Matthew McDowell says new responsibilities cannot be plotted on a spreadsheet

In the numbers, there is absolute. So I became a numbers guy.

There were manifestations of this interest early on. I remember in fifth grade, I was a bookkeeper for a particular assignment. And in college, I lived in a house with eight guys. I managed our finances.

Now, as a leader, I’m pulling back from the quantitative and moving into the qualitative — or what is sometimes the unknown.

I began my career with Northwestern Mutual in a smaller office in Kansas City, Mo. I took whatever was thrown at me and tried to learn as much about the company as I could.

I started out doing investment operations, processing investment brokerage transactions. But I didn’t see that as my only job. The managing director, who became a mentor, helped me to see that.


Matthew McDowell is the new chief financial officer at Northwestern Mutual’s The Washington Group. (Courtesy of Northwestern Mutual)

She taught me about taking ownership and trying to control things that I think I might not have control over.

I began to think about what the future would hold for me if I didn’t wait for someone to tell me what to do.

So I organized study groups and decided to revamp the training curriculum for our reps.

I didn’t have this great title where I was overseeing them, but I decided that I could really affect their development.

As a result of the new curriculum, we saw a decrease in the amount of errors in our processes.

Within a year, I got the opportunity to move up.

I stayed for almost four years, and I began to feel like I would progress better in a larger company.

I did a short stint in a corporate finance role as an analyst at another company. It was a very fast-paced environment with very high expectations. I was only there for five months, but I don’t regret it because I picked up some great technical skills that benefited me greatly down the road.

It was good news when Northwestern Mutual called me and asked me to share that knowledge in a different capacity.

So I moved to the headquarters in Milwaukee and did consulting with all the various offices around the country.

I was working with the different managing partners and consulting with them about how to best manage those operations from a financial and operational perspective.

I discovered that I had an ability to analyze data and interpret it to tell a story. I could take information and articulate what I see on my screen to key stakeholders. I implemented processes for other consultants on how we go about doing that with our stakeholders around the country.

The managing partner here, Leo Tucker, was impressed enough with my ability to interpret the data and deliver a singular recommendation regarding a project that he asked me to work on with him.

Now as chief financial officer, I’ll be focusing more on the qualitative — relationships and understanding the marketplace — and you can’t put that on a spreadsheet.

The numbers and technical skills got me to where I am. For me to get me to the next level, it’s beyond the numbers.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

Matthew McDowell

Position: Chief financial officer at Northwestern Mutual’s Washington Group, a financial-security firm based in McLean.

Career highlights: Regional financial consultant, Northwestern Mutual; investment operations manager and head of financial operations, Northwestern Mutual’s Kansas City office.

Age: 29

Education: BA, University of Kansas; MBA, Marquette University.

Personal: Lives in Alexandria with wife Laura.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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