By Vanessa Gavan
When I founded Maximus 20 years ago, I had a driving ambition for myself and for those I’d be working with: “Expect something unreasonable of yourself.”
At Maximus, we focus on the need for “limitless horizons”. We expect obstacles and excuses to make way for long-term goals and ambitious agendas. We expect that ambition to be matched with a deep sense of purpose and ultimately, allow leaders to leave a legacy of proven value.
I’m proud to say that our success – with our own people and the tens of thousands of leaders we’ve worked with over two decades – is proof our foundational philosophy goes way beyond an aspirational slogan. It’s a unifying purpose that drives outcomes.
Maximus relentlessly pursues disproportionate growth for the leaders with whom we’re working. We help them to grow in ways they couldn’t have imagined. Decades of growth are condensed into years, and months into days. We push leaders to understand what makes them special and different, and how to unlock their unique strengths and potential. We support them to bring these into their businesses, family life, and relationships. We work with them to fulfil their deepest hopes and dreams, knowing we have one chance at a life of impact.
Celebrating originality is key to all we do. Life loses its colour and depth when we bend to the pressure to be the same and fit in. It is harder, yet infinitely more rewarding, to search for what is in us that is truly unique and bring the inside out. At Maximus, we have a tribe of intellectually curious originals, an abundance of talent and creativity, and our greatest achievement is the creation of a place where this ingenuity thrives.
Building a life worth living is a foundational part of my story and the Maximus story. I grew up believing anything is possible. Early in life, I met my husband who shared the same passion and restlessness to shape a life of freedom and opportunity. Over time we built not only a portfolio of businesses but also a beautiful family where purpose, a zest for the unreasonable and a commitment to living your best life was at the centre.
It was this belief in possibilities that led me to start Maximus at the age of 27. I made deliberate choices along the way that challenged expectations. From day one, it had to be a worthy mission and there was no going back. That was the point I went in as a psychologist and became an entrepreneur.
Reflecting on it today, I realise that backing Maximus to be different became our greatest differentiator in a crowded market and the key to our success as a business. Becoming a sanctuary for the wildly ambitious, highly original and deeply human, is not the easy path to success, but it certainly has kept our firm special.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned about myself is the importance of balancing what is good for humanity and our ambition. Whenever I have given one priority over the other, our impact has suffered. Balancing humanity and ambition has been the key to our success with our people and our clients. The Maximus approach when working with leaders is one of deep empathy as they embark on a potentially confronting personal journey.
There’s no judgment, only curiosity, and a commitment to find their best. This means we challenge leaders to shift gears, be more and set an ‘unreasonable ambition’ to achieve growth. For us, it’s about what lies deep within – we work with leaders to delve into their minds and motivations. There, we discover their untapped potential. When we unlock that, leaders who are already excellent become exceptional.
Importantly, we never demand of leaders something we do not demand of ourselves. Trust is at the heart of all we do. Leaders trust our intent, and they’re reassured by our humanity and insight. As they place themselves in our hands, we recognise the great privilege of guiding them along the way. They give us permission to help them stretch, and we have seen extraordinary outcomes from so many people as a result.
LESSONS ON LEADING
With two decades behind us, we have come to realise that there’s a lot in that very determined founder’s mindset that can help leaders of all kinds. Large, legacy incumbents in a disrupted world can leverage the successes of scaled disruptors to ensure they find the growth they are capable of. Three attributes stand out in particular:
“Whether you’re an incumbent that’s transforming or a startup scaling to becoming a unicorn, I want to see galvanising commitment propelled by such a clear purpose that it sparks a movement.”
A BOLD AMBITION
Whether you’re an incumbent that’s transforming or a startup scaling to becoming a unicorn, I want to see galvanising commitment propelled by such a clear purpose that it sparks a movement. This isn’t a mission statement: it’s a driving mindset, underpinned by the indignation that you see in challengers to be something special and different to the market. It’s the first thing you see in every Challenger organisation, the ones coming from behind and carving out a special space in the market, as Maximus has. They all have a bold, uncompromising vision, and it sparks a collective discretionary effort that is centred around the customers unmet needs. This propels them up and over.
Twenty years of working inside the minds of leaders within large corporates has taught me that they need more of this ambition, coupled with the discerning thought that is required in a complex business. Too often, we are seeing the tenure of CEOs get shorter and each subsequent leader wanting to make their mark by throwing away what came before them, resulting in a confusing and uninspiring tapestry of messages that numb the spirit of the people. Founders commit over the long haul to a unifying long-term quest. They are conscious of waste, have high bars on performance and are committed to building brighter futures for their people, customers and communities on a grand scale.
“Your business must be frugal and disciplined enough to consistently create extraordinary outcomes with limited resources.”
AN OWNERS MINDSET
To deliver on your ambitions and limitless horizons, your business must be frugal and disciplined enough to consistently create extraordinary outcomes with limited resources. I believe in the power of an investor’s mindset. Taking more frugality, value-orientated positions about investment and outcomes to push the limits of creativity and combat laziness. You need to be a clever investor to make necessary and timely investments if you want to outperform a market.
I hate waste, whether it’s money or time, because it takes away from big ideas and opportunities down the track. I will invest significantly in things that I believe will be valuable for our future, but I want there to be clear intent. This means you have to be obsessed about your product market fit, invest small to start, test and learn and know who and how to scale that investment as your proof of concept is being realised. Modern leaders need to be skilled in how they deploy people and capital for growth.
The owner’s mindset demands that your people deliver what they promise, do what they say, spend money wisely, and invest for growth. There’s a discipline around the mechanics of operating that way, and it doesn’t matter what size your business is, you need to create a consistent accountability mindset in order to thrive.
“Founders understand that you elevate your value to your customers through the power of ingenuity: combining deep listening with original solutions.”
AN OBSESSION AROUND YOUR CUSTOMER
The only reason you exist is to serve your market and your customers. Sometimes organisations think that being customer-obsessed is about caring and responding quickly. Most founders understand that you elevate your value to your customers through the power of ingenuity: combining deep listening with original solutions. For our customers, we’re obsessed with getting the ‘unreasonable’ outcome. To get leaders to do something they thought they couldn’t do – that’s disproportionate growth.
For Maximus, our next decades are focused on shaping a generation of purposeful leaders with limitless horizons. Leaders know how to create opportunity for themselves, their people, customers and communities. In a modern economy they need to care for things beyond pure profit and their own achievement.
We are about a world where leaders are activists in their pursuit of opportunity, impact and action, while at the same time leading commercially astute businesses that outperform expectations.
These are leaders who unify people through a clarity of purpose and ambition to do more in the world than just make a profit.
Leadership is where disproportionate impact lies, and if leadership is in you, we’ll find it.
This article was written as part of a series celebrating the 20th anniversary of Maximus. Driven by the entrepreneurial spirit of Vanessa Gavan and her conviction that leadership should be so much more, we have created a series of interviews presenting the fundamentals of differentiated leadership, available in full here.