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Advice / Career Paths / Career Stories

A Career in Public Service Can Come With Endless Growth—Just Ask This Director

Joan Matsumoto, the Senior Director of Transformation with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Joan Matsumoto, the Senior Director of Transformation with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
| Courtesy Massachusetts Digital Service

For Joan Matsumoto, a former high school English teacher in Hawaii, service has always been at the forefront of her mind—even when the unexpected forced her to leave her career in education.

“My transition was not planned,” she says. “Major life events change the path you may have mapped out. For me, I returned home to care for my older sister.”

Once she arrived back home in Massachusetts, Matsumoto began exploring new career paths. She knew she wanted a role that would allow her to continue serving others as she had her students. It’s an ideal that runs in her family: Her father was a thoracic surgeon and her mother was a nurse. “I also have an aunt who retired from the Office of the State Comptroller of Massachusetts and my cousins are all firefighters and nurses,” she says.

She found what she was looking for with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. What was originally supposed to be a six-month contract turned into a 26-year career that has allowed Matsumoto to grow and feel pride in her accomplishments. She's held several leadership roles, including Chief of Staff for the Group Insurance Commission and the Deputy Director of the Government Innovation Office. Today, she’s the Senior Director of Transformation.

Here, Matsumoto talks about the keys to collaboration, how to be an effective leader, and why sometimes the job is more important than the salary.

You’ve held various roles with The Commonwealth of Massachusetts. How does your trajectory exemplify the Commonwealth’s approach to internal mobility and employee development?

The Executive Branch is a large organization of 42,000 employees, but often faces emerging challenges that must be met with existing staff. This means that, if you are willing, you can be granted many opportunities very quickly regardless of years of service or expertise. For example, I was hired to learn about one facet of a financial accounting system, and I ended up as the Director of eProcurement Systems. After six months on that first contract, they saw that I could dive in, learn, and distill technical information for business users, which are the skills of a business analyst.

I was soon managing IT projects. Although I wasn’t an IT expert, I knew how to manage deliverables, resources, and people on a team driving toward a goal. From there, I began helping business people make the transition from paper-driven systems to data-driven systems.

High school teachers do this sort of work every day of the school year—they just don’t use titles like business analyst, project manager, and change management consultant.

What are you responsible for in your current role? What excites or inspires you the most about what you do?

I am responsible for leading the Future of Work Initiative, which is a coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The prior administration wanted to turn the crisis into an opportunity to become a more flexible, innovative, and resilient organization. The most inspiring part of this effort is that it highlights the pre-COVID-19 capacity of executive branch employees to deliver in the most challenging circumstances.

What is the objective of the Transformation Initiative?

The objective is twofold: ensure we are driving flexibility, innovation, and resilience into our culture so we can provide uninterrupted access to state programs and services, and also compete for, develop, and retain talent in a highly competitive market for new employees.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced while working on the Future of Work Initiative and how did you overcome it?

We are facing it right now and it’s the misconception to think we’re done—and that the decisions made coming out of the gate in spring 2020 are the best practices for the next 10 years. COVID-19 killed the “that’s how we always do it” mindset and we can’t let that seep back into our culture if we want to be flexible, innovative, and resilient.

Systemic changes through new policies establish a new field of play but leadership, management, and staff must figure out what works for them based on their mission and workforce. Agencies must continuously assess the present state and establish goals for the near-term and the long-term.

What are the keys to success when working on an initiative that involves cross-team collaboration?

When you work with people who are subject-matter experts, you have to listen and listen closely. Experts know their fields and know where the obstacles and opportunities for improvement are. At the same time, you are likely asking these experts to do something new, at an accelerated pace, and with competing priorities in the mix. That’s where establishing clear expectations and constant communication come into play. Communication is the best way to reduce the anxiety that comes with transformation. Finally, there is empathy and being human. Honesty is always appreciated. Openly acknowledging when something is hard or not meeting expectations helps build trust. It’s always important to remember that apologizing is not a failure.

Tell us about your experience being a Bradford Fellow back in 2011-2012. What lessons did you learn during the program? How did it prepare you to take on leadership roles?

I heard about the Bradford Fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) of Government from a colleague in 2004. After being encouraged to explore the program, I finally applied in 2010 with the support of my direct supervisor and agency head. The Commonwealth paid my salary and HKS paid my tuition to earn my master’s of arts in public administration

The biggest lesson I learned is that effective leadership can occur regardless of where you are at the table. This requires self-awareness, an understanding of group dynamics, shared interests, and shared fears. People act rationally from their point of view, not from your point of view or anyone else’s. Trying to understand them is critical to creating a productive relationship.

What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?

My father told me that there were some jobs I should never take no matter how much money I was offered, and some jobs I must take no matter how little I was being paid. He basically helped me understand the importance of considering the value of the work, which may be much higher than the salary.

You’re organizing a dinner party with three of your biggest role models. Who’s invited and what will you talk about?

My maternal grandmother, who valued education but was forced to leave high school to help support her family. She taught me that credentials aren’t everything. My mother, whose golden rule was “do it right or don’t do it at all.” Finally, my father who practiced medicine with incredible compassion and respect for his patients. We’d discuss whether or not technology released since the mid-1980s has improved or harmed society.

What are you currently reading, watching, and listening to?

I don’t watch television, but that is not because I don’t like it—it’s because I go down a rabbit hole, so I don’t even turn it on.

I listen to New England Patriots and Boston Bruins and Celtics games on FM radio. I may boycott the Red Sox because they let Xander Bogaerts go to the Padres. I also listen to podcasts like Midnight Burger, which somehow mixes an old-timey radio and theoretical physics into something I thoroughly enjoy even if I’m still trying to understand it. Another podcast I like is Wooden Overcoats, which is hysterically kooky and morbid. Set on an imaginary island in the English Channel, it’s about twin brother-sister funeral directors who suddenly have competition when another funeral director arrives.

As for reading, I’m currently enjoying Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age by Dennis Duncan. He has a very disarming writing style, so it’s my favorite kind of wonky, nerdy trove of facts wrapped in awesome storytelling and history.