Craig Knightley interviews fellow Executive MBA classmate Matt Symonds.

Rugby to real estate: Matthew Symons on his career and EMBA

8 December 2023

The article at a glance

In the first film of the series, Executive MBA participant Craig Knightley talks to former professional rugby player Matthew Symons about his transition from rugby to real estate, and what he has learned from the Organisational Behaviour course on the Executive MBA at Cambridge.

I think it's really tough when you're transitioning out of sport and you're doubting yourself the whole time. A lot's talked about, imposter syndrome, and you've got to relearn an entire skillset again in whatever you go into. Just giving a boost of confidence to your abilities is quite nice.

Matt Symons

EMBA in a day with Craig Knightley: Episode 1 transcript

Craig: My name is Craig Knightley, and I work at Inigo, which is a specialty insurance company. One of the core values of Inigo is to get smart and to keep learning throughout life. So we’re in Cambridge. I’ve been doing an EMBA here for the last couple of years. I’ve met some brilliant people from some very different backgrounds. They’ve flown in from China, they’ve flown in from Australia.

We’ve had people from finance, people from sporting backgrounds, actors, all kinds of different people. So what we’re going to do each week is we’re going to talk to a different person from a different background about one of the modules that we’ve covered on the Cambridge EMBA and try and bring it to life so that you guys can also benefit from some of the things that I’ve benefited from over the last couple of years.

Matthew! This is the talent. That’s what you’ve been called, ‘the talent’. I’m excited about how you’re going to get on it.

So really, really pleased to have Matt Symons here, one of my favourite classmates from the EMBA, to discuss organisational behaviour, to talk about his experiences on the rugby pitch, his experience in the workplace, and to learn more about how he’s found the EMBA over the last couple of years. So Matt, thanks for coming.

Matt: Thanks, Craig, pleasure to be here.

Craig: First, tell us a bit about yourself. Tell us about your background and a bit about why you’re doing the EMBA.

Matt: I was playing professional rugby for a number of years, finished my undergrad in 2012. I moved to New Zealand for a few years, then came back, and I was always thinking about what I was going to do after rugby. I was working in real estate part-time for a couple of years alongside doing my masters and ended up retiring last year, 2022, and stepped into a full-time role in real estate and then got luckily somehow, got accepted up here to study. So I’m combining the 2.

Craig: And so how have you found retiring, going from being on a training pitch most days to suddenly be in an office some of the time, coming to Cambridge, doing an EMBA. I know you’ve got a 4-year-old son. How have you found juggling all of that and the transition from doing what you were doing before? What’s that been like?

Matt: Yeah, a good question. I was quite fortunate that I had a few teammates who’ve done the course before and also just spoke to a few guys who I didn’t necessarily know but knew of and reached out to them to get some advice before I started, and that was really crucial.

Yeah, my time management skills have improved drastically. Normally, you’re off the training pitch at 15:00, go for a coffee, chill out, the rest of the day is yours. It’s slightly different. I think the adjustment to the corporate world as well has opened my eyes up to how a lot of people operate in their day-to-day, and that’s been, yeah, surprising, shall we say.

Craig: And what’s it been like? I know what I’ve been doing – 9 to 5 for 15-plus years. I love playing football. I know it’s not the same what you’ve done. But I love playing football, and the idea that I’d be doing that every day and then suddenly going into office would be quite hard. Has that been an easy adjustment? Has it been hard? Were you ready to give up rugby? Do you miss it? What’s it been like?

Matt: So you go 2 ways when you finish, I think, any sport. You either stop training and get quite sedentary and pile on weight or you lose weight. You just end up deconditioning ultimately. Or you go the other way and make a really concerted effort to stay in good condition for a number of reasons. But that’s the route I went down, so I still train every day. I’ll do something every day.

I found a little niche, and I do a bit of Bikram Yoga these days, lost some weight, leaning up. But I’m terrible at it. But no, it’s good. I just need something every day.

Craig: In terms of your former teammates that have done the EMBA, where have they gone off to next? They do the same sort of thing? Clearly they enjoyed it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be doing it. But where did they end up after the EMBA?

Matt: All different directions, and it’s the same with a lot of the lads who just retire without doing one or even without having gone to university. Quite a lot in financial services, whether it’s in your world, into insurance broking, that side of things. Normally, there’s a customer-facing element to their work. Some guys are in private equity and some have gone to law.

