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From chef to director of marketing - how to own your non-linear career | leadership spotlight

Director of Marketing at Meister, Michelle Matus has had a very successful, albeit it some may say non-linear, path to leadership. She attributes her ascend to leadership to ‘saying yes to opportunities’ and exploring all of the opportunities that intrigued, challenged and as she later discovered changed her. She is passionate about storytelling, mentoring and making the best out of all her experiences. We had a chat with Michelle on just how her multifaceted career has helped her live a fulfilled life and took her on a journey to leadership.

“In everything I’ve done, I’ve had to fight the feeling of imposter syndrome. But, I haven’t been willing to choose security at the cost of adventure."

Q1: Michelle, thank you for sitting down with us. Let’s start with your career journey.

A: “I finished my studies in French and International Relations at the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008. I realised, I either had to go back to school or ‘wait out’ the economic downturn. So I moved to Seattle and pursued a dream of mine: to be a chef. While also learning so much about myself, I started a blog and explored my interest in food, wellness, writing, photography and building websites.

“A couple of years later, I moved to South Korea to teach English. I have always had a passion for travel and exploring new cultures and I continued to blog about my experiences. After that, I began my Masters in Interactive Journalism, exploring my interest in storytelling and photography further. From food security to female empowerment, I was able to write, produce, and shoot short documentary-style films and created a podcast called “She Gets Out.” This led me to a role at a radio station, building the digital storytelling arm of the newsroom and I taught students how to craft engaging stories and develop online content.

“After several years in that role I was ready to try something new and the opportunity to move to Vienna arose. Here, I started as a product marketing manager for Meister, a fantastic software company that builds productivity and collaboration tools. I absolutely loved it as it brought together all the skills I cultivated throughout my varied experiences. I advanced, taking on more leadership responsibilities and built my team from two to six. I loved having more responsibility and ownership over the team, mentoring others and teaching as I went. I then moved into the director role, the first at Meister and since then, I’ve been leading a team of 24 impressive marketing professionals from all over the world.”

Q2: You’ve worked in many roles that are conventionally unrelated to what you do today. How has a non-linear career moulded you into the leader you are today?

A: “It hasn’t come easily, but the experiences I’ve had over the course of my career have helped to shape me as a leader, a mentor, and a colleague. My experience in kitchens, when I was literally and figuratively putting out fires, the time I spent teaching and mentoring people of all ages and backgrounds, and the communication skills I’ve picked up along many travel opportunities and new roles have allowed me to succeed. “I don’t think I would be nearly as successful had I taken one linear path. Growing through trial and error, taking the best of each experience and adapting my life trajectory along the way has made me more empathetic, flexible, approachable, and ultimately, more fulfilled in my career.”

Q3: You mentioned you don’t or didn’t have a plan for your career. What was the thought process behind this? Was it intentional?

A: “I’d love to say that it was all ‘in the plan’ but that simply isn’t true. I graduated from college when the economy was in turmoil and entry-level jobs were scarce. Instead of grinding away at something I wasn’t passionate about, I opted to try something I’d always found interesting. I knew I didn’t want to be a cook in a kitchen for my whole career, but I knew I wanted to learn and grow. “That’s been the driving force behind most of my career and life decisions since. Learning and growing, leaning into something that scares me, and finding excitement in a new challenge has been the force behind my work. “From learning to deal with unreasonable people and communicate effectively as a server to transferring my storytelling and digital media skills to a new opportunity in software marketing, saying yes to the things that make me nervous and excited is the through-line in my life and career.”

Q4: Did you face any challenges by not having a plan? Were there people who questioned that?

A: “In everything I’ve done, I’ve had to fight the feeling of imposter syndrome. I’ve had to answer the question “what are you doing with your life?” too many times. People who love me and care for me have always been worried about my lack of a plan. Security is something that many people crave, myself included. But, I haven’t been willing to choose security at the cost of adventure. “Any time I’ve sought a new job opportunity, I’ll inevitably have to answer questions about my work history. I’ve always been creative in how I frame the experience I have and how it applies to the work I want to do. Perhaps unsurprisingly, having a diverse background of experience is actually a benefit. Have I worked decades in the same career, honing a niche skill? No. Have I had experiences that few people have, mainly because I say yes more often than not? Yes! When I look to hire people now, I look for people who have tried different things, people who seek knowledge and are motivated by challenges. In all my work, I believe these skills and qualities shine through and have led to great success.

“Of course, I still have the questions of ‘what if’. What if I specialised early, would I be further in my career? What if I don’t have the specific skills or knowledge that would make me a stronger contributor to a project or job? But, when I deal with a crisis at work in a way others don’t or propose a new idea based on past experience or project I’ve worked on, I am further convinced that my non-linear path and way of thinking has been more positive than negative. Ultimately, we can either see our choices as negative or embrace them and the unique characteristics it’s brought to our lives.”

Q5: You mentioned leaning into saying yes to opportunities- how did you know the right ones to say yes to? Was there ever one you regretted saying yes to?

A: “If I look back on my career thus far, I think the thought process behind everything has been to say yes to opportunities that excite me, scare me, or intrigue me. I’ve made split second decisions that have changed me not only professionally but personally as well. Of course, it’s hard to always challenge yourself, and I’m no different in shying away from opportunities where I felt like I couldn’t do it. I’ve made mistakes in not letting things play out fully, coming home early, or being too scared to proceed. I’ve regretted not continuing my creative career because I was too scared to put my work out there, under my name, for fear of criticism. I’ve constantly fought imposter syndrome and that fear of not belonging has made me say yes to ‘safe bets’ and say no to bigger, scarier opportunities.”

In 2023 and beyond, non-linear career paths will become more and more common and celebrated. If you want to try it for yourself, know that saying yes to new opportunities and experiences doesn’t always have to be a conscious decision. You can simply just go with what feels right at the time and view experiences through the lens of ‘what can I learn from this?’ as opposed to perceiving every profession as something you must progress and climb the ladder in. For those that crave change, challenge and new learning experiences, then the non-linear route is probably more suited to you. And don’t worry, it clearly doesn’t impact your ability to excel in your career, as Michelle proves.

This interview was conducted as part of our leadership spotlight series, in which we aim to demystify the path to leadership for aspiring leaders by sharing a variation of journeys and defining moments.

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