As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Oerding.
Matt Oerding is CEO of Treehouse Eyes, the largest myopia management provider in the country, with a mission to give children better vision for life. Since its inception, the company has seen significant growth in both size and scale, expanding its reach from zero to 50 active locations across the country, with 10 more expected to open before the end of 2021. Matt is a passionate leader and entrepreneur with more than 20 years of progressive experience in medical devices, consumer goods and consumer durables, including at companies like General Electric (GE), Alcon and Sanitas Advisors.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this career path?
I’ve been fortunate to have a few different careers, from divemaster in Thailand to Air Force officer to launching new cereal products at General Mills. I’ve lived in 16 cities in five countries, and I’ve had a lot of different experiences in my professional and personal life. I was fortunate to fall into the eye care business, joining Novartis in 2001 and running one of their U.S. brands. I first met my Treehouse Eyes co-founding partner, Dr. Gary Gerber, shortly after entering the industry as we were doing some consulting for my company, and we stayed in touch over the years. I love eye care as the work is meaningful and you can truly improve people’s lives, from new surgical solutions for cataract patients to kids getting contact lenses for the first time.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
After we opened our first Treehouse Eyes centers in the D.C. area, we launched a public relations campaign to share our story with reporters in the area. We got a lot of interest as our model was novel and reporters didn’t realize what a massive issue myopia is in kids and that it can be treated. A reporter from the local FOX affiliate came into our center to do a broadcast interview and brought her three kids in with her. We designed our centers to be very kid and family friendly, they look nothing like a doctor’s office. Her kids had such a great time playing while she was doing the interview that they didn’t want to leave. Plus, she learned so much the reporter asked if we could examine her kids, which was a huge win. Her story was fantastic, and I think part of it was just her relating as a parent to what we do and seeing how much her kids enjoyed the experience.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We were building our first Treehouse Eyes centers, and I was on site for several weeks as construction was happening. About a week before opening, our contracted internet service provider came in to install service. I still remember as they came in about 20 steps behind them was the landlord. He came straight up to me and asked why that internet provider was there as they weren’t an approved supplier for the building. It turns out the landlord had their own company that also provided internet service, thus limiting who else could compete. As the landlord kindly pointed out, it was on page 57 of our lease agreement. So, we had to scramble to get another provider and it almost cost us our planned opening. I learned two lessons that day: first, read the lease, in detail! And second, hire good people who understand contracts like lease agreements to point out these clauses to you.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. 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?
During my time at General Mills, my last manager was amazing (he is now the CEO of the company!). I had an idea I was passionate about for a new distribution channel for snacks, and he didn’t agree with it. I expected him to kill my proposal, but instead he listened to my pitch and asked good questions that helped me better understand his point of view and the risks. He ultimately supported my idea even though he didn’t agree with it, and that has always stuck with me: If someone has passion for an idea, I try to support them if the risk can be managed as it is a great development opportunity for them to learn — even if I don’t agree.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I am passionate about diversity of any team I work on and take a very broad view of diversity. This can include everything from race, gender, sexual orientation, experience, age, personality styles and much more. Growing up living all over the world I think has influenced how I think about what people can bring to the table, and early on in my military career I was taught to value the diversity of everyone I worked with. This becomes even more important at senior levels in an organization, especially the executive team. As a leader we need people to challenge our assumptions and biases and bring different viewpoints to key decisions. The value of this type of diversity goes beyond just numbers, I’ve personally seen diverse executive teams drive better business results and engagement because you can really challenge each other’s thinking. Decisions that come to an executive team aren’t easy ones, those get made lower in the organization. So, for critical C-level decision making you must value diverse viewpoints and experiences.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
For me there are three steps all of us can take to drive this type of society.
First, go out of your way to source talent from a diverse pool. A great example is eye care, which, like many industries, has historically been dominated by white males. As we build Treehouse Eyes, we’ve had to go out of our way to think about how we find and attract a more diverse talent pool. That means not just sourcing talent from existing industry companies, but also thinking laterally about finding talent that may come from other areas. For example, a recent hire for us was previously a 2nd grade teacher, but had the right skill set to join our training team.
Second, being in health care we must think about access. Our company provides treatment for myopic children which is not covered by insurance. How do we ensure we can grow and run a profitable business while still ensuring access for those who may need care but can’t afford it? I will say we aren’t there yet, but we have given the teams in our centers a lot of flexibility to use their own judgment on providing discounts where needed. They don’t have to go up the chain for approval; they are completely empowered to make that decision at the point of care.
