Know Thyself: An Interview with Maureen Spivack

The ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” was on full display as we visited with the very self-aware Maureen Spivack. Maureen is one of those folks that immediately establishes instant credibility. Some of it is from her 30 plus years of investment banking experience with E & Y, Merrill Lynch, UBS, Morgan Keegan, KPMG Corporate Finance and now as Senior Industry Partner for healthcare at New State Capital Partners. The rest of her confidence and warmth is revealed in how attentive she is to others in the room – clearly a skill she has honed over her years and thousands of interactions.

It was clear from the beginning of our conversation that Maureen is very confident. “I’m never shy about offering my opinion to clients, because that’s what they are paying for,” she says. But how she communicates with them is very person- and situation-dependent. Maureen explains, “My definition of bold leader is someone who can balance competency with high emotional intelligence. I read people and then dial my use of emotions up or down to fit the situation as needed in order to lead, follow, and develop trust… whatever is needed to drive toward the desired outcome. A bold leader is someone who can listen as well as they speak.”

She differentiates how she might approach a positive or negative stress situation: “If I’m working with a seller who has to sell because of a distressed situation, I will convey an air of urgency and instill confidence that I will help them through this. On the other hand, if someone is in a positive situation and they will sell only if everything aligns for them, I will take my cues from them.”

Maureen is equally pointed about those she considers arrogant, out of touch and the opposite of the bold leader we are discussing. She says, “If you start drinking your own Kool-Aid, you will fall off track. People who do that begin to see themselves as the only ones who can accomplish anything and everyone else is there to serve. There is a big difference between confidence and arrogance.”

In Maureen’s investment banking role, she leads teams of very smart, hard-charging people. It would be easy in that situation for anyone to start “drinking their own Kool-Aid.” So we asked Maureen how she leads and develops a high functioning team where everyone is contributing and elevating the thinking and work quality of each other and the whole team. She replied, “As you might expect, it starts with hiring. I’ll tell you a story that had a tremendous impact on my approach to hiring very early in my career. A leader told me that he always hired 10’s, and expects them to hire only 10’s. He said if you don’t demand the best, you begin to settle. The 10’s will hire 9’s, the 9’s will hire 8’s, and so on, and what you end up with is mediocrity.”

She made the point that often our corporate systems cause us to equivocate – to settle for a lesser candidate just to hold on to the FTE slot in the budget instead of holding on for the best candidate. Who hasn’t seen this? Maybe done this? Maureen’s lesson still echoes in our ears. She said, “I’ve never forgotten that, and though it is sometimes painful to have an opening because I haven’t found the right person, I stay the course. A bold leader has to set the standards; set and play by the rules.”

In a high-talent, high-functioning team, you wouldn’t think people not speaking up would be a problem.  It can be, and if the leader isn’t self-aware, they miss the cues. Maureen says she wasn’t always aware that sometimes those on her team were afraid to speak up. She has worked her whole career at reading others and the room and acting based on her observations. “At first I was surprised [that people can find me intimidating], but now I get it. I’m very definite, and because of that, people are sometimes afraid to tell me what they think. I have to work at fostering an environment where people can respectfully express an opinion. Once I sense that it might be an issue for someone, I try to diffuse the situation by using humor or letting others talk first. A bold leader has to set the tone.” Sometimes it’s as simple as helping a person see that she’s only asking a question and not trying to force a position.

As we’ve heard from many of the bold leaders through this interview series, the true test of that boldness and knowing thyself shows up when you hit a wall because of something unexpected. That’s where the bulldog comes out in Maureen. “I’m good on my feet. I’m tenacious, and I will find a way to get back on track and moving forward with an outcome that I can live with. It may not be the originally intended outcome, but it will be a positive outcome.” She says to keep moving, pushing, and exploring. There are always options. For Maureen, this tenacity is born out of her sense of obligation to whomever and whatever she has committed to do. In the end, as in the beginning, Maureen’s self-awareness and boldness oozes through her keen sense of what others need and how she can help them succeed.

How well do you feel you “know thyself” and read the people and rooms you’re in? Do you have tricks you’re willing to share that help you strengthen your self-awareness in positive ways?

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.