“The door to opportunity is a door marked PUSH.” Throughout his career, Matt Confer has taken to heart this advice from his parents. He’s actively looked for doors and then strategized how to get them open.
In this episode, Matt spells out the steps he took to create internship opportunities during college and then continually move forward in his career. (Spoiler alert: extreme networking is one of the keys to his success.) He’s currently VP of strategy and business development at Abilitie. The role and the work are not what he envisioned for himself when he was young, yet he loves where he is.
So, how did he build his career? Listen to find out and be inspired.
Matthew Confer is the Vice President of Strategy at Abilitie, a Leadership Development company based in Austin, Texas that provides immersive business simulations to a global client base that includes over 40 members of the Fortune 500. Matthew has spoken on the topic of decision making at the TEDx Conference with a talk entitled Before You Decide and he hosts the Learn To Lead Podcast where he speaks with his guests about their leadership journey and how they are working to develop the leaders of tomorrow.
Beth Davies, host: Welcome to Career Curves, where we talked to people who have interesting careers and explore how they got, where they are. I'm your host Beth Davis.
On this episode, I'm talking to someone whose career is the epitome of a curvy career. Matthew Confer currently is vice president of strategy and business development at Abilitie where they use team-based simulations to help people become better leaders and make better decisions. This doesn't sound at all like what he started doing, which was finance and project management.
So how did he go from finance to leadership development? What were the steps he took? And more importantly, what did he learn about himself along the way so he could make moves that were right for him? I'm pleased to have Matt here to share his story.
Let's dive in. Welcome, Matt.
Matthew Confer, guest: Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Beth: To get started, let's focus on now. Tell us what you're doing now. What does it mean to do work in business and strategy development?
Matt: I think half of my role is probably focused on the strategic side, which is how do we, as an organization, do best by our current clients? How are we seen in the market? How do we do best by our employees? What's the strategic direction of our organization.
And the other half is how do we get more people in the door? How do we develop the business? Which is just a fancy fun way of basically saying sales. How do we find more organizations that are interested in working with us on the leadership simulations that we run virtually and in person all around the world?
And it's probably not 50/50 every week, but I think a good way to think about it is it actually ends up being pretty close to 50/50.
Beth: It sounds like a big job. Give me a sense for the size of the company. How big of a company are you and how big is the team that helps you get both of these important functions done?
Matt: We're an interesting organization. We're about 15 or so full-time employees and then we lean heavily on contractors who are our facilitators all around the world. We have about 80+ around the world that work with our Fortune 500 clients in about 30 different countries. So all in, our footprint is probably approaching 100 or so people, but we have 15 full-time people that work directly under our corporate umbrella.
As far as on my teams specifically, you could probably say there are about three or four people who work directly with me on the strategic and business development side of our business.
Beth: What I want to do now is find out how you got where you are. What we know is that careers are shaped by many different factors, oftentimes going all the way back to our childhood. So let's go back to yours and tell me about your family and where you grew up.
Matt: I actually moved around a lot. I'll rattle through this really fast. Born in Michigan, moved to Idaho, then spent time in Missouri, then spent the bulk of my childhood in Arizona. Then, the family moved to New Hampshire and that is the New England part of my life, which is high school, college, first job, grad school.
I now reside in Austin, Texas. About seven years ago when I was working with Deloitte, which was my first job out of college, I and my now wife transferred from the Boston office to Austin, Texas, which is where I am now.
Beth: Why did your family move so much?
Matt: I always make the joke - and it's not really that funny but for some reason I continue to make it - that it's easier when you're on the run from the law to continue to move locations. It wasn't that at all. My father was a radiologist and it was moving to different hospitals, and then specifically the move to Austin was because as much as I love Massachusetts and Boston as a city, I am not as big of a fan of the weather on the east coast. So I was very happy to traverse the country to head to warmer pastures.
Beth: I've often heard for kids that moving often like this can be challenging and disruptive, but I've also heard that there could be some benefits, skills that they learn that become valuable in their career or just even in life. When you reflect on all of these moves, what did it teach you that helps you in life today?
Matt: I think a lot about what my mother and father told me. One of the things that really sticks out is this reframe that they had was that "the door to opportunity is a door that's marked 'push'. You have to find the opportunity." I think part of the reason that I've been successful is I took that specific message to heart.