One guy called Benjamin Kaiser, if you’re watching the Rugby World Cup at the moment, he’s one of the leading commentators, French guy. He did his EMBA, and now he has set up a VC fund looking at sports organisations and sports tech, so a real range.

Craig: When you speak to your ex-teammates about what we’ve been doing, what do you say about it? How do you describe it, good and bad?

Matt: How do I describe it? Intense. It’s the 12 hours on the Friday. It gets you, when it’s meant to be winding down for the weekend. And then you’re there in the dark at six thirty on a Saturday, facing one day off a week. And then you’ve got study to do, yeah, intense.

Craig: Those are the times that get me – when I see my mates on WhatsApp doing other things. It’s 4 o’clock on a Saturday, I’m sitting next to you in a lecture theatre thinking, “Why am I doing this?”. They’re the days. It’s 26 degrees outside, and you’ve been in there for 2 whole days. You’re thinking “This is quite intense”.

Matt: What’s quite interesting actually, on the programme, is watching people change in front of you, and you can see the lack of sleep starting to get to them. I’ve noticed that recently. Need to run a little boot camp or something, to get everyone back up and feeling good.

Craig: What’s been the your highlights so far from the EMBA?

Matt: Good question. I think pushing myself in certain areas that I didn’t think I was necessarily good at, so let’s say corporate finance, and getting a better understanding of that area or even FRA, getting through the exam. I don’t know how I did it. I don’t know how any of us did it. Even the partners at the big 4 and the candidates were struggling.

Craig: I’ve enjoyed the image of you walking into an exam hall with a pencil case, a calculator, and sitting down at a tiny desk. I’ve enjoyed that. When I was sitting behind you doing that for 3 hours, that made me laugh. I enjoyed that. I didn’t enjoy the exam, but I’ve enjoyed that image.

Matt: Part of my soul’s still left in that exam room, and my writing slowly – I don’t know yours. It’s just deteriorating as you go, carpal tunnel. No, not good, not good. I think just learning off other classmates sounds a bit cliched, but some of my closest friends on the programme are people that I never would have crossed paths with ever. And I think that’s great.

And also, just giving you a shot of confidence as well. I think it’s really tough when you’re transitioning out of sport and you’re doubting yourself the whole time. A lot’s talked about, imposter syndrome, and you’ve got to relearn an entire skillset again in whatever you go into. Just giving a boost of confidence to your abilities is quite nice.

Craig: Talk to us about what a standard month looks like in terms of the assignments, exam, the group work. Give me some colour on that. Talk to me about what doing an EMBA actually looks like on a month-by-month basis.

Matt: Well, let’s go on a weekly basis because I think a month… I might jump out of this boat if we go through it all. But it’s picking your moments and getting really smart with the work you actually have to do. Because there’s so much reading. You can’t get through it all, and I think a lot of people quickly realise that.

If you’re in full-time employment, to get through everything and to get enough sleep and to spend time with the family, something’s got to give.

Craig: I’ve given up sleeping.

Matt: I can tell. No, so it’s a lot of early starts. How I like to structure my week is I’ll get up pretty early, and I’ll do a couple of hours of study before work. That’s when I’m at my best, and that’s when I feel like I can absorb material and then work. And then come the evenings, that’s where it’s the juggle of, if I’ve got an assignment due or we’ve got a team project due, I normally put the little guy to bed, spend a bit of time with my wife, have dinner, and then study.

And then sometimes, I’ve got to sleep. So then I stack it up for the weekends – how I do it is I normally have one day where I’ll be present with the family, almost put my phone in the bin I’ll call it, just detox, be there, go to the playground, do all the stuff you do, and then have one day where I’ll kind of take myself away and study. If you’ve got an assignment coming up, you can just block one day.

Craig: The way I do it now if I’ve got an assignment due – I will put myself in a room, and I will do the assignment and just get it done. And I’ll do 12, 14 hours and just get it done because, for me at least, I find it less stressful rather than it being spread over, say 4 weeks otherwise I’m constantly thinking about it. If I’ve got an assignment due or this massive piece of coursework, I’ll just almost spend a day or day and a half and just do it.

Matt: Yeah, see, I’m the other way. I’ll chip away at it. But I can’t deal with the stress. It’s so it’s funny how everyone is slightly different.

