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3 Trends Reshaping Retirement: T. Rowe Price's Belski

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As head of T. Rowe Price’s U.S. retirement business — the group has $370 billion in assets under management of the firm’s roughly $1.68 trillion — Cheri Belski has a “superpower” that has helped in her stellar rise in the firm from when she joined 20-plus years ago.

“There are different types of leaders and traits that come into play when you’re leading a business. Understanding what my superpowers are, and being comfortable with being uncomfortable, means I know there [are] going to be things I don’t know, but I am really confident and assured in what I do know how to do,” she told ThinkAdvisor. “And one of my superpowers is I’m curious, and I’m definitely not status quo or status quo oriented.”

This is one reason Belski was selected as a 2021 winner of ThinkAdvisor’s new recognition program — the LUMINARIES — for Executive Leadership. That superpower helps keep not only her but her team, and even her company, at the top of their game.

The Boston-based executive stumbled upon the financial industry. Her education was focused on political science, Latin American studies and international business, but after hearing about the financial business, she checked it out. As she says, “I came to realize the vast opportunities that the financial industry arena at large could hold.”

We spoke with Belski about what’s ahead for the retirement business, how she has pushed diversity in her firm and more about this superpower. Here are those highlights:

THINKADVISOR: Talk more about not being status quo oriented.

CHERI BELSKI: It means I don’t simply come into a business and take an existing playbook and build on it. Instead, I’ll look at it and say, is this the right playbook? What is needed for the future? Do we understand what gaps we need to address? Are there any areas of transformation or reimagination that need to happen?

And then once I do a bit of that assessment alongside the challenges, that’ll help me inform it and bring it to life.

You have to have a very good self-awareness of what are the capabilities that you can bring into any role, any business, any position, and then how can you leverage them? You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable because you’re going to run into things that you don’t know.

But if you’re curious and are comfortable asking questions and know how to leverage resources that might have more information or more expertise in a certain area, then you can pull upon them and not be afraid to use them. And that’s really what’s been successful for me. It’s advice that I give to people too. Don’t get comfortable; if you’re comfortable, you’re not doing enough.

Can you highlight what’s changed in the retirement business and what lies ahead?

If I think back like even 10 or 15 years ago, most people would think about retirement as an ending. And now it’s [a person’s] beginning, middle and beyond.

It has to be a part of holistic planning and play a very large role in wealth accumulation and the management of assets over time. And it’s not a conversation you can wait to have until [a person is] pre-retiree age anymore.

Within that, I see three specific changes that have happened: [First is] the rise of financial wellness as being core to retirement [planning]. We’ve been talking about financial wellness for quite some time, but it used to be like an occasional add-on, right?

Another [change] is the gap in plan savings adequacy that the pandemic highlighted even further. For me this had become even more clear … that there’s a very big lack of access for many, and it’s significant.

And the possibility of running out of money is a really deep concern for many pre-retirees. Even in some of our own research, I think we saw something like 40% of the pre-retirees that we surveyed said that was their No. 1 concern.

And then the last one is we’re seeing lower expected returns than we’ve seen in previous periods for both retirees and investors. We’ve had a long run of pretty reliable, very strong, expected returns over the last 15 to 20 years. And we’re seeing that change. …

There’s [also] some [inter]woven gender dynamics that are coming forward that we didn’t see in the past for a host of reasons. There are more women in the workforce. There are women making financial decisions more than ever.

There are some new themes like that, but they, too, are still going to need the same three things that I just addressed [in these] larger retirement issues.

Let’s discuss your actions as a leader in diversity, equity and inclusion and what you’ve done to enhance this within the industry. 

As I became more of a member of our executive team, I brought [diversity] forward in a few ways. [One action] is we set up our global women’s Business Resource Group a few years ago, and one of the things I did as chair of that was drive engagement from men to be allies [as well]. I want to say there were 1,400 members of that BRG [when I came into it], and when I left [two-plus years later], there were over 4,000 in total membership.

[Also] when I came into it, the membership was predominantly white women, and [I thought], where [are] the other women? It was a lot of work to say we need to invite all women’s voices to the table here alongside as allies because if you just keep talking to the same people who already get it and no one else is being brought in, you’re really not impacting any movement.

Can you discuss the “Gender Dialogues”?

It was right around the time of coming off of the “Me too” movement and I was paying more attention to no longer tolerating some of the things that happen in the industry. [ I said to] our management committee, “Listen, we have an opportunity to change, to change the conversation, but we’re going to have to get uncomfortable. And it has to start at the top.”

We’ll bring some realness to it. Try to make the conversation uncomfortable to encourage silence to be seen and heard. That was the goal of the “Gender Dialogues.”

We brought the most senior members of our organization together, along with a couple from our boards, and had both men and women. We intentionally started with our most senior executives at the firm because if we don’t get it, how in the world are we ever going to drive it? It was a small group, like 20 of us, so it was a safe space where you could have real conversations.

[Everyone was] asked two questions by a facilitator and had to write out [their] answers. The question was like, name a time when you felt like because of who you were you were treated differently, or write down a time when you saw something like that happen.

We collected the cards and redistributed them and each person had to read somebody else’s card, but they didn’t know whose it was. And then they would talk about it. It was such an eye-opener.

And I think everyone left with, “Oh my God, I’ve done that and now I know that I need to stop doing that because I didn’t realize [the impact].”

And that was the point: Let’s take something that feels like it’s taboo and talk about it. Let’s talk about some of the microaggressions and biases and gender dynamics that happen all the time … And the people, sometimes, who are doing it most of the time honestly have no idea they’re creating this dynamic.

Let’s just bring some awareness and set a light on it. And that was a very bold step for our firm, and it actually established a framework [that] was rolled out throughout the firm.


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