A third step we can all take is to ensure each employee has a strong development plan. Twenty years ago, that type of management support was reserved for “high potential” employees who were identified and nurtured early on in their careers. I believe that, to get more women, people of color and others into leadership positions, we must work harder to provide that type of development planning and support to all employees to help them grow and realize their full potential.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
A CEO is unique in a company in that they must drive three things that only they can do: vision, strategy, and energy. Almost every other task or function that a CEO may do can be managed by someone else, but these three critical parts of any company must be led by and made a priority by the CEO, otherwise they don’t permeate through the whole organization.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
To me, the biggest myth about CEOs is that they must be the smartest in the room or have all the answers. As I rose through the corporate ranks, I began to realize that CEOs and other executives were no different than anyone in that they have doubts, blind spots, and developmental needs. To me, the key to a great CEO or executive someone who knows their blind spots and plans for them by surrounding themselves with leaders who can help them and support them. The CEO does have to make the hard calls, but that doesn’t mean they have some crystal ball or insight that others don’t have. Great CEOS really lean on others for support and advice.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Having spent twenty years in leadership roles in large companies, I had a good idea of the functional aspects of a CEO and what needs to be done. The biggest surprise for me after starting my own company and growing it is how hard it is to balance being that high level leader while also doing everything required for a growth stage company. A startup or growth stage CEO must get involved in the details to a much larger degree, from setting up the right legal structure to IP protection to “simple” tasks like ensuring employees get paid. The skill set required for earlier stage company CEOs is vastly different, and harder, that a larger company CEO.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I was very fortunate to be exposed to the work of Kevin Cashman early on in my time in the eye care industry. His book, “Leadership from the Inside Out,” really challenged my views of what it takes to lead. I believe a successful executive must be humble, willing to fail and embrace the concept of servant leadership. People aspiring to lead companies must understand that the higher you rise in a company, the more you depend on others to get things done. It doesn’t matter if you are the best marketer, finance head, scientist, etc. The job at the executive level is about not telling people what to do but helping them see your vision, co-create the strategy, and then own the execution. Your job as the CEO is to support them and coach them to be successful. People who prefer to be individual contributors, or think they want to be an executive because they can just dictate tasks are not the right types to be leaders.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Culture is driven both top down as well as bottom up. I think culture starts with who you hire and the expectations you set for them early on. You must be consistent and explicit with your company and personal values and ensure each person in the organization is fully aligned to them. I’ve always embraced Patrick Lencioni’s “5 Dysfunctions of team” model, which is a great guidebook for any organization looking to be intentional in developing their culture and high performing teams. That model starts with trust as the foundation, so our team have been working with a team facilitator at building trust as a cornerstone of our culture. We talk about building trust, try to reward examples where we see it and measure it regularly to see if we are making progress.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Our company purpose is to give children better vision for life, and I can’t think of a better way to give back to the world. Millions of children have poor vision and don’t have to which is why we started Treehouse Eyes. I’m fortunate that my company’s success immediately impacts the lives of kids and their families, and as we grow and help more kids it is great to see the notes, they give our doctors thanking them and talking to parents whose children are being treated and hear their stories about how it has improved their child’s life.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. It is harder than you think.
I talked to a lot of entrepreneurs before starting my own company and mentally understood that it would be challenging. Nothing prepared me emotionally for the roller coaster of startup and now growth stage company life. About a year after starting the company, things weren’t going well, and I didn’t know if we would make it. I was clinically depressed for the first time in my life. I’m grateful that I had an amazing co-founder who supported me through many challenging months and now, here we are today, five years later and growing more than we ever imagined.
2. Work-life integration is more important than work-life balance.
My family is the most important thing in my life. Starting your own company means that you must be intentional about setting your priorities. Early on, I realized that I could spend as much time on the company as I wanted, and still not do everything I wanted. I learned to embrace work-life integration as a concept and find gaps in my day or week that I set aside to spend time with my family and for myself. As leaders, I don’t think we can think about “balance” but more how we integrate our work into our life.
3. Cash is king.
Coming from a big company environment I was very used to running the P&L and focusing on key metrics like EBITDA and margins. I realized early on that those were great financial metrics, but irrelevant without the money in the bank to pay your team and vendors. I had to completely reorient my thinking and planning around free cash flow and making decisions in the first few years based on available cash vs. just company profitability.
4. People are enormously generous.
Living in Boulder, I’ve come to appreciate how amazing and generous people are with their time. It took me a while to realize it, but around all of us there are people willing to provide advice, experience, contacts and whatever else you need when you are growing a company. From the CU professor who would meet with me every few months for coffee to other entrepreneurs who would take time to hike with me and share their experience or just be a sounding board, I’ve been amazed and blessed to find a network of people that have provided support.
5. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
I still struggle with this at times but going through starting and growing a company has helped me become a more authentic person. I no longer feel the need to put on a façade of knowing all the answers, but instead reach out to my team and sharing my challenges, both business and personal, so they can help me. I feel like being open and authentic with people about where I’m at, especially when it isn’t a great place and I’m feeling vulnerable, builds more trust within the team and a better culture. People respect you more for it and want to do whatever they can to support you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
We have the resources globally to eradicate many health care challenges but lack the will and vision to make it happen. Barriers like national borders, access and delivery of health care can be overcome, but it takes a “Global First” mindset as business leaders, having an abundance mindset is critical and thinking globally about how we can help others is something we can do together. I’ve had a chance to work some with the World Health Organization and I’d like to see more of us involved in healthcare thinking about how we can support and work with organizations like the WHO to break down many of these man-made barriers to improve access to care around the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Peter Drucker’s “Culture eats strategy for lunch/breakfast” has been a real inspiration to me on the business side but also permeates over to my personal life. For years I thought strategy and execution were critical, but as I’ve grown and had more experiences it has convinced me that a focus on a strong culture is what underpins long-term success in business and family life.
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 love to have breakfast with ex-Atlanta Braves pitcher Greg Maddux. He was an idol growing up and I have always wanted to understand his thought process and preparation for approaching his craft.