Matthew Lawlor of Ceca Foundation: Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life
An Interview With Pirie Jones Grossman
Keep going and be resilient. My wife and I are now blessed with the means to form a charity. It wasn’t always that way. Persistence counted a lot. Perhaps I was just too stubborn to quit. But in reflection, had I been simply stubborn, as opposed to resilient, we would never have made the mid-course changes to succeed.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their lives. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50's.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Lawlor.
Matthew Lawlor is the Co-Founder and Executive Chair of the Ceca Foundation, a nonprofit organization partnering with healthcare communities to honor the work of exceptional caregivers. Prior to Ceca, Matt built Online Resources Corporation from concept to successful public company. He helped pioneer new business practices in a variety of industries, and is credited with several major patents. Lawlor performed public service with the White House-OMB, where he played a key role in the trend-setting presidential transition of 1981.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I’m an Army brat. I was born in Washington, D.C. but my family, including my five younger siblings, moved almost every other year. We lived all over the world, and thankfully we would move in the summer most of the time so we weren’t pulled out in the middle of the school year. Moving that much really brought our family together. And when you’re changing schools, cities and even countries that often, you really learn to be tough. You’re either going to make it or you won’t.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Set your life goals high but doable. You will make mistakes or fail, but find the silver lining. There’s always a lesson to be learned by your errors. That also goes for making mid-course corrections as you innovate. Few ventures ever succeed coming right out of the gate with their original business plan. By finding the silver lining in failures, you get smarter and more realistic about your organization’s strengths and weaknesses. Finding that silver lining is also the key to remaining optimistic and resilient.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
There’s one quality that stands out to me above the rest: resilience. Many entrepreneurs get tagged with the word “genius,” though I never was. What got me to where I am today is a combination of innovation, timing, luck, persistence, getting to work with the right people, being flexible and staying focused. There is always uncertainty and roadblocks along the way. Sometimes you’ll need to make adjustments to your vision, but as long as you persist, timing and luck will catch up to you. This is what happened with the Ceca Foundation. It hasn’t been easy by any means. I didn’t have any experience in the nonprofit or healthcare industries. But we kept moving forward, even if that meant tweaking things here and there and looking for the silver lining as we make mistakes and learn from them.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
I got my start with RCA Corporation as a project engineer for an advanced NASA satellite. After graduating business school at Harvard, I joined Chemical Bank, then the nation’s 6th largest bank. My last position there was heading its primary international investment company, at the unripe age of 30! In 1980, I was named Presidential Exchange Executive serving in the White House and at OMB as a nonpolitical appointee. What a learning experience, and a chance to make a difference! After a year there, I founded US Multitrade, which financed early-stage technology firms such as RSA Security, which sits at the center of most major security systems. In 1989, I started Online Resources Corporation (Nasdaq ORCC). With the help of so many around me, we took the firm from concept to successful public company. Online Resources pioneered its patented banking and payments network, which served an estimated 15% of US households. As you may surmise, I’ve been blessed with an exciting career. Frankly, I was never smart enough to get bored.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
I had retired from Online Resources and was spending time with family and friends. At that time, my mother, Mary, who was part of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, was living at Knollwood military retirement home in Washington, D.C. She was an amazing person, leading a platoon of WACs after the invasion of Normandy. She married my father (edging out a glamorous Russian officer), who had attended West Point and was a career military officer. They married in Berlin, traveled to Rome and got the Pope’s blessing, and moved around the world representing our country. My family and I were amazed at the care Mary received at Knollwood. Everyone there became her friends, and they took such great care of her. When she passed away, we wanted to do something not just for those at Knollwood, but for all healthcare workers and staff members. That’s how the Ceca Foundation was born.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
Seeing the care my mother received from the team really drove my wife, Rosemary, and I to do something for these amazing people. They had such a big impact on my mother’s life, especially in her precious later years. They didn’t just do their jobs and get on with the rest of their day. They were there for her, offering compassion and companionship.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
I was always extremely driven, even as a child. My parents never — and I mean never — needed to encourage me to study or do my homework. Well, to be truthful, I was not the perfect child when it came to studies. But my mother taught me a lesson when I was young that I’ve always remembered. She gave me the book “The Greatest Salesman in the World,” and she typed out the chapter on humor. The lesson was not to take yourself too seriously. Indeed “laugh at the world” was the chapter she excerpted. It took me a while to absorb her advice since I was so driven to succeed. But, I grew to find that joy through humor. I also grew to learn the one moment of recognizing when someone genuinely did a nice job was both joyful to me and the innocent, sometimes embarrassed, but always beaming “victim” of my admiration.