When you're moving to a lot of different locations, you don't know anybody. When I first moved to New Hampshire, the bulk of the individuals that I went to high school had been together since kindergarten. They legitimately knew each other for a decade plus in some instances, and I was the newbie. You really do have to force yourself to get outside of your comfortable limits, try to meet new people, get involved with activities. I think that's something that I've taken to heart for the rest of my life and specifically on the professional side of things.
Beth: Let's talk about one of the big moves we have to make as we go from childhood to adulthood, which is the move to go to college. What was that decision for you? Did you automatically know this is what I want to do, this is what I want to major in? Tell me about the decision and where you ended up going.
Matt: So I would say no and no to both of those questions. I ended up at Wheaton College, which is a small liberal arts university in southern Massachusetts. I wanted to be a lawyer; that was the original aim. I think it came from constantly watching Law and Order as a kid and being convinced that if put in a courtroom, I could articulate an argument and would make just a super successful lawyer.
I quickly found out that studying political science and driving to be a lawyer was not a good use of my skill sets and found my way to economics. Became very interested in business, which led me to pursue internships at Wheaton College in the banking and finance world, which is a convoluted, somehow weird, curvy way to get to my first job, which was at Deloitte.
But nothing about university was easy or prescriptive. It seemed to change on a yearly basis.
Beth: Do you remember what it was that told you law wasn't going to be right? Political science wasn't going to be right? And that this other area might be more right?
Matt: I think what I ended up finding out was that I was more interested in watching CNBC, reading the Wall Street Journal, talking to friends and other students about what was going on in the world of business, than I was sitting in a classroom learning about history or political science or government or any of the prerequisites to potentially move on to law school.
I think what I found was what I wanted in the law was articulating an argument, advocating for a position, having a strategic mindset. I think what clicked to me is that I could potentially find that faster by moving into the world as a business major or moving into banking or finance rather than taking what I think at the time I deemed a longer path on a legal path or legal horizon.
Beth: You also mentioned that you had some internships while you were at Wheaton College that helped you come to this understanding and come to this realization. Tell me about some of those internships that were so enlightening for you and how you got them.
Matt: One thing I figured out really early on is that if you're going to a smaller university, specifically, a liberal arts college, there aren't going to be a lot of major organizations that are going to be putting tables up on campus, trying to convince you to join their new hire or their internship program. You are legitimately going to have to find people on LinkedIn, reach out to them, send them messages in snail mail, and actually ask them for opportunities that they are not advertising on campus. So that's actually what I did.
My freshman year, I reached out to Merrill Lynch, which ended up being bought by Bank of America, but was a financial planning office near my hometown. I just reached out to anybody that I could find their contact information for it and said I'm willing to basically work for free over the summer if you need help at your operation. A financial planner in Manchester, New Hampshire, which was about 20 minutes away from my hometown, got back to me. We had a call, then I met with him in person, and I spent the summer learning the financial planning business.
Then before my sophomore summer, I did the exact same thing, but I had aspirations to actually see what it was like to work in a big city. So, I did the basic same prescription, but I did it for financial planners in Boston and ended up finding somebody at a large financial house in Boston who was interested. Spent the summer with them learning the business from their perspective.
That actually was the springboard to convince me that I should go abroad my junior year, which was a program that my university offered in London. It came alongside of the opportunity to get an internship abroad. That led to an internship with an investment banking group in London, which was the springboard to when I got back to school to find my last internship, which was at Fidelity, a large investment house in the Boston area.
So everything had a little bit of a path. There was a fortuitous steppingstone that I went on, but it really was reaching out to people. Nothing was really posted on a website that I clicked "apply to" and had an internship as a result.
Beth: I love how this goes back to the advice from your parents about doors and how doors are open to opportunities, but at the same time, they need to be knocked on. So here you were, knocking on the doors, but also putting together some strategic exploration to be able to say, "let me use each one to learn something new." It really was a good strategy. So kudos to you.
You mentioned that one of your pitches or part of your pitch was to say, "I'll do it for free." Did you actually ever have to take an internship for free or did you get paid for this?
Matt: The first one I did, and I am the first person to admit that that is a very lucky position to be in. I had accumulated enough savings from jobs in high school and had the support from my family to be able to say, and confidently believe, that I could accept a position for free.
The wonderful thing was post the first opportunity that I took for free, I had built up enough skill that I could command a small, hourly rate to do the internships in the future.
