14:39):
Yeah. You never told your boss what you were, what you thought of them, like, years ago, no one cared what you thought as a 20 something great. Like, but now it's like, we should care and we should listen and it has impact, right. They're going to walk away if we don't hear and listen, you know, so that just causes more headache. If for no other reason, you're going to have to replace that person and start all over. And maybe you should have more motivation to do the right thing other than that. But even if you don't it's good enough reason, right?
Troy Blaser (15:12):
Yes, yes, absolutely. Are there other ways that you have found to provide your employees with feedback, whether it's, I mean, you think about engagement, employee engagement, and that's often thought of as getting feedback from the employees, but you want to let the employees also know that their voices are heard as they're giving that feedback. So are there ways that you found to provide those employees with feedback?
Marla Carson (15:41):
What we have done, we know that at SEI like formal doesn't always work. There are some areas, we have a very unique culture in that there's a lot of mini cultures, and businesses are kind of run on their own. Really that's the way we sort of started we have different business lines and they, it's a very entrepreneurial spirit that we were started with. So, as we grow, those business lines are really like, not independent, but independent enough that there are different kind of programs that happen in each area. So, feedback happens in some areas formally, but not many. And corporately we've tried, and we know that it doesn't work well corporately to have a mandate that everybody's going to get the same kind of feedback, but what we do know works better are informal conversations.
Marla Carson (16:32):
And even, when I say informal, even using tools to start those conversations is worthwhile, right? Like, you know, just having, having a baseline of someone somewhere that people can kind of put down their thoughts and their goals or their expectations, or how they're doing, and then compare that to like what your manager has. But, once it becomes too formal of a process, it becomes an exercise and it becomes tied to compensation to be quite honest, it's like, we have to do this to put a number down for, you know, your incentive compensation or your bonus at the end of the year, which really, I mean, people see right through that, right. They know that it's not for their growth or development. So, we need to move away from that and have more of these informal conversations with guides, right.
Marla Carson (17:19):
We also have started, or, you know, we've always had like a coaching element at SEI, but it's become more formalized over the past couple years. And that's been really exciting to see, because I do think that no matter what feedback you get and no matter what tool, a lot of times it stops right there, right. You get the feedback. And I know that you guys are big proponents of what's next? Like what's the, what's the guide through like next steps? How do I make a change? How do I even decide what change to make? I think that whether self-guided or working with a coach that's critical and we're doing more formalized coaching at the executive level, at like a management for managers, and for kind of high profile or high potential employees. So that like, coaching through feedback is huge. I think that's the biggest, I think we'll start to see a lot of, kind of impact from that.
Troy Blaser (18:16):
I like that, it's a tricky balance because like you say, the formal feedback sometimes can be rejected as too formal or a check the box kind of pro forma thing. But yet, if you just say, well, we're just going to rely on informal feedback and we don't ever measure it or pay any attention to it, then maybe it's happening, maybe it's not happening. And so it's a tricky balance to find that, we want informal feedback, but we want to make sure that it's happening.
Marla Carson (18:41):
Right. It is a tricky, it's totally tricky. And you need some kind of like, you need something around it that makes people feel like as a manager, you are invested, it's real. You want the, you're doing this for their good, not just for, you know, a routine check-in or the sake of the company necessarily. It should be for the employees development too. And that's a hard part to, I think that's a lot to put on a, you know, that's a lot for our manager to be responsible for, but good ones do it really well.
Troy Blaser (19:14):
Yes, yes. I was going to say, is there a time or an experience you can think of when you've seen feedback have an impact on someone there in the organization, whether it's an informal conversation or a more formal, you know, a larger program that's maybe the change, the direction of one of the, you know, the business lines, is there an experience or a time you can think of where you've seen that feedback have an impact?
Marla Carson (19:38):
Yeah. So you said good or bad, right?
Troy Blaser (19:43):
Marla Carson (19:44):
Just checking before I share a bad story. So,
Troy Blaser (19:47):
A lesson, a lesson to learn here.
Marla Carson (19:49):
A lesson, a lesson story. So, no, what I'm thinking of is a time when like, 360 is also a good tool for less than positive side of feedback, unfortunately. But what it does is sometimes when you hear feedback from one person or, you know, you hear feedback for yourself or for another that you're working with, a 360 can help you validate or negate that concern, right. You know, taking one person's perspective is, you know, a very, very biased view of this individual. So, we've used 360s to kind of validate or negate concerns about someone's behavior. And we had a situation where a fairly high-level employee who touched many throughout the company was in that boat, right. They like, their leader had heard feedback and kind of needed to validate to move forward.