How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.
The Ceca Foundation is continuing to grow, and we are adding partners all across the country. Right now we are in 14 states with more than 40 healthcare partner facilities, such as hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare communities. Over the last eight years, we have recognized 35,000 exceptional acts of patient care and awarded 1,000 caregivers with monetary Ceca Awards. The unique thing about the Ceca Foundation is that anyone who works in our partner facilities is eligible for these awards, from the janitors all the way up to the highly skilled and educated doctors. We believe they all deserve our admiration and respect.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many who have helped me along the way, including my parents and athletic coaches over the years. When I worked at Chemical Bank, there were two guys in particular that stand out: Tom Johnson and Mike Heath. The three of us worked for the CEO of the company. They both became great mentors and friends to me. Both were both instrumental in helping me to develop Online Resources, the company that I founded and headed for 20 years before founding Ceca. I hope I can pay it forward to others who are earlier in their careers.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
Well deserved, genuine recognition of people is motivating. Aside from dear ol’ Mom, I learned that from other leaders, from working for others, then leading my own company and now with Ceca. However, I never understood just how powerful it could be. A Ceca Award consists of two things: public recognition and a monetary reward. Our Foundation has held a thousand Ceca Award ceremonies. Though many honorees live paycheck to paycheck, it’s still amazing the monetary award is secondary for many of our Ceca Award honorees. Having their peers at the Ceca Award ceremony to celebrate them is what means the most to them. There haven’t been many ceremonies I’ve attended where there’s not tears flowing in the room. It is so easy to recognize someone and say thank you, and it still blows me away how powerful that simple recognition can be.
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
I’ve never had a problem believing in myself. I realize that sounds “cocky.” But I’m not. I’m can-do. Sure I fail. Indeed, I’d hate to figure my batting average. It’s always been much more of a challenge to get others to believe in me and my ideas. I have high expectations of myself and those around me. It’s not because I’m so sure of my smarts or anything else in my DNA or upbringing (not to diminish my parent’s influence). It’s because I’m determined and resilient, especially when my failure amounts to a strategic retreat. I recognize that I will do what is necessary to adjust, as is often necessary, to get to the ultimate goal. I know the path may not always be easy, but if I keep going and remain flexible, I can get there.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
I knew from my previous work that one person can’t do everything, you need to build a team. You need people who have a variety of skill sets. I knew in order to start the Ceca Foundation, we had to have a board to lend their credibility and wisdom. We also had to build proprietary software or find someone else to do it. We got Nate Hamme, Ceca’s President, on board and there isn’t a better person out there to be in that role. Finding those people early on, as well as having the support of my wife and children has led to Ceca’s progress. All that said, please let me emphasize that we have not yet succeeded. We have so much more to do.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
You can say that the healthcare industry should have made me feel outside my comfort zone. I knew enough to be dangerous. I had some prior healthcare experience as a volunteer in a sheltered workshop and in a nursing home. But I certainly didn’t know my way around the healthcare industry. Yet there were complementary skills that I could bring to the table. In the software business, as a venture investor exposed to innovation, in public service during my stint with the White House and as a public company leader who saw the power of peer-to-peer employee recognition. Last but not least, I witnessed how well my mother was cared for in a military retirement home. It turned out, for example, that my software experience helped make a difference. Ceca partnered with a software company to provide caregivers a means to nominate each other for our monthly Ceca Award. Our partner was excellent but decided to go another direction. We were left with about a month to replace them. There was no way Ceca could create its own platform, but I’d previously partnered with a custom software firm. They were experts at “agile development,” which enabled Ceca to redeploy a new platform quickly and continuously improve the software and innovate over our eight years of operations.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- I forgot how hard it was to start something from scratch. While I’m always willing to do it, you really have to be a jack of all trades when starting something new. In reflection, I had forgotten how much of a challenge it was to establish Online Resources, serving an industry I knew well. Healthcare was an industry I needed to know, and I didn’t really know it. But I had an idea and the healthcare industry challenges beaconed. So I jumped!
