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Eric Spiegel

Eric Spiegel

Special advisor, General Atlantic; former CEO, Siemens USA

What were your early years like?

I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, a good example of a tough city where the middle class was born. Both my grandfathers were German immigrants who worked in the steel mill there. My dad dropped out of high school to help support his family and he became an entrepreneur, with his own construction company, two sporting goods stores, and a restaurant, among other businesses. He always told me: Get good grades and play football, so you’ll have a chance of getting out of here.

Strong academics and football helped you get into Harvard. How did that affect your career?

Harvard opened my eyes to a much bigger world. It’s where I got my first exposure to people from other countries and ideas I had not previously encountered. And, it’s where I realized that I needed to raise the bar on what I wanted to achieve in life. I majored in economics, but during my junior year my focus changed: I took a research position in the physics department with a professor, helping him study the options for disposing of nuclear waste in the United States. This professor later became my thesis advisor and inspired my work on the future of nuclear energy, which also helped me get my first job after graduation in energy consulting at Temple, Barker & Sloane (now Oliver Wyman). This is really what led to my career path, largely working in and around energy.

What drew you to Strategy&?

Well, you could say Jack Welch played a role. After I had worked for a few years at other companies in Boston, Pittsburgh, and Switzerland, I went to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. I did a summer internship at Strategy& (then Booz Allen Hamilton) in New York and was later offered a full-time position. But before I accepted it, I interviewed for another opportunity at General Electric. During my relatively short interview with Jack Welch, I mentioned that I was contemplating an offer from Booz Allen. This is what he said: “You know what? If I were you, I’d invest in myself and go work for Booz Allen, get more experiences working across different companies and industries with really bright people. Then, in a few years, if you’re still interested in GE, give me a call.” I took his advice, but I stayed at Booz Allen Hamilton/Strategy& for nearly 25 years.

What are some lasting lessons you learned at Strategy&?

Challenge yourself. Don’t be afraid to raise your hand and volunteer to do something different, to take on new responsibility, because that’s going to create the biggest openings for your development. And even if you don’t think you’re quite ready, or other people don’t think you’re quite ready, push to get more of those opportunities, because that’s where you really stretch yourself and that’s where you grow.
I give all the credit to my development as a leader to Booz Allen and Strategy&. During my time there, I lived in six locations (including four years in Japan) with a wide variety of roles. I also had multiple mentors who pushed me in different ways and gave me incredible opportunities to grow and learn—right from the beginning.

Can you share an example?

After my wife and I got married, I moved to Dallas and got involved in the oil and gas side of the energy practice. Soon, I was spending most of my time working in Houston for one of the big oil companies, and I started to wonder why we didn’t have an office there. I said something along those lines to the head of the energy practice, and he said: “That’s a clever idea. Why don’t you open one?”
I wasn’t even a partner yet. But the people I was working with had faith in me. Within six years, our office in Houston went from three people to nearly 60 people. It was very successful, and it was exciting to be a part of that growth and building a team.

How did your career affect your personal life?

My wife and our two children have always been very supportive, and I think my career gave our family a pretty exciting lifestyle. When my son was 6 and my daughter was 8, we moved to Tokyo and I headed up the Asia, Australia, Middle East, and South America [offices] for Booz Allen, which had hundreds of consultants spread out across about 20 offices on four continents. That was a great experience — both professionally and personally. I helped develop the largest client we ever had in Japan, and my family loved it so much that when our three-year term was up, my wife said, “Can we stay for another year?”
We traveled extensively across Asia and Australia, and our children were in a school with kids from all over the world. In 2004, we moved back to Washington, D.C. But our kids still look back on their years in Asia as the best time they had growing up. We’re planning to go back to Tokyo for the Olympics in 2020.

Tell me about your time as CEO at Siemens.

I served as CEO of the U.S. business (which did about US$22 billion in sales), which was headquartered in D.C., for seven years before I retired. It was a great experience, but very different from consulting. However, I think my consulting background from Strategy& was a huge benefit to my ability to be an effective leader at Siemens.

How did consulting prepare you to be a leader?

Leading multi-function and multi-business teams is a critical component of delivering value to clients in consulting. At Siemens, I found that the intersection of functions and businesses is where much of the growth opportunity existed within the company. Getting these organizations to work together unlocked value that wasn’t available to any one business working alone. One example of this was the federal business, which we set up after a study by Strategy& (then Booz & Company) to drive new business opportunities within and across almost all of the 40-plus business units. That grew at double-digit rates while I was there.

What most surprised you about being a CEO?

You’re always in the spotlight — whether you’re giving a speech, doing a TV interview, visiting one of the company plants, or meeting a major customer or even the president of the United States. I remember going to a meeting at the White House in my first year with Siemens because the president had invited about a dozen CEOs to his office to talk about what the country should do about its aging infrastructure. With the TV cameras rolling, the president started the meeting off by saying, “Mr. Spiegel, what ideas do you have?”

What career advice can you offer?

Focus on expanding your breadth across industries and building relationships. The basic skills that you learn as a consultant are so important for helping to do that — in terms of understanding a problem, coming up with strategies to move a company forward, and developing and leading a team. Treat people with respect and trust. Learn how to delegate responsibility. Let others have a chance to stretch themselves and grow. Everyone makes mistakes, and if you can help people through those challenges, that will make you a more valuable leader.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Vision-led and collaborative. I try to listen first. I always start with trying to understand other people’s ideas and motivations. When I joined Siemens, I didn’t come right out with my vision for where we ought to go. I went out and listened to people — not only the senior people in the company, but also people at our plants and business units. I hosted brown-bag lunches with the up-and-coming middle management to get a sense of what their issues were. Only after I had completed my listening tour for several months did I come back with my vision and agenda for Siemens in the United States. I built a leadership team, with about a dozen people from key divisions and functions as well as some new talent from the outside, and together we developed a game plan.

What’s your own post-retirement game plan?

Well, my wife says that I’m semi-semi-retired. I’m working two to three days a week now, but probably close to 40 hours if I include all my volunteer work. I currently serve on two large boards of a global insurer and an American manufacturer of industrial products. I also chair the board of a smaller, private energy company. I’m also spending a day or so each week as an advisor with a large private equity firm. But mostly, now that our kids are in their 20s and working, I’m hoping to spend more time with my wife. We’ve taken a couple long vacations, and next year, I’ll decide whether I want to continue at this pace or do more.

This interview was conducted and edited by Jen Swetzoff, founder of Closeup, a content strategy and creative studio. She was formerly the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

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