Marla Carson (20:40):
They couldn't just, you know, say, oh, I heard this. So you're out here or, you know, this isn't working. So, we use the tool to collect feedback and create a plan or discussion around the changes that were needed to be successful, right. And it turned out some of those were just too significant, right. And the mutual best decision was to part ways. Those moments, they're really tough moments to have. But they usually work out for the best for the individual and the company. That person needed a fresh start. And that could shape how they started their next experience. And it did, I really think that they, you know, they're, they're doing well, but here they would not have done well, because it was too damaging already. It was too, too many people knew, I mean, the 360s show that too many people knew the bad behaviors. And so it would've been a really big uphill climb to kind of overcome that here. So it's, you know, that's an example of a use that I don't really love to have happen all the time, but it really, really helped out because it helped their leader kind of understand the scope of like, this feedback was not just, it wasn't narrow.
Troy Blaser (21:43):
Yeah. It wasn't just one voice or it was too difficult to that point to sort of discount the feedback when you see it there in the 360 report. And it's like, well, it's more than just one person's opinion maybe, or more general, so harder to discount it. That makes sense. I love how you talked about, over the years at SEI you've been able to pick up one challenge and go with it for a while, and then, you know, maybe turn it over to an expert if that's what was needed, and then you were ready for the next thing that would really get you excited and ready and energized. What are some things that are coming for you that you're really passionate about? What are you looking forward to? What are the next challenges that you're working on there at a SEI?
Marla Carson (22:29):
That's a great question. And one that I am super excited for. So, I mentioned design thinking. That's like a mindset and a methodology around solving problems, and it really, it takes a user focus. That's like the, that's the basis of it. It really takes in, so if you were designing something and you didn't get your users, kind of, take on it and get their experience, you could design something that you think they need and you think it's awesome. And you spend all this time and resources on it, and then you go to launch and you wonder why no one's buying it, right. It's like a simplified version. So design thinking tells us to take a step back and really get that user input from the start and design for that input and create according to the need that they're expressing, not even that they know that they're expressing it.
Marla Carson (23:13):
So through my work with design thinking, we've had a number of teams just come to us with challenges where we say, here's how you're going to use design thinking. Like, you know, we're going to do listening sessions with clients. We're going to do, you know, maybe they've already done some gathering of research and empathy, and they need to know what to do with the next step. So we create journey mapping with them and things like that. But I say this all because a few initiatives on the culture side have popped up from that, that opportunity to use design thinking and to listen. So we are, we have done one culture audit where we asked employees about how we're kind of living up to our values and do they even know what they are, right? So that's, and that's like, all that is, is gathering feedback, right.
Marla Carson (24:00):
That's like amazing. And then seeing what those pain points are that are like universal, that aren't just like specific to a person or a person's experience, and then retaining top talent. As I mentioned before, that's, you know, it's a hot area, right? What do we do with those people we think are here and ready for the next step. And then they go take that next step elsewhere, you know, and it's going to happen, but how do we keep the ones that we can keep? So we're going to use design thinking and do interviews with people who have left, people who are here that we don't want to leave. And just, like all these initiatives are really centered on employees, not programs. And so we are listening and guiding and openly sharing feedback in both directions. And I really, I'm excited for those to come to, you know, what it will amount to is, like I said, we'll get to those pain points and then we'll have to ideate on each one of them, right. Like, so how do we, what are some solutions to this specific pain point? And then carrying out some initiatives, which is, you know, it's like work to become over the next five years. So I am excited for that. And again, I mentioned the coaching and coaching is really exciting cause I think that's really ramping up.
Troy Blaser (25:10):
It sounds like you've really put yourself in a position to get a lot of input as you listen to the users, listen to the employees, and really set yourself up, like you said, something that could take the next five years to really work on all those various initiatives.
Marla Carson (25:24):
And I think people knowing that it's from them, like it's their feedback, right? So we always think about feedback, one directionally, top to bottom employer to employee, like this is flipping that on its head and just really creating space for people to be part of the solution
Troy Blaser (25:40):
And letting them feel like they're being heard because they can see changes. They can see that their voice made a difference, you know, I think that's fantastic. Well, Marla, it has been a lot of fun to chat with you for a few minutes today. I appreciate your input. I appreciate, you know, your experience, and hearing what it's like for you there at SEI. I think you've got some great ideas and I'm glad you were able to share them with us. I wanted to ask if people want to know more, are you open to continuing that conversation with them? Is there a way that they should connect with you if they, if something sparked, you know, an idea in them that they wanted to continue that conversation is, are you open to that?
Marla Carson (26:23):
Sure. I am on LinkedIn, so that'd be perfect.
Troy Blaser (26:25):
Wonderful. Well, Marla, thank you so much again for your time today. It's been great to have you join us for this episode.
Marla Carson (26:31):
Well, thank you, Troy. It's really, you know, it's, I will say for anybody listening to take the opportunity to talk to anyone about your job and it gives you more energy around your job. It really is like, for me, this is motivation, just talking to you, Troy, and like letting like verbally saying all the things I got to say today makes me excited to work on them going forward. Thank you for the opportunity.