BBH Partner Maroa Velez and her family moved to the United States from Cuba in 1962 with a cardboard suitcase, $10 and one change of clothing. While the family’s life changed drastically overnight, one thing remained consistent: Her parents’ vision of their children’s future, which included a strong education and a successful life in the U.S. It’s safe to say that Maroa has lived up to those expectations. After roles in public accounting and auditing, Maroa joined BBH in 1995 as the head of the Audit department, served as Comptroller from 2000 until 2007 and was appointed Partner and assumed oversight of Operations in 2008. At her retirement at the end of 2020, she was the head of Service Delivery, which encompasses BBH’s Operations and Client Service divisions.
1. You’ve built many high-performing teams during your time at BBH. What’s your advice for doing so?
I always had a pragmatic plan, which was to be the very best that I could be with no boundaries. When I was 27 years old, I was hired as the head of capital markets auditing at Manufacturers Hanover and oversaw 100 people. Within a year, nobody wanted to work for me – they thought I was too demanding. This was a good lesson for me and clarified the importance of being an inspirational leader. Over time, I developed an inclusive leadership style to nurture excellence, teamwork and transformation through people working as a high-performing team. For me, this has been a skill that I have had to evolve continuously as the mission changed, the team size grew and the talent expanded globally. Each experience was instructive and transformative.
I believe a team is high performing when it is well aligned on goals and delivers excellence regularly. When building a team, I focus on output requirements, including market conditions, current and potential new client needs and how our products can meet the demand with differentiation. Then, we determine expertise, tool and capability gaps. This enables our team to develop an aligned vision of expectations and informs required investment decisions.
My leadership style is to lead by example. I want my team to feel supported, confident and inspired to be the best they can be and know that I care about them personally and professionally. When I’m evaluating a potential new team member, I assess their ability to meet our product needs with their skills, but importantly, I also look for core good values. I want people who have good judgment and will prioritize initiatives for the good of the firm first – who will support growth for their team members and have high resilience to deliver results, not just talk a good game. Our clients need a solution to their challenges with our innovative ideas. I want our leaders to be confident with change, embrace diversity of perspectives and nurture an optimistic work environment. When I think about the wonderful achievements and business growth we have attained, it is a testament to the amazing talent of our people performing as a global team.
After identifying the right people, you need to act and think like a team. That comes down to consistent examples and messaging – everything we do, we do for one team, and that is the BBH team. That commitment is something our leaders individually and collectively embrace. This drives trust and will ensure we remain an enduring team.
2. As you reflect on your own career, what are some lessons learned that you would share with women who are trying to navigate both their professional and personal lives?
The first thing you need to do, which is difficult for most Type A personalities (like me), is give up on perfectionism. The goal is to achieve good, balanced results for yourself, loved ones and work. The drive for perfection will take the fun out of the journey, and this is a high price to pay. Second, recognize that balance is easier if you have help. Find a great life partner who shares your vision, with whom you can balance and share life responsibilities without expecting perfection. I believe in the quality of time. Plan your schedule to attain balance. For example, I made it a priority to have breakfast with my son at least three days a week while he was growing up because I knew I would often not have dinner with him. I became known among my team for that. On the other hand, if BBH needs me because of a challenging situation and I’m going to miss my son’s basketball game to deal with it, I’m able to confidently make those choices.
Today’s environment makes balancing work and life easier. The evolution of technology and expected norms of how work is to be completed is much more balanced globally. As leaders, we have to be supportive of work-life balance and provide the right tools and environment to support balance if we want to attract and retain top talent. For example, I drove the development of BBH’s work-from-home policy – no one should be trudging to work during a blizzard. In addition, everybody who works for me knows that if I call you on Sunday, something urgent needs immediate attention. They also know that if they have to leave at 2 p.m. or need to work remotely, they don’t need to talk to me about it. I judge my team on output – not on when or where they do their work.
3. You mentioned working from home, and you successfully pivoted a global workforce to remote work overnight when COVID-19 hit. What have you learned, and what do you think about the future of the workplace?
While the new normal has not yet emerged, I certainly know that tomorrow’s normal will not be what we were before COVID-19. We will probably leverage a hybrid office model in the future.
Before COVID-19, we never thought we could get 98% of our people to work from home. Thankfully, we had a robust technology toolset to rely upon, strong business continuity planning (BCP) protocols and a well-trained global workforce who knew how to deliver our products in line with global standards. We are ever appreciative to our staff, who worked many long hours to keep up with volatile market conditions and help our clients navigate their needs. The biggest challenge for us internally was paper-based transaction processing, which was the basis for some of our daily functions. Since COVID-19, we’ve implemented solutions to becoming paperless, which will be good for our sustainability and our global footprint in the future. Technology has also advanced tremendously to enable our people to work and communicate effectively from home, which are enduring advantages.
Many of the cultural barriers are also gone. Prior to COVID-19, many managers still didn’t think you were working optimally when working remotely. Recent conditions have required these managers to develop the means to judge output, and this has really inspired a great cultural shift. While there is no replacement for the value of in-person interaction, and we worry about the yet-to-be-defined impact on growth of innovation, we want to be sure to leverage the new opportunities.
Looking at the future, this experience will have a profound impact on BCP, talent acquisition and real estate considerations as where and how people will actually transact with their work becomes clearer. Many issues remain to be explored, but I’m hoping it’s going to be a win-win for work-life balance for all and that people will come out of this challenge with a better toolset to manage work and life.
4. You are a co-chair of BBH’s Global Inclusion Council. Tell us why you are so passionate about fostering an inclusive workplace.
There are many advantages to BBH having an inclusive culture that enables people to contribute their ideas and be themselves at work. I believe we have come a long way over the last decades with the evolution of our culture, yet I would like to see us progress further. An inclusive culture gives people the freedom to be themselves, express ideas from their own perspective and fully demonstrate their talents. I believe this is a great asset to the employee and makes us an employer of choice. This also fosters the need for people to be inspired to learn about different cultures, which is a great advantage to our ability to connect, communicate and evolve capabilities optimally. Nearly 50% of our team resides outside of the U.S., making multicultural awareness very important. We need different perspectives in order to drive innovation in products, and we need innovative new products that will resonate with the marketplace and solidify our future. We have several products that were tailored to the needs of a diverse group of people, such as the Center for Women & Wealth. Science has proven that diversity in leadership forum improves business performance and risk management. It’s also important for connecting with the community. The real question for me is how we can improve the representation of diverse perspectives at a quicker pace.
5. What advice would you give your younger self?
I have many pieces of advice I wish I could tell my younger self.
First and foremost, relax – believe in yourself, and trust that it’s going to be okay. Have more fun with the experience of not knowing what’s going to happen, rather than fearing failure. Instead, enjoy the journey. When I look back and think about all of the really hard endeavors I worked on, what I most remember is the sense of accomplishment we shared when it was finished, the friendships that were forged along the way and the laughs the team had while working on them.
I would also tell myself to take more risks. I was offered multiple assignments overseas, and I wish I had taken one.
In addition, know that you will be criticized – take the truth from the criticism and address this, but don’t let the drama derail you.
If you have an idea you believe in, make sure you give your idea every opportunity to move ahead – and be bold because it will be okay, but when you’re going through it, it won’t feel that way.
And finally, from my personal experience resolving large problems, what doesn’t kill you will make you a stronger and wiser professional.