Craig: The organisational behaviour module helps you better understand people who are different from yourself. Daniel Goleman, a well-respected psychologist and author, produced a framework to help assess a person’s emotional competency. There are 5 components:

  1. self-awareness: our ability to recognise our emotions and the impact of them on others
  2. self-regulation: our ability to control our moods
  3. motivation: our passion for work that goes beyond money or status
  4. empathy: our ability to understand other people on an emotional level
  5. social skill: our ability to build relationships

Matt will talk more about emotional competency as part of a rugby team later.

Organisational behaviour, obviously, is in one of the topics that we cover together, and that’s largely about how do you structure a team, how do you lead a team, how do you work with other people. I think it’s fascinating to hear your perspective on that, having been part of a rugby team.

So you’ve obviously won the premiership with Harlequins, I think, in 2021, right? So that must have been a pretty successful team. And you’ve been part of guest teams that were slightly less successful. What are the sort of flavours of a successful team? And how does someone make that happen?

Matt: So if I talk about 2021 to start with. A bit of background. In January of that year, we were 10th in the league. Our culture was pretty poor. We had a head coach who created quite an interesting environment, shall we say, and he ended up leaving the club.

The director of rugby, the chief exec, actually didn’t install a new head coach. It got to the point where the leadership group was players. There were probably 6 of us who stepped up and took a far bigger role in understanding the wider team culture because people don’t realise there’s probably 62 guys, 63 guys in a first team squad, not including academy. So there’s a lot of players that aren’t playing for a number of reasons. You got to keep a lot of people happy, and contracts are constantly getting renewed. And it’s just a pretty stressful environment for those guys who aren’t necessarily involved. Anyway, in that leadership group, we really gelled, and we acted as a sounding board and a voice for the wider squad. There was that aspect to it, but also, we had a very good group of players, and we gelled very well.

Craig: So you’re sitting 10th in the league, and obviously, you end up winning it. Was there a point where… I picture you guys getting in a room together and saying, right, come on, let’s sort this out. Did that moment happen, or was it not as formal as that? How did you go from 10th to first? You talk about that group of 6 people. How did you make that happen?

Matt: We had nothing to lose. That was the outlook at that point, and we wanted to have fun again because we were playing a game plan which was very conservative, a lot of kicking, not rugby that you’d like to watch necessarily, and that’s not in our club’s DNA.

So we went back to what we should be doing, and we wanted to play with smiles on our faces. It does sound a bit cliched, but we really did. And that made things far easier, and we got on a roll. We got on a roll, and the confidence built. Sport is sometimes hard to pin down, the same with football, same with cricket, any team sport like that. Sometimes you’re just in a flow.

Craig: I think ultimately when you think about successful teams and at work as well – if you’ve got the right capabilities, the right group together, you can achieve so much more. And if you’re aligned and working together well, you can achieve so much more.

So how? I’m intrigued by this sort of team of 6 of you guys because having got to know you more, when I first met you, I thought, wow, look at this guy – I don’t know, what, 6ft6? So I looked at you, and thought, this guy is pretty imposing character. And as I got to know you more – I described you as a gentle giant. I don’t know if you like that. I don’t know if you like that description, but that’s the description.

When I describe you to people, I say, Matt’s a gentle giant. And so I’m intrigued to know what role you played in that 6 because I find it very easy to talk to you, and I know other people on the programme find it very easy to talk to you. You’re someone that just naturally engages with people. And so were you kind of that person in that group? Were you the person that people could come to if they had a problem? Or what was your role in that group? Were you all playing the same sort of role or different roles?

Matt: I played both roles because I needed a lot of support as well at that time because I was juggling my studies, family. This is the bit that people don’t realise about good teams and the amount of support that we give each other. Little things like you’re having a tough day, and I just know instantly coming into the changing rooms that you’re a bit quieter, something’s going on. I’d say “Craig, let’s go grab a coffee and have a chat” but have a proper chat. And those little connections that we pick up on are huge.

I had a lot of people around me to support me, and naturally, you end up giving. I took a few of the academy lads under my wing, and that’s one of the reasons we were a very successful team – there was no old-school hierarchy where a new player comes into a football changing room and you earn your stripes. No, it was very much a welcoming environment, and they were allowed to flourish.

Funnily enough, a lot of those players have now gone on and done really well. Even a Marcus Smith. He had a lot of support and just a good kid, and now look at him.

Craig: What’s fascinating to me, and we chatted about this the other day, is emotional intelligence. The Organisational Behaviour module we’ve been on covers how you’ve got emotional intelligence, how do you understand people, how do you understand who you are to other people and really reflect on yourself from other people’s perspectives.

As you describe it, it sounds like for you guys, as a team, there’s a lot of emotional intelligence in there. And I’m intrigued. Was that something you talked about as a team? Maybe I’m stereotyping, but I can’t picture you guys in a rugby team saying “Right, let’s get him involved because he’s got a lot of emotional intelligence”.

Matt: Yeah, good team men. That is a thing, yeah, in any organisation, yeah, just good team men, good team people. People get recruited for that reason. They’re good at their job, but they can also gel a group. And there are players that I know that are those kind of characters. They’re invaluable. It’d be the same at work.

Craig: It is the same at work. Ultimately, if you want to get something done – the more I work, the more I realise it’s about execution at work. You’re not going to achieve anything on your own. The only way you can achieve stuff is to get a lot of people together to go and make something happen, and there’s a real art to that. When you were in a team that was less successful, why was that? What did that look like?

Matt: Often there’s a cultural shift occurring. So I came back from New Zealand at 25, 26 years old and was playing pretty well over there and joined a team that was supposedly meant to be on the way up. And they recruited really well, and I ended up stepping into a leadership role there and captaining for a short period. And what transpired is there were some interesting characters within that changing room, more established players, older players, and they were very resistant to change.

We’d be going to away matches, and they were playing to lose by a bonus point. So they’d get a point, and that would be a result for them. It was a very different mindset to what I’d been involved in previously. Back then I was quite naïve coming in and really trying to push a different philosophy, outlook, and it was really tough.

Craig: How did you deal with that? Going back to me stereotyping you as this sort of gentle giant, I’m trying to picture how you’d react to that right because I know you’re a serious character, but you’re also a very considered, friendly guy. How did you react to that? Because I don’t know how you would react. I know how I would react – I’d get overly emotional. You’re a better person than me.

Matt: Yeah, I’m very emotional. So I really struggled, and it affected my performance. It’s that feeling of people talking about you behind your back in any environment, and you know what it’s like. Oh, it’s tough. And I’m not very thick-skinned in that regard, so it was really challenging. It was a tough year.

Craig: And so 10 years on … I know it’s not quite 10 years on, but say you were in that position today. Do you think your skin gets thicker as you get older?

Matt: Yeah, it’s just the ability to look back and think, why was I so concerned about that at the time? I should have just pushed through and been more forthright. And you want to talk to your younger self, but it’s still the same today. I’m sure you have been in the same boat. There are things where you think “I’m going to look back at this in a couple of years’ time and think ‘Why was I so stressed about that?’”.

Craig: It’s like muscle memory, isn’t it? I think when you’ve gone through experiences, when you’ve been there before, when I relate it back to work, when you’ve seen these things happen before, you deal with them much better the second, third, fourth time that you’ve experienced them.

When you’re going through it the first time in, say, your mid or late-20s and you get put in these positions, it’s really, really hard. I think one of the things I’ve learned over time is the more experiences you have you realise they’re invaluable, and you learn, and hopefully, you reflect on them. I think a lot of it’s emotional intelligence, it’s about reflecting.

Sometimes you get things right. Sometimes you get things wrong. But the best people are the ones that can basically say “Right, I got that wrong, I’m going to learn from it, and I’m going to do it differently next time”. How did the coach get the best out of you? I always think about the football analogies of people like the Capellos, standoffish, or the Harry Redknapps putting their arm around the shoulder. What sort of coach got the best out of you, and how did they do that?

Matt: Arms around the shoulder. I’m a big softy. I need it. One thing I’ve noticed actually, being in the corporate world, is you’re very isolated in terms of your exposure to the wider families and connections there. So one big thing in rugby – any of the good teams I was in – the wives, partners, kids were always in and around the training ground and the stadium and fully integrated. It’s funny that, coming into the corporate world, the hours are far longer, but there’s no kind of understanding or connection between the wider group.

Craig: Completely. It massively resonates. So I think what has happened, the way society has moved more and more, people don’t park their self when they enter the workplace. It’s a continuum, right. They are the same person, whether at home or at work.

I think it’s a real miss where people don’t at work. The other example I give, where I think we’ve got that right at Inigo, is we went really big on the kids Christmas party. We had all the kids in our office. Some people were there trying to do work that day…good luck. It was like Frozen but with 12 characters in the office. It was mental.

There were virtual reality snowball fights. There was Santa’s grotto. And I think about some of the more junior people who came with their two-year-old son or daughter and they went home with this massive present – their kid was beaming. That was one of the lessons I learned – the more that you can link people’s families into work in the workplace is invaluable and not because I’m trying to monetise it. I think ultimately people see it if you’re trying to do that right.

Matt: Yeah, if it’s genuine.

Craig: If it’s genuine. I completely hear you. But I agree with you. In the corporate space, that almost never happens. In in terms of our Organisational Behaviour module and emotional intelligence, one of the things we had to do was write an essay on ourselves and our emotional intelligence, or at least on my part lack of emotional intelligence. I’m intrigued what you put in that essay if you don’t mind sharing it?

Matt: I talked about the transition out of sport into the corporate world and talked about self-doubt, and I mainly talked about the fact that it’s really hard not being good at something again. It’s really tricky. If I took you out of insurance and put you into a law firm, it has a huge impact on your self-esteem, your self-confidence, and your sense of self-worth. It’s really tricky. And being aware of that and getting up to speed again is something a lot of athletes struggle with. It’s well-talked about, the transition out of sport and retirement and issues, but it’s often to the fact that you’re not very good at your job again.

Craig: What motivates you personally to make you be so successful at rugby? What was it that drove you?

Matt: Fear of failure. I think you go 2 ways. But for me, it was fear of failure, fear of being average to a certain extent. I wanted to achieve something and accomplish something, and that was huge. And I see it. That hasn’t changed. It just shifted industry, ultimately shifted sector.

Craig: It must be hard, and I see what you’re saying about when you apply it to workplace and you’ve got to this level and then you’re starting at this level again and you’ve had that motivation to get to there. How do you then go again? How do you keep going?

Matt: It’s really tricky, especially in your mid-30s. You’ve got a family. And a lot of your peers went from university into a grad scheme or set a business up or found their niche, are flying, and they don’t have to make that shift necessarily. Yeah, it’s tricky. It really is. And that’s often why there’s mental health issues of a lot of athletes when they retire.

Craig: To actually make someone motivated I think is really, really difficult. When you were doing rugby – the people that were most successful – was it that they were most talented, or was it actually, that they were some of the most hardest-working, most motivated people? What was it? Was it talent, or was it effort?

Matt: See, I’m a little bit not outspoken on this, but I see it differently. Some guys are just really talented. They are. Some of them are pretty lazy, but they’re really good rugby players or they’re really good footballers. And some work really hard. You’ve got both.

I don’t necessarily believe that it’s all hard work and a small amount of talent. Some people are just really talented. And it’s the same with you – you’re like that at work. I know you work really hard, but you come out with some stuff in lectures. And you think “This guy, he’s playing dumb. He’s not dumb”.

Craig: Yeah. I don’t think I’m playing dumb, but thanks for that. That’s not intentional if I’m playing dumb. If that’s how I’m coming across, that’s something I need to reflect on. So thanks for that.

So I really appreciate you coming out here and making the effort to chat to me about this stuff, and it’s been brilliant. I really appreciate all your time, so thanks for doing it.

Matt: Absolutely.

Craig: So in summary, you’ve heard Matt describe how having good self-awareness was important within a high-performing rugby team. To help with this, RocheMartin provides an online tool so that you can ask others to assess your strengths and weaknesses for emotional competency.

Another useful learning from the module is the research conducted by Luthans. He assessed hundreds of managers to see what the best managers do on a day-to-day basis. What he found was that effective managers spend almost 75% of their time either communicating with or developing their teams. They spend just 25% of their time on directing tasks or building an external network. His conclusion was that to be an effective manager the focus should be on supporting and developing the team.

We hope you found today’s episode useful. Stay tuned for episode 2, when we’ll be discussing accounting with Anna Kjj. Thank you for watching today.

Sometimes you get things right. Sometimes you get things wrong. But the best people are the ones that can basically say, right, I got that wrong, I'm going to learn from it, and I'm going to do it differently next time.

Craig Knightley

This series of films are sponsored by Craig’s company, Inigo Insurance, which aims to attract individuals who align with one of its core values: ‘get smart’.