Beth: It sounds like you have skills around selling yourself. As you're writing these letters, as you're making these pitches to sell yourself, how do you stitch together the story of where you've been and where you're going so that it becomes compelling for others? Do you have any wisdom, strategies, or lessons in that?
Matt: I think you have two advantages. One is the vast majority of people won't do the added work to understand something about the person that they're reaching out to. We all get so many form letters or form messages online that don't have a personal component to it, so if you go one level above and pull something out of somebody's LinkedIn profile or Instagram post or Twitter tweet that they said, and use that as the hook, you will already have a better chance than anybody else of standing out from the noise. So, when I was making a lot of those pitches, I would try to do a little bit of research on the individual and personalize the message to them.
The second thing is you really have to go into it not tallying how many people say no or don't reach back out to you. I think that's where a lot of people get frustrated. It's maybe a little bit cliche, but it normally is the 10th or 11th or 99th person who gets back to you. It tends to not be the first or the second person. You get better as you go at crafting messages that people might respond back to. But I think something that I have and people who are successful in a similar vein have, is they're not keeping a scoreboard in their head of the amount of people who say no or who never get back to them.
Beth: That's fabulous advice.
Let's move post-college. So, it comes time to graduate. You've already mentioned that you went to work at Deloitte. Tell me about that. How did that opportunity come and what made you decide to take that opportunity?
Matt: So, the other opportunity on the table was, as a result of all of the banking experience, an alumnus from my small liberal arts college was actually working at a financial firm in Boston. I had met with her due to my career center setting up conversations because I asked them if there were alumni that were willing to talk to me. I ended up having a few conversations with her, talked to her boss, and there was an opportunity on the table. This was right around 2008. As many of your listeners will know, not exactly an ideal time to be moving into the banking industry.
So, I had a friend at another university. I was spending the weekend at that university and their university was one where Deloitte recruited at. They were not interested in this role, but come to find out after talking to them, I was interested in the role. I found the person who had listed the role on their college internet, I found that person's contact information, reached out to them, sent my resume, and asked to be included in their hiring round.
So, when it came time for Deloitte to do their first-round interviews, there were about 14 people from one university, 12 people from another university, and then me, the weird person who was from the university that they were not recruiting at.
After three stages of interviews, I, along with three other individuals, were offered one of the four positions that Deloitte was offering in their university recruitment class to join what was at the time called the Project Controller Practice, which was a project management, financial focused group at Deloitte.
So it was another one of those weird paths to get there. It's a little bit of pushing around some of the barriers, and it ended up being the right decision because moving into finance in 2008 probably would not have been the right decision. So I think definitely I took the right path there.
Beth: I've heard that oftentimes people who are studying economics or finance are encouraged to go for their first job at one of the big consulting companies like Deloitte. Why do you think this kind of a career step is so strongly recommended? And do you, having been there, agree with it?
Matt: I'll take the second question first. I do agree with it, and I think the reason is because consulting firms and large professional services firms operate like well-oiled machines. When you get into one of their new hire programs, you learn more in the first three to six months than I think you would learn at many other organizations.
Additionally, if you have leadership aspirations in your future, learning how they develop leaders and learning how leaders at those organizations manage teams, I think is invaluable to your repertoire. You will be a better leader in the future if you see how leaders of professional service firms operate. Now that I work in a much smaller firm, there are many times that I tie back what I think we should be doing, or what we should be striving towards, to how this well-oiled machine of a professional service firm operates.
So if you have the opportunity, I think it's a great place. And some people get in and never leave. They love the organization. They love the regiment. They love that in professional services firms you get to work with a lot of different clients, learn a lot of different things, and work with unbelievably talented people.
For me, it was the perfect steppingstone to move to other opportunities at smaller and smaller firms.
Beth: But before you did that, you actually made some steps within Deloitte. I think you started as a project analyst became a project controller to senior project controller to manager. That actually sounds like a pretty linear career path here on Career Curves. So tell me about that. How did that even work?
Matt: That is very linear and that is very emblematic of what consulting firms look like. There are yearly review processes. Many times it's semi-annually that you're meeting with a counselor or a coach and talking about your goals and your development areas. Going back to my first answer, it is a well-oiled machine on all fronts: how they deal with clients and how they move people up the hierarchical career ladder.
So, unbelievably linear and honestly, a wonderful place to learn from different individuals and then actually manage individuals and help with the recruiting process and be a people manager very quickly. I think I spent in total seven or eight years at Deloitte and, to your question, had about four different roles there. And the final two roles that I had there had me actually managing individuals relatively early in my career. And I think it definitely helped the manager that I became later in my career to do it so quickly.
Beth: How important is self-advocacy in that type of an environment where everything is very lockstep, very planned, very deliberate? Or does your work just speak for itself?
Matt: I think it is more important in organizations that have very linear, very defined ways of moving up because, by its very nature, everybody who got in the door, who got through the interview process, is a successful individual, a smart individual and a driven individual. Then everybody who moves up is exponentially more so, and the competition gets higher and higher. Just doing the job is great, but it's not going to allow you to stand out, so you need to advocate. You need to find ways to stand out in a sea of very successful and interesting individuals.
For me, I was really interested in our group dynamics. So I actually went to leadership very early on and thought that it would be beneficial for us as a group -- we were a small team in Boston, a very large team nationally-- to run like semi-annual all-hands meetings. I advocated for being the person who brought in guest speakers, who organize the team, who did different networking events.
To me, it was a fascinating way for me to be seen in the office as somebody who was thinking strategically about where our group should go, but it also gave me facetime with leaders because leaders had a desire to share what they were working on, but they didn't have as many venues to do it in our small groups. So I actually became that venue and twice a year, I would help plan all-hands meetings.
Beth: What's so interesting about what you're saying, Matt, is that you weren't necessarily doing self-advocacy or lobbying by saying, "Hey, look at me. Consider me," and talking yourself up. You actually did it by saying, "I see an opportunity. I'm going to do additional work and by taking on more, that's the part that is actually going to distinguish me." Is that a fair statement?
Matt: I think it's a fair statement. I don't even know if I was thinking this way in my head, but looking back at it, what I realized at a young age is people really enjoy talking about themselves and talking about the work that they're doing, and they wish they had more avenues to do that. I think I found a creative way to give the people who ended up being the people sitting on the calls talking about promotion readiness, the opportunity that they were looking for.
They, in turn, looked to me as somebody who was strategically-minded, focused on the group, and really a person that could help lead us in the future. Be innovative and strategically minded. I think it just worked really well.
I had people who were willing to give me that chance when I asked for it. And when I said, "This is what I wanted to do," I brought them a plan. I gave them an opportunity to adjust the plan, and then I implemented it. I did exactly what I said I was going to do and I think I reaped the rewards from that.
Beth: At the same time that you were doing all of this, you went back to school to get your MBA. Why did you decide to get an MBA? Why was that important to you?
Matt: I think it was two-fold. The first being, I was well aware that I had gone to a liberal arts college. I'm a firm believer in the liberal arts and the balance that is necessary, but I was well aware that many of the people that I was competing against as I moved up the corporate ladder, were people from very large business schools, people who had graduate degrees. I felt that Deloitte was giving me the opportunity to apply for the chance to go back to school and I should take it.
I didn't have the capacity from both a financial perspective or a personal perspective to do it full-time. I wanted to stay working. I wanted to keep a salary. So, I made the decision to go part-time which brought about its own challenges. I also think it taught me a lot about what it takes to be successful.
So for about three years, 2-3 nights a week and on some weekends, I was in school getting a part-time MBA at Boston University, which was walkable to the office. Many days I would work from the office, then I would walk to school, and then I would walk home at night.
Beth: That's a large workload and, for some people, it could potentially derail them from that promotion track that you were on. How did you keep school from derailing your promotion track at Deloitte?
Matt: Actually, looking back at it, it's one of the regrets that I have. I didn't invest as much in the networking at the school as I should have and that was, I think, what allowed me to keep on the trajectory at work. But looking back at it, if I had given up a little bit of that to spend more time networking with the individuals that I was in the MBA program with, I think it's hard for me to know what would have happened, but I actually think it was a calculus that I made that I might, if given the opportunity, go in the other direction.
I think the reason is at Deloitte you're exposed to many different perspectives, a very diverse workforce, but at my MBA program, there were people there who were working for the city. There were people there who were in education. There were people there that were doing just a litany of different things. And I think I would have benefited now if I had built and really focused on the connections with those individuals rather than focusing so intently on my day job.
Beth: One last question for you about Deloitte and that whole experience. It's often assumed that with promotion comes more pay, more title, and therefore more happiness. Was that true for you? So do these things -- title and pay -- contribute to happiness? What's your personal lesson there?
Matt: Over the entirety of my life and my career, I think I'm a formulaic type of person. So pay and title are great. I think it would be disingenuous to say that they're not and it doesn't feel good.
I felt the most focused on wanting to feel like I'm always moving forward. I want to feel like there's a trajectory that I'm on, even if sometimes the path is a little curvy. Going to a liberal arts college, trying to be a lawyer, and then deciding that banking and consulting is where you want to go is not a straight line, but it kind of felt like even though I was curving, I was moving forward and that's what Deloitte felt to me.
I think I knew that it wasn't where I was going to spend 20 or 30 years and try to ascend to be a partner at Deloitte. But I knew that I was moving forward and the faster I moved forward or the more successfully I was in moving forward, the better that next opportunity would be. I think that's what drove me more than the title or the compensation.
Beth: So, you didn't see yourself at Deloitte forever. In fact, you left after eight years. Tell me about that transition. Why did you decide it was time to go and where did you go next?
Matt: I wish I had a better answer for this. The reason that I ended up leaving Deloitte is because I had made the promotion to manager and I made the calculation in my head that I was going to do one of two things: I was either going to leave shortly after that, or I was going to stay the 5-6 years that it was probably going to require to make senior manager. And the longer that I stayed, the more the calculation in my head seemed to be, "if you've made it this long, you should stay the next two or three years to make senior manager, because that will have wonderful ramifications to opportunities that will open it up if you get senior manager at a top tier consulting firm on your resume."
So, I wanted to take what I had learned, take the titles that I had accumulated, the network that I had, and leverage it into my next role. And I almost wanted to do it faster than I think I maybe could have.
I moved to a company called Robert Half, which is a massive global staffing firm, but they also have a small consulting arm inside of it. It doesn't necessarily compete with the big four consulting firms, but they go to organizations and offer similar services, and there was an opportunity to help grow the team in Austin.
The team was very small here. I connected with the managing director of the Austin office and thought it was a really good opportunity to move from a more traditional consulting background to a more entrepreneurial consulting background with an opportunity to grow a team. So that was the reason that I ended up making that move.
Beth: After following a prescribed path, did this feel more risky for you?
Matt: I think I've taken a lot of risks in my career and maybe somebody on the outside would say I'm a risk taker, but I actually think I'm very adverse to risks. This was a steppingstone that still had a consultative title to it. It was still a large, very well-run global firm. So it felt like a path that I would feel comfortable taking.
It ended up being a very short stint, and I'm sure we'll get into that, but I think in my head, the calculus that I was making was this is an opportunity that is available to me because I've been a manager at a firm like Deloitte, but this is not enough of a deviation where I feel like I'm going to be swimming or in a boat without a paddle. So, I might as well take this and give it a chance.
Beth: It was a short stint. Tell me about that. Why was this one, a short stint? Help us understand this.
Matt: I hate to go back to this, but I wish I had a better answer for this one, too.
What ended up happening was I had an opportunity to pitch a client in Austin on the merits and the opportunity to use our consultative services to solve a problem that they had. What ended up happening was by building a relationship with somebody at that organization, they ended up offering me an opportunity to come in and do the job as an employee for that firm.
So there was actually nothing wrong with Robert Half. There was nothing wrong with the opportunity that I had. I have a ton of respect for the people at that organization. It was more that an opportunity got presented to me due to the work I had done at Robert Half, and it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
And that's the next part of my career journey.
Beth: This is really interesting though, because some people might feel like it is disloyal to take an opportunity with a client when you've been doing work for your company. How did you manage that? How did you message it back to Robert Half? How did you even come to terms with that for yourself? Tell me about that.
Matt: It was the biggest thing that I worried about and the biggest thing that I tried to communicate to both parties. Come to find out the work that I ended up doing at my future job was something that Robert Half didn't offer, and it was something that I was actually uniquely positioned to do. But it wasn't in direct competition with Robert Half.
So, after having conversations with both parties, we ended up coming to that conclusion. And to me, it was most important that I didn't do anything that was disingenuous to my current employer. I didn't burn any bridges at my current employer, but I did what was right for me as a professional moving forward. The opportunity to join Kasasa was that.
I ended up feeling very confident that it was the right decision and then I was able to get rid of any of the fears or trepidation that I had to make that move.
Beth: And what was the role that you were moving into at Kasasa?
Matt: So it was really interesting. It was a managing director role at Kasasa. Kasasa is a financial technology company. So, if you're made it this far in the podcast, you've realized that finance is something that was in my background, but had really not been in my background for a long time at Deloitte and then at Robert half.
So, Kasasa was a financial technology company that worked with community banks and credit unions to try to allow them to compete with some of the mega banks. They had an opportunity to manage some of their relationships on the west coast. Kasasa works with hundreds of organizations around the country, and they had an opportunity for somebody to come in and manage the relationships with the CEOs, the CFOs and the CMOs of their bank and community credit unions in their portfolio.
For me, I believed at the time, that it was the perfect opportunity to take what really fascinated me about finance back early in my career, and take the consultative approach that I had had at Deloitte and developed to get the job at Robert Half, to find maybe a perfect middle ground at a firm that was much smaller than the two companies.
That's the thing that I think spring-boarded me to thinking this was the right decision. Kasasa was about 300 - 400 people, which is massively smaller than Robert Half and massively smaller than Deloitte. I was actually very intrigued by that.
Beth: In what ways did going to a smaller company meet your expectations and in what ways did it defy your expectations?
Matt: I'll go with the second question first.
Smaller organizations are fascinating because you can have an unbelievable amount of influence on what happens. If you have worked at a large company, you will be blown away by how much falls on your footsteps to get done. Your doorstep is littered with things that you would love to do that at larger organizations are done by teams of 5 - 10 people who on a quarterly basis are preparing all of these incredible reports for you. They're making things super easy to email and share and their PDF'ing it and it's just showing up in your inbox.
At smaller organizations the door to opportunity really is marked "push" because you're doing a vast majority of the work. I actually loved that, but I think it came as a surprise, even though I consider myself a pretty intellectual individual. I don't think I ever put two and two together and realized that that was going to be my experience at a smaller firm.
And now, it's obviously very much my experience because I'm in an even smaller firm than Kasasa.
Beth: As part of going to Kasasa, as you said, you were going to be going into client companies and interacting with C-suite people. If my calculation is right, you are still at this point in your early thirties, maybe even late twenties. Tell me about confidence. How did you have the confidence at this point in your career to step into a role that was going to have you interacting with top level executives?
Matt: I don't know where it came from, to be honest. I think that part of it is you have to be willing to fail a little bit, but you have to be prepared enough that in failure, people will look at it as a learning opportunity. So if you fail in a meeting, or if you struggle, or if you lose your train of thought, but you have slides that are perfectly put together, or you have an email that you sent before the meeting talking about an agenda of what you want to hit, or if on the call a week ago, you were on top of your game, then people will give you the benefit of the doubt.
The problem is if you walk into a meeting, and you're not prepared, and you think you can wing it and then you don't, you will have lost credibility for the foreseeable future. I think the biggest piece of advice is if you do the right things and you find ways to show that you're prepared, people further in their career, people in executive roles or manager roles, will give you the benefit of the doubt if you do the work and if you find ways to showcase that you did the work.
So, in a lot of interactions with individuals at Kasasa, I tried to be super sharp in my emails setting up the meetings. I tried to be super sharp in quarterly messages that said, "Here's where we stand from a financial perspective. Here's our plan for marketing going forward. I'm really looking forward to meeting with you onsite in three weeks. Please confirm if this time slot still works for you." And then I stuck to everything in that message. So, even if my delivery in the room wasn't that of a seasoned professional with 25 years of experience, everything else made them feel like I wasn't just winging it. I think that's enough to get over the hurdles of struggling a little bit and needing to gain confidence over time.
Beth: It's a fabulous answer. Thank you for sharing all of that.
You ultimately ended up leaving Kasasa to go where you are now at Abilitie. Why did you make this transition?
Matt: Via LinkedIn, I had connected with an individual who was advertising that Abilitie was looking for a director of sales and strategic initiatives. I had been in Austin now for five or six years, felt like I was somebody who was constantly on LinkedIn looking for innovative companies in Austin and trying to connect with people and meet them for coffee. I was the person that was sending 40 to 50 messages every month to interesting people trying to meet them for coffee. And I had never heard of Abilitie.
