Start Your Own Game: Muriel “Mickie” Siebert — Leadership Lessons for Women from Wall Street

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A few days ago, I went to the best funeral I’ve ever attended.

It’s unusual to say that about an occasion normally considered sad and somber. But the memorial service for Muriel “Mickie” Siebert, a well-known finance executive in the U.S. and the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, goes down in my book as a perfectly delightful send off.

Mickie founded her brokerage firm, Muriel Siebert & Co, Inc. which became part of Siebert Financial and went public in 1996. She also served as New York State’s Superintendent of Banking (referring to herself in her 2008 autobiography Changing the Rules as the S.O.B.). Mickie’s career has lessons for all women, no matter their occupation:

  • Have a dream and go for it.
  • Start your own game if those in power won’t let you into theirs — or even if they will but you prefer your vision of how things should be.
  • No matter how high you climb, help other women rise and keep them close to support you.

muriel2Mickie’s was a life well and publicly lived. When Cantor Angela Buchdahl started belting out “My Way” to the mourners packing Manhattan’s cavernous Central Synagogue, a communal knowing smile spread as fast as spilled water. (This made me start planning what music I want at my funeral.)

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And when Rabbi Peter Rubenstein observed that Mickie did not depend on God for anything, nor did she “suffer from undue humility,” laughter erupted.

There were many stories.

Her New York Times obituary headline initially said she was 80 at the time of her death. I told my husband she appeared to be somewhat older. Turns out my assessment was accurate. The Times later issued a correction.

For Mickie was actually 84. She gave her age as four years younger than she was. In fact, White House security once refused her entry because her birth certificate and driver’s license dates didn’t match.

Oh, there were plenty of tears amid the laughter. The Kleenex boxes thoughtfully placed at the ends of pews traveled back and forth. Hundreds of women and men from various parts of Mickie’s life dabbed their eyes when U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) talked about how Mickie “rewrote the rules to make them fairer.” And more tears as David Roosevelt recounted how his grandmother Eleanor had been a role model to the “pugnacious” Mickie, who had driven from Cleveland Ohio to New York in an old Studebaker with nothing but $500 and a dream back in 1954.

Speakers included people she had worked with, Friends in High Places (apparently her political friends were mostly Democrats though she remained a “bleeding heart” Republican), and women from “new girls’ networks” she’d started, and in which she remained active until her death from cancer.

That all her honorary pallbearers were women reveals why I frequently tell Mickie’s career story when I speak or teach about women and leadership. She realized it wasn’t enough to be a female “first.”  So what if you’re accepted into a formerly all-male bastion, you still need your network of women who support you. And you in turn have a responsibility to bring other women through the door you have opened.

As her friend, public relations executive Muriel Fox  said, “Muriel Siebert was one of the few prominent women in the business world who proudly said, ‘Yes, I am a feminist.’ Mickie proved that outspoken feminism is not a handicap, but is a powerful asset, in achieving business success.”

According to the Wall Street Journal , she was “…an outspoken advocate for financial literacy and for women’s advancement on Wall Street, she often did that both through encouraging others and bucking a system intent on keeping her at the margins.”

At the funeral, I sat with colleagues from the New York Women’s Forum in a section set aside for us. Though I had long admired her legendary shattering of that Wall Street glass ceiling in 1967, I knew Mickie primarily from the organization’s holiday parties. She hosted them every December, holding court with her beloved dog Monster Girl, in her elegant apartment on the East River.

Inevitably, Mickie, who famously loved to sing, would whip out song sheets. Everyone had to join in the anthem with lyrics by Forum founders including Siebert,  Fox, and Elly Guggenheimer. Sung to the tune of “One” from A Chorus Line, it starts, “We. Are. Feminist achievers, everybody knows our names (kick, kick). We are positive believers (kick) in the power of dames (kick kick kick)…”

Having seen her in that social setting, I was moved to hear a business partner Suzanne Shank recount how they’d started Siebert Brandford Shank  in 1996 and grew it to the largest women-and minority-owned finance firm. Others lauded Mickie’s commitment to transparency in finance.

These are not values normally associated with Wall Street. That her business associates chose to speak of them indicates that despite the kind of success that so often corrupts, and despite her vaunted toughness or perhaps because of it, Mickie retained her integrity and sense of social justice through a long and storied career.

What clearer evidence can there be that anything is possible if one has the vision to see the possibility, the courage to go for it, the will to persist, and the competence to carry on successfully? “The real risk,” she once said , “lies in continuing to do things the way they’ve always been done.”

The flags on Wall Street were flown at half-mast for Muriel Siebert on the day of her funeral.

“If you can’t play with the big boys,” she was fond of saying, “start your own game.”

Because she did it her way, women today routinely enjoy workplace choices she had to fight to attain.

Though Mickie’s voice is stilled, her impact — like the songs she loved — go on. We poured out of the synagogue, stepping into the bright August sunshine to the lively beat of “New York, New York.”

Be sure to watch this video on Mickie Siebert

(Originally published on www.TakeTheLeadWomen.com)

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