2020 HR’s Rising Stars: Thinking like a business leader for SEI
“Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”—Albert Einstein
While Einstein may not seem like the most obvious role model for today’s HR leaders, these words of wisdom—though tweaked to be gender-neutral—have become central to Linh Nguyen’s HR career. They go hand in hand with two other nuggets of advice she received early in her career: HR is a part of the business, so always think like a business leader; and lead ethically, including by being transparent about who you are.
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“As long as you’re yourself and you have that passion, everything else will follow through,” Nguyen says.
She’s already seeing those mantras come to life early in her career. Nguyen graduated from Temple University in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and launched right into her career with the financial-services co. SEI Investments. The year before, she had completed a workforce development internship at the Oaks, Pa.-based company, where she got a broad introduction to the company.
“My day wasn’t confined to working on HR-related projects,” she says. “The program allowed me to really understand what other business lines were working on so I could make that correlation of how HR fits into the rest of the business.”
She was hired as an HR business partner and in 2018 added “senior” to her title. Among the accomplishments that helped her earn that promotion was her work to enhance the SEI Associates Program, a year-long leadership program for college grads, which was struggling to get buy-in from business units.
“The real challenge there,” she says, “was trying to understand the root cause of where there may not have been buy-in or why people weren’t fully on board. I’ve realized throughout my career that if you focus more on the root cause of a specific problem than on just coming up with new solutions, that will get you so much further.”
Nguyen launched a technology rotation in the program and worked to build trust among the business units to support the growth of the program, which is now thriving.
She applied the same forward-thinking strategy to support SEI’s U.K. office, which was seeing high turnover and other business disruptions. Nguyen originally conducted a six-week audit of the HR program in the London office and ultimately moved overseas for two years. While there, she worked to mend relationships between the U.K. and U.S. offices, improve culture, and identify and remedy gaps, such as in training. She started London Learning Week, featuring a range of learning and development classes, as well as prizes to incentivize participation.
“Employees felt they were heard, and that’s the most important thing when working with a new group: trying to understand their needs and figure out how to meet those needs without being too disruptive,” Nguyen says.
While in London, she also led the company’s U.K. effort to become compliant with the GDPR regulation requiring transparency around the gender pay gap. Nguyen was the point person for the research and data analysis, which ultimately resulted in a broad equity analysis on sex-based workforce differences and, Nguyen says, importantly fueled conversation on the issue among leaders
That goes hand in hand with Nguyen’s passion for advancing equality in the workplace. She has participated in the PA Conference for Women, and last year completed Temple’s Women’s Leadership Series and spoke at the SEI Women’s Network Summit.
That passion was rooted early on, says Nguyen, who is the youngest of seven daughters.
“My parents came over from Vietnam and did such a wonderful job raising all seven of us,” she says. “Having been surrounded by such strong women, I was a bit naïve about some of the gender biases in the workplace. I was always told, ‘Find your independence, use your voice, do the right thing and don’t settle for anything less because you can do that.’ Because I was brought up with that mindset, it became ingrained in me to talk about it in my professional life as well.”
The blending of Nguyen’s personal values and her work has never been more clear as the last few months, as the SEI workforce quickly transitioned to a remote setting amid the coronavirus pandemic, which she says it did with relatively few hiccups. The crisis has provided an opportunity for HR, Nguyen says, to show employees how they come first.
“We’re not only trying to provide support for people in this working environment, but this is also a time to show our empathy and our compassion,” she says. “We have to understand that people are all going through different things in their personal lives. If we can try to support them and make them feel comfortable and safe, then that’s our focus.”
Nguyen faced her own pandemic-related challenge: Her wedding, which she had been planning for two years, was slated for March 28. The event itself was canceled, but her loved ones decided to not let the day pass unnoticed.
“A bunch of friends and family said, ‘Let’s do a Zoom and see how you’re doing’ and it ended up being us exchanging our vows with the rings and our friends surprised us with a video of well wishes and singing so we did our first dance in my living room,” she says. “It ended up turning out to be really special considering the circumstances. We just have to stay positive through all of this.”
Nguyen is looking forward to helping SEI assess how the pandemic will shape what the future of work looks like at the company—and she’s confident that the workforce will continue to rely on her and the HR team for support and guidance.
“This may sound odd, but I actually like it when people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, don’t take this the wrong way but you’ve been really helpful and I didn’t know I could come to HR.’ HR gets a bad rep because some people don’t see we’re strategic partners to the business and truly care about our employees,” she says. “When people tell me I’ve changed their perception on that, I know I’ve moved the needle a little bit.”
Learn more about our other rising stars: