Mathew Jacob is the Global Senior Organization Development Leader for Novartis. His twenty-plus-year career in Human Resources has spanned industries and the globe. He has deep experience in Learning, Leadership, Talent Management, and Organization Development at companies like Shell, Applied Materials, Boeing, and Microsoft. He has lived and worked in India, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the US. Mathew currently lives in Texas, is active in his community, and is enjoying spending time with his newly born granddaughters.
How did you get started in your career?
When I entered my undergraduate studies, I had come out of some messy teenage years. I had to, in one sense, start all over again. So, I decided to study something I could manage. I chose English Literature and Sociology. I soon discovered a love for the field of Sociology and Social-Psychology. I signed up for a Master’s in Social Sciences because I was fascinated by what makes both people and groups work. I then started to pursue my Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior at one of the leading management schools in India. My studies were insightful and interesting, but I realized I hadn’t yet seen an actual business organization or had any sense of the real-world challenges of organizations. Hence, I stepped out of academia and joined a young, fast-growing company that launched me into the world of work. My first role was in the company’s corporate university, where I worked in learning and development, leadership development, and organization development, which started my career path in the specialist domains of Human Resources.
To what do you credit your success from your background or work or life experiences?
There are many. First, one of my most significant influences was my grandfather. He grew up well-off, and although he didn’t need to work, he chose to. He became a doctor – a dermatologist and set up the first Leper colony in Kerala, India. He lived a life of passion and service, and his example of dedication and compassion has been a central influence in my life. He role modeled the importance of having a clear set of values and making life choices that positively impact people and society.
I also credit my success and perhaps my life to the Jesuits and the Catholic church. I had a powerful life-transforming experience in my late teens at a church event, and that has informed my life ever since. I also had most of my education with the Jesuits and learned critical thinking, learning, and communication skills in their institutions. Jesuit education formed me intellectually and gave me the confidence to engage globally. I also learned to live on a foundation of faith and learned that we need to let go of the past, forgive ourselves and others, and start over every day. I learned that there is possibly nobody who is not redeemable – be it people or organizations – and that change is always a possibility. As someone whose job it is to enable organizations to evolve and change, this mindset has been invaluable.
I also credit my love for the science of work; I have enjoyed staying in touch with the thought leaders and cutting-edge research in strategy and behavioral science and then applying that to real-world business problems. In many ways, the ability to work within the cusp between major strategic problems and the application of reliable behavioral science solutions has been the key feature of my work.
I have also worked with extraordinary leaders who made me a better professional. I learn a lot by watching leaders in action. Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work with exceptional leaders who really challenged me, kept me learning, and constantly pushed me out of my comfort zones.
What are you so glad you did or took advantage of that served you well?
I think I had a mindset that approached work looking for meaning, purpose, learning, and with the intent of being impactful where it mattered the most. That served me well. My second job was at Xerox and was a big influence in developing this mindset. Xerox was in the midst of an enterprise-wide application of Quality and Lean leadership that enabled a profound turnaround of the company. It was an honor to be part of this, and the lessons from this experience became a template for much of my work in the years that followed.
I had an incredible opportunity to come to the U.S. in 2006 from Singapore for a role with Microsoft as the leader for Learning and Development for the company. Moving to the US with all its innovations in OD, Talent, Learning, and HR has been another major career milestone and accelerated my professional development. It was an invaluable learning experience to navigate and work in a totally global context and in a leadership role in a company as complex and challenging as Microsoft.
Learning continually both at work and through formal opportunities has been another influence. Notable among those is a one-year System Dynamics program from the Sloan School at MIT and a Masters in Learning and Leadership from University of Pennsylvania.
How do you balance work, life and such a busy schedule -any tips?
Well, I love activity, variety, and stimulation so I am as busy in my non-work life as work and that works for me. And, truth be told, I never learned to ‘say No’ properly!
If you could do it all over again up to this point, what might you have done differently?
They would all be things related to my own growth that I could have dealt with better. I’m an idealist. I tend to deeply get into the business and organizations, which is good, but I don’t always remember to take others along with me, which isn’t good. I can get frustrated and impatient when things don’t go as I had planned and have often needed to learn ways to adapt more quickly. I was very successful early in my career, and with that came a degree of idealism, impatience, and over-confidence – which could have been derailers later in my career – they are things that I had to unlearn and work around in the years that followed.
I’ll tell you a story. Over the past thirty years, I have had several minor accidents while driving. I realized recently that all of them were ones where I lightly rear-ended someone. Recently that pattern hit me, and the penny dropped. It told me I am a big picture guy and always living in my head. I forgot what was right under my nose. This pattern explained many things I had gotten wrong in multiple arenas of my life.
I should also have been much more proactive about processing feedback. While I received a fair amount of feedback from my colleagues, from 360 surveys, climate surveys, and the like, I often missed the opportunity to dig deeper and understand the underlying issues that the feedback was pointing to. We all receive feedback, and some of it does cause a struggle, but it really becomes valuable when one can dig below the superficial content and recognize the patterns, the shadows, the dark side of one’s impact. I certainly wish I had worked much more deeply with some of the feedback I received early in my career. Today I treat feedback like it is priceless and examine it from every possible angle – it has made an enormous difference in my life and most certainly made me much more self-aware and intentional.
What’s still on your career bucket list that would intend to do someday?
I still have not finished my PhD and that is a promise I made to myself and so I am continuing to work on it.
I would like to write more and have a few book ideas.
Career-wise, after all these years of helping organizations become significantly more successful, I often wish that I could run a P&L.
I’m also at a point in life when I look at the extraordinary blessing my career has been – the many amazing companies I got to work with, the fabulous colleagues and friends around the world, and the many countries that I lived and worked in – and a question I ask myself is “How do I give it all away?”, “How do I nurture the next generation of OD, Learning, and Behavioral Science professionals?”.
At this phase of my career, the image that comes to mind is that of the pelican who nurtures through self-sacrifice. As leaders, it makes us think how much are we willing to give of ourselves to the next generation?
What’s a bit of wisdom you would share regarding work or career?
I love the notion of the T-shaped career where it’s important to have a deep capability in one area and see the whole system (the top of the T). This combination is so critical for impact. The depth is where you make your mark, and the big picture allows you to see where you can apply your expertise for the highest impact. Career success is knowing where you want to be an expert functionally and continuing to grow in a deep understanding of the organizational system you operate in. It is about building both breadth and depth – an ever-maturing T-shaped capability.