And then, when I dove into Abilitie online, I learned that Abilitie was working with General Electric. They were working with Southwest Airlines. They were working with some incredibly large organizations and they were a 10-12 person company in Austin.
And they were doing leadership development via simulations. Part of my experience at Deloitte that I haven't talked about in this interview was one of the final projects. I helped Deloitte design their learning and development curriculum for new hires.
So as a new hire, I had ascended the organization and one of the last projects that I did for them was help them actually design curriculum and facilitate leadership development curriculum for new hires. And I loved it. At the time, I never thought, "Oh, this would be a great job to do at some point in the future."
But, when I came across Abilitie, it clicked in my head that, "Wow, this learning and development, this leadership development training, facilitating, meeting with people about their learning needs is something that I'm really interested in. And this is a small company where I can have an outsized leadership role."
That LinkedIn connection led to a conversation with the CEO, led to a meeting with the team, and four weeks after my initial conversation, I'd put my notice in at Kasasa. It was one of the more rash, quick decisions that I had ever made and I haven't looked back since.
Beth: How did you manage this exit with Kasasa, because here you were the managing director. You've got this practice. It's a big role there. How did you manage that transition?
Matt: Kasasa has unbelievably talented individuals and, as a small firm that was in a fast-moving industry, they were constantly making adjustments to how their teams were organized. So I met with my superior. I told him that this was an opportunity that I was going to pursue, and I asked them what would be the best way to spend my last two weeks. I would have loved to have given them a little bit more time. It ended up working out that I was able to give them three full weeks, which worked really well in my transition period.
What I tried to do is take the same piece of advice that I had tried to use with other parts of my career, which was focused on making sure that people were as adequately prepared, given the knowledge that I had. So I tried to take the institutional knowledge that I had created and actually help the other individuals who were going to take over my role, and I think I did the best job possible. I do actually wish I would have had more time to do it.
Beth: So now you're in a company that's doing leadership development, decision-making, simulations, team simulations. Sounds really far away from economics and finance. What are you discovering about yourself in this world? Like you had mentioned before, you knew you had enjoyed doing something similar at Deloitte, but now that you're in it full time, now that you're in it deep, how's it feeling?
Matt: It felt wonderful, to be honest. I think that what I found about myself is that helping other people ascend in their career -- which to me is how I define learning and development and leadership development you want to give people the opportunity to ascend to the level that they want to be as a person, as a professional, as a learner -- and I found that I loved it. Not that I was discouraged to come to work at any of my other jobs, but for the first time, I think I was really enthralled by the work that we were doing and the impact that we were making.
I love that we get to do training in a different and innovative way. So many of your listeners might be very familiar with, normal online training or PowerPoint slides getting presented to them about what it means to be an effective leader. Our organization, we do interactive simulation. So it's gamified the approach to leadership development and it tends to get people really excited. The games are time constrained. The games are team-based. The games are competitive. I think people relish the fact that this isn't a normal training. I didn't realize how much I would get excited by how people get excited by our product.
Beth: So we've talked quite a bit about doors being open. Sometimes doors also close. At this point, do you feel like you've closed doors on finance or closed doors on economics or is there a different way for us to think about those doors that you've walked through that have brought you where you are today?
Matt: I believe that when we hire people or when I've hired people over my career, I'm looking for a story and a narrative much more than I'm looking for, "You got these grades at this organization." So to your question, if I decided that what I really wanted to do right now is go work for Citigroup and be back in banking and go all in for it, I would have to figure out what the narrative is for why Citigroup should be interested in me, and I believe I could get there. I could find a way to weave that together.
But to me, what's most important is I'm moving myself on my narrative forward. And I don't think that finance is where I ever want to go back to.
I think the goal of a lot of the decisions that I've made have been to not close doors, but to try to articulate in my head what I want to be doing. And I think what I've found is I like working at smaller firms. I like having more impact on the leadership direction. And I never would've thought this when I first took the job at Deloitte, I really like working in the field of leadership development and that was a weird curvy path, but I'm very happy that I got here.
Beth: Knowing that this was where you were going to end up, because it's where you are today, when you were telling the story about Deloitte and talking about the lecture series that you were putting together, that was a type of leadership development or people development that you were doing early on. So there were seeds in that early time at Deloitte, even though you may, at the time, not recognized that you were putting down those seeds.
