Working as a General Manager for Ford is a dream come true for any automotive enthusiast. In this edition of Real Humans: Alumni, we hear from Matt Simpson, Harvard MBA ‘17, about how pursuing and obtaining his MBA from Harvard University helped him reach his life-long goal.
As a former consultant, Matt Simpson learned that he wanted to own the results and sought to better round out his skill sets to be able to effectively run an organization, rather than just just advising it. Harvard Business School’s focus on preparing future general managers made it the ideal choice for Matt. After an internship with General Motors in their marketing leadership program with Cadillac, the rest fell into place for Matt when Ford established their business leader program to develop their next generation of GMs. Read on to hear how this lifelong Ford fan leveraged his graduate business degree.
Matt Simpson, Harvard Business School ’17, General Manager, Exports at Ford
Hometown: Detroit, Michigan
Undergraduate Institution and Major: University of Pennsylvania: Business Management
MBA Program and Graduation Year: Harvard University, Harvard Business School Class of 2017
Pre-MBA Work Experience: 5 years, management/strategy consulting with Accenture
Why did you choose to attend business school? Like a lot of consultants, I really enjoyed the work but eventually wanted to own the results, and as a lifelong “car guy”, I also wanted to transition into the auto/mobility industry. A background in consulting gave me a great baseline of education, but I realized I needed to better round out my skill sets to really prepare myself to ultimately be a general manager and run an organization, not just advise it.
Why Harvard? Which factors influenced your decision? Three factors drove my decision. First, I was very focused on preparing myself to be a general manager, and HBS really leans into that career path. I knew I didn’t want to become a deep expert in one thing, and instead wanted to increase a broad knowledge base and focus on organizational trade-offs and decisions. Second was the culture of HBS. I wanted an environment that would push me to be my best self and improve, but in a collaborative, uplifting way. From my first interactions with HBS, I knew it was a place where everyone helped each other by leaning into their own strengths. Third was the valuable network and brand of HBS and I knew it would facilitate networking into a new industry.
What was your internship during business school? How did that inform your post-MBA career choice? I interned with General Motors in their marketing leadership program with Cadillac. While I knew I wanted to end up in general management, I wanted to experience marketing firsthand as I felt it was a gap in my experience I hadn’t worked with directly. I also felt Cadillac was an immensely interesting opportunity as an organization that had made huge leaps in areas — like product — but still had a lagging brand. It was a great educational experience in branding and marketing.
Why did you choose to work for your current company? Coincidentally and luckily, Ford established their business leader program (FBLP) my second year, with an explicit focus to develop their next generation of GMs, which was exactly where my aspirations were. Unlike some other leadership rotational programs, the role planning was much more active and collaborative; there weren’t any pre-planned “rotational program jobs”, and it was an opportunity to experience a wide array of the company. Additionally, there was and still is an extremely high-level support for the program, which mitigated the risk of getting “lost” inside such a large organization. I was also a lifelong Ford fan and owned a 2013 Mustang GT, so it fulfilled a longtime goal to work for the home team.
How did your MBA experience prepare you for your current career? At the end of the day, I think the biggest value of an MBA is teaching you how to listen, react, and take action in sometimes obscure challenges. The case method at HBS is the closest thing you’ll get to replicating the types of decision making you’ll be thrown into. Being surrounded with high achievers who are experts in their own industries was the perfect environment to really learn how an organization operates and how to weigh your decisions.
The other really significant preparation came from learning to lead through influence. When you’re in the classroom or working on any project, your success comes from influencing, not direct authority. The ability to process your thoughts and clearly communicate your point of view, and then respond to questions is a key driver of success in the working world. My time at HBS directly strengthened that muscle and I’ve leaned on it almost daily.
How has COVID impacted your industry/career plans? While COVID significantly affected the automotive industry — two months of production shutdowns and lingering challenges like semiconductor shortages — it hasn’t influenced my career plans. What we’ve seen since the onset of the pandemic is a faster recovery than originally forecasted, especially in countries that are emerging from COVID quicker. And it’s actually created some exciting challenges of how we serve our customers in a post-COVID world. What we’re seeing now is the car as the ultimate personal protective equipment; it’s the safe venue to be with your close network and your ability to travel more securely. That presents a great challenge and opportunity for us to lean into delivering the best customer experiences by helping them use their vehicles to get out and adventure.
What advice would you give to a current MBA student? The biggest thing is the common advice of “relax”. Everything will be okay and everything will work out. There are stressors of recruiting, like, “Am I really making the right choice?”, but recognize these are good problems and you are lucky to have them.
What do you wish you would have known? I would encourage every MBA student to lean into their passions and resist temptation to go with the crowd. This is an opportunity for you to lean into what actually interests you the most. Unlike lower levels of education, in an MBA you have more freedom to focus on the subjects that are most relevant and throttle back on those that aren’t. I can guarantee you’ll learn more that way. When I was recruiting, despite the normal stresses, it was actually enjoyable; I spent time talking to people with expertise in the areas I loved. So lean into those areas — your time at school is basically two years where you have a built-in networking device to reach out to anyone you want to talk to. Take advantage of that.
Learn about more business school alumni like Matt Simpson by exploring our Real Humans: Alumni series.