north of neutral dialog

August 15, 2009

by anne lueneburger

Matt Goldberg, CEO, Lonely Planet, Melbourne

A Lonely Planet guide contributed to a most memorable and fantastic vacation I had in Mexico about 9 years ago. I vividly recall a planned 3 hour bus ride through Chiapas that turned into 43 hours of being held hostage by political rebels who would only release us for a ransom (not the fault of LP, but simply the result of our decision to travel in politically unstable territory), a stay on a secluded Macadamia nut farm with no electricity but romantic candlelight, a ride on horseback through the jungle and  Mayan ruins, and the experience of new culinary tastes such as mole (spicy chocolate sauce) in Oaxaca.  As a result of this great memory,  I was particularly excited about speaking with Matt Goldberg  to hear his insights on what it means to truly embrace and enjoy what you do.

The role

US citizen, Matt Goldberg has had extensive global exposure through world-wide travel and living in Germany, Spain and Australia. He has a BA in English from Cornell, an MA in International Relations from the University of Melbourne and graduated with an MBA from Stanford in 2000. His previous experience includes the public sector as well as media. In 2008 he was Senior VP Digital Strategy and Operations with Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal before joining Lonely Planet as the company’s new CEO. Lonely Planet is part of BBC Worldwide and has three offices: one in Melbourne, Australia; one in Oakland, CA; and one in London, UK.

Exit signs

Following a number of productive years of leadership roles in government, Matt entered the media world after getting his MBA in 2000.  With Bertelsmann on Times Square he, among other projects, worked on a team focused on creating integrated media extensions with the “American Idol” franchise – from TV to music rights to books to licensing to magazine content to merchandising. In 2003 he joined the Wall Street Journal as Director of Marketing Strategy. The organization had a challenging culture that made innovation difficult and leadership was weak when Matt joined. He felt like he was “banging his head against the wall” and he considered leaving the organization. However, having faced challenges before and “not being a quitter”, Matt decided to change his risk profile. Despite internal pressures, Matt managed to present a project proposal to the COO at the time (who later became the CEO), asking for a $2 million investment with the promise to return $10 million within the year. The project was more than a success, and within two years revenue grew to almost $50 million. In his early thirties, he had built a team of 15, was quickly promoted and, following the acquisition of Dow Jones by Rupert Murdoch, became responsible for business operations for The Wall Street Journal Digital Network, generating over $150 million in revenues.

While Matt was happy at Dow Jones and enjoying his work, something was missing. Despite the spiral of success and financial incentives, when a headhunter approached him for the role at Lonely Planet, Matt got very excited. Over time, he had been contacted by executive search firms for a variety of roles, but this one was different. It was a more non-traditional context, starting with the Lonely Planet’s history (it was founded in the 70s by a couple that published travel guides on “how to travel on a low budget”). The company culture spoke to Matt’s passion to “challenge your interpretive lense of the world”. Being the CEO of a small yet well-regarded firm matched his interest in entrepreneurial ventures. Lonely Planet’s Australian headquarters refreshed fond memories of this continent where he had lived before. He told the executive search consultant: “You can stop your search now, I’m your guy.” There was no turning back.

The payoff

One of his four Myers-Briggs personality type letters is “F” for “Feelers” which explains Matt’s collaborative leadership style. He consistently considers how a decision will affect the team: “Ego is not the way to assert yourself, and emotional intelligence can be used to connect with people and the company culture”. His Myers-Briggs result differs from the majority of male executives who tend to fall into the opposite category of the “T” for “Thinkers” where the focus is more on numbers and figures rather than faces and people. His leadership style fits well with the company culture of Lonely Planet, where Matt leads 500 staff members and 300 authors.

Having said this, while a warm and charismatic personality, Matt is also very much the change agent: he is not afraid to assume risks and he has a strong drive to excel. Matt’s unique combination of strengths and his high-level training and experience made him a natural choice for the position of CEO of Lonely Planet, particularly as the company enters its next phase to compete in the digital travel market. Matt embraces challenge and as he shares: “I love to win, but more importantly, I hate to lose.”

Finally, what makes his new role unique and rewarding is that he feels deeply connected to the product he promotes and the new continent he lives and works in: “Starting with when I was 24 and moved to Australia for university, a Lonely Planet guide was my loyal and reliable travel companion and has been ever since.” Already when Matt left high school with very high math and science grades and chose English as his major at university, he has expressed his interest to steer away from what made “logical sense” on a more superficial level. Instead, Matt has chosen to live a career in congruence with his authentic self, aligning what he does with who he is.

The ‘what have I done moment’

Different from when he moved to Australia over 14 years ago as a student, Matt now has relocated with his wife and two young sons and daughter.  He and his family experience some of the challenges that come with being an expatriate, be it transitioning from one school system to the next or building a social network of friends.

The shift: no longer a career, but being in the ‘flow’ at work

When I asked how he feels about his role and responsibilities, Matt did not hesitate with his reply: “Better than ever before”. Matt is in what we as executive coaches call the “flow”. The concept of flow was first introduced by Mike Csikszentmihalyi, a world-renowned and widely referenced positive psychologist.

Flow, in essence, is the mental state of being fully immersed in an activity that is characterized by high levels of challenge and high level of skills. In the state of flow there prevails an optimal balance between the challenge of the role and the ability level of the individual. The task (job) at hand is intrinsically rewarding and meaningful to the person, and frequently there is a sense of loss of self-consciousness and time.

When individuals are able to make their career their calling, flow is the ultimate result.

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