Any thoughts about where you might go next in your career? You're still young. Any thoughts?
Matt: It's a great question. The pandemic had an unbelievably fascinating influence on our business. Our business had a very small focus on virtual training pre-pandemic. We did about 20 or 30% of our trainings virtually. Now, it's 100% of our training and we've benefited from the fact that we had five years’ experience doing this.
To your question of where we go next, I'm really fascinated by what happens in the future of work. Do people return to the office in mass? Does business travel return? Does it become very similar to what it was pre-pandemic or has the world forever changed? And I think the answer to your question is I'm fascinated to be at a company that's at the forefront of those types of decisions. How do people want to cultivate their leaders of tomorrow? Do they want to fly people together for in-person networking events? Do we all want to continue with virtual training and how can our organization help develop the leaders for whatever that future of work looks like?
So it's a long, convoluted way to say, I'm very happy with where I am now and I don't see myself going anywhere else.
Beth: And yet you see yourself and your company evolving with the times.
Matt: I do. And I think that what I came to find out about myself is I want to be a part of the evolution. When I think back to Deloitte, the reason that I enjoyed structuring and hosting those all-hands meetings is I like thinking about where our group needed to evolve to. I now get to actually play the role in evolving a company and I couldn't be happier with that.
Beth: I have just four more questions for you. This has been so fascinating to hear your story.
And my first question is what would you say is the smartest career move that you made, whether intentionally or accidentally.
Matt: I wish it was intentional, but it definitely was unintentional. As a result of graduating in 2008 and making the decision to move into consulting rather than banking, I'm very happy with the path I took from there. I have no idea what would have happened if I had gone the other way, but I do think unintentionally I went the right career for me as a result of what was going on macro economically around the world.
Beth: That's so important to hear right now, because I know there are a lot of people who are graduating in the middle of this pandemic, who are worried that it is forever going to hamper their career. There's a real parallel to the financial crisis of 2008, 2009. So to hear that from somebody like you, who graduated in the midst of that, is super powerful.
Tell me about the flip side. If you could have one do-over, what would it be and why?
Matt: When I made the move from Deloitte. I think if I could do it all over again, I might have made a move to a smaller company right away. That was in the back of my head that this is going to be a springboard move to start to slowly move to smaller and smaller companies. I was risk averse and I think if I had just pulled the band aid off right then and made the move, I think it would have been the right move for me professionally.
Beth: If you could go back in time to the younger Matt and give yourself one piece of career advice, what would it be?
Matt: I would have attempted to cultivate more relationships on social media, specifically LinkedIn. Anybody who knows me would be flabbergasted with that answer because I am constantly trying to interact with people and have no qualms about reaching out to anybody and trying to build a connection. But I actually think, I wish I would have done it even more and done it earlier on.
It's forever changed the person that I am. It's led me to the job that I have today. It's allowed me to interview really interesting people. To come on shows like this. And so I would have done even more of it.
Beth: My last question for you, how do you define success?
Matt: Finding balance between work and life. In many ways, unless I win the lottery, the next few decades I'm going to have to work. So finding something where you enjoy that aspect of your life, because it's a necessary component, but it also gives you balance to spend time with family, with friends.
I think that's what success is for me: finding some level of balance. I would love to retire tomorrow and go to Thailand where I went on my honeymoon and open up a coffee shop and brew coffee for the rest of my life and walk on the beach. Given that that most likely isn't going to happen, finding some level of balance with work and life is success.
Beth: So I am going to close this out by going back to the question that you answered a moment ago. We met because you reached out on LinkedIn and so yes, I was surprised to hear that that's something that you would say more.
I am so grateful that you reached out on LinkedIn. This has been a fabulous conversation with lots of advice. This is exactly the kind of advice we want to we give our listeners. And so Matt, thank you so much and I wish you tremendous success, maybe even that will lead to that coffee shop in Thailand someday. But thank you so much.
Matt: Thank you for having me.
Beth: A quick epilogue… In 2019, Matt gave a TED talk called Before You Decide: 3 Steps to Better Decision Making. It’s definitely worth checking out. You can find a link on our website, careercurves.com.
You’ll also find links to his podcast, Learn to Lead, and his company, Abilitie.
Finally, please share this episode with others.
That’s it for now. As always, thanks for listening.