- Be ready to make adjustments. We’ve been at this with the Ceca Foundation for eight years and we have developed a unique service for hospitals and other healthcare communities. But we stand stronger for recognizing our mistakes, and continuously making improvements along the way. We’re now situated well to take the program beyond our mid-Atlantic and southern footprint. The bigger we get, the more we can leverage fixed costs and create smaller membership fees for our healthcare community partners who team with the Ceca Foundation.
- Bring in the right people. There’s this misguided idea of the successful entrepreneur who fights for his innovative ideas and does it all himself. I’d be astounded if one exists. No one can do it alone. It may take years to find those who buy into your idea. But ultimately, you need people behind you, acting as a team, who are going to support you and help you to keep pushing ahead. That means finding and nurturing the people that can best fit into your mission and complement existing skill sets. Moreover, as your organization develops, it may change and then change again. So start with the right people and return their loyalty. At the same time, sometimes the right initial hires no longer fit or can’t adapt to new challenges. It may be the hardest task there is of a leader who fiercely values loyalty to make the necessary changes as the enterprise grows into its next stage of development.
- Keep going and be resilient. My wife and I are now blessed with the means to form a charity. It wasn’t always that way. Persistence counted a lot. Perhaps I was just too stubborn to quit. But in reflection, had I been simply stubborn, as opposed to resilient, we would never have made the mid-course changes to succeed.
- Finally, with every crisis there is a silver lining. Let that be your ticket to optimism, and a willingness to adjust your course along the way as needed. The last two years of pandemic have provided many examples. For Ceca, we had to pivot from in-person awards at our healthcare facilities to doing it all virtually. I didn’t like it. But what we lost in intimacy during the pandemic, we now have complemented with remote enhancements. Now we have the know-how, even as in-person Ceca Award ceremonies are now possible, to include distant family and friends who couldn’t physically attend the Ceca Award ceremonies.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I believe that there should be voluntary national service. Democracy is messy and, not for the first time, our country is going through a dysfunctional phase. It’s not the first time or the last time this will happen. I believe the key to our democracy, no matter what the time or phase, is both self-respect and respect for others. I believe that organized voluntary public service can teach a lot of that. Perhaps after graduating from high school the norm would be to take two years of public service, be it military or civilian service, instead of immediately moving on to college. Wouldn’t it be nice if society gives our young adults a break? Why not give them the option to work and learn from others their age. Indeed, what better way to prepare for life and the years ahead of college and perhaps advanced education. There are also numerous service opportunities for seniors, who are often isolated, that can give them a sense of purpose and belonging to a community. A well-designed and managed national service program could pay for itself if positioned as an educational experience for our youth and a healthcare initiative for our seniors.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
I would have to flip a coin to choose between three people. The first is Pope Francis. We’d talk about the future role of organized religion in a skeptical world and how to balance social justice and capitalism. The second is Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer. I’d love to discuss the biotech pipeline, his thoughts on reforming healthcare and pharma, as well as leadership lessons he’s learned in transforming Pfizer. The third is Angela Merkel, former Chancellor of Germany. It would be fascinating to get her take on East-West perspectives, great power competition, climate change and her view of the United States.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can visit us at cecafoundation.org or through our various social media channels: Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!