From United States Marine Corps Ground Electronics Maintenance Chief to Field Service Manager at Intuitive Surgical, Master Sergeant Matthew Davis talks about leadership, transition, and success.
At 15 years old, a lightning storm destroyed all the electronics in the family home of Matthew Davis. His father covered the cost of Matt’s damaged items, telling him to spend the cash as he saw fit. When contemplating the replacement of his personal computer, Matt decided that he could build a better-quality computer himself—and save some money. So, he went to Northeastern Technical Services in Pennsylvania to order the components necessary to build his own PC.
Attempting to build your own PC in the 1990s was impressive—especially for a boy of 15. It’s no surprise that his request for computer parts sparked the curiosity of the sales leadership at Northeastern. They asked Matt to share with them the results of his PC building project, and he brought the finished PC to them—which started Matt’s career as the youngest computer technician at the company.
He built computers for Northeastern Technical Services until he graduated high school. Matt did well, graduating in the top 15 percent of his class and getting accepted at Penn State College, among others. However, Matt did not have access to the funds necessary for college—his parents were supportive, but his father was disabled, and his mother’s job as a waitress at a diner couldn’t cover the financial gap.
He thought the military would make a great fit, and Matt knew he wanted to do something technical, similar to building computers. The U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Marine Corps grabbed his attention. Matt appreciated the sharp appearance and ambitious outlook of the Marines, but he thought that the Air Force might offer him more long-term career-oriented options. Avionics was an appealing MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) choice also, but both branches have that role. However, the Air Force had a much larger timetable for boot camp, and when one is excited to start a new adventure, time can be a significant deterrent.
Matt told me that what ultimately drove the point home for the Marines was that they emphasized the values that were important to him; “camaraderie, sense of belonging, and actually doing something important.” When Matt says, “the Marines is about something bigger than yourself,” you can hear the dedication in his voice, and the motivation is contagious. Matt says that “to care for self is ultimately unfulfilling, but to care for your brothers and sisters is extremely important for good character.”
Matt loved many parts of his time in the Marine Corps, but the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) deployments really charged him because of “the amazing things (he) and (his) team were able to accomplish.” Although Matt himself has a laundry list of great experiences from that deployment, such as diving from a naval vessel into the Indian Ocean, operating cranes to replace tank engines, and driving an Amtrak across Kuwait onto a Persian vessel, he showed the most excitement when speaking of his unit’s achievements.
I was inspired to hear Matt revel in the success of those he led and to observe his connectedness to the overall mission. Matt joyfully emphasized his team’s impact on the wellbeing of the citizens in the countries to which they were deployed and explained to me the importance of the work they did during deployment in protecting democracy, building schools, and establishing medical and dental clinics to provide for others. Matt says he was proud to observe a Lieutenant perform a critical surgery on a young girl who otherwise likely would have died from an infection. The impact from helping those in need of healthcare helped motivate Matt to later join the minimally invasive robotic surgery world at Intuitive.
Matt stated that during that deployment, “community outreach and the feeling of making the world better, in a tangible way, was a truly joyful experience.” Many people who served on that MEU have earned notable awards, obtained multiple Purple Hearts, and inspired Matt as mentors and brothers.
Losing fellow Marines made for the darkest days of his experience. Matt’s friend, Staff Sergeant Jordan E., who served in Explosive Ordnance Disposal, lost his life during combat while disarming bombs in Afghanistan. When Jordan made the rank of Staff Sergeant, Matt was a “Gunny” who took to Jordan as a mentor and good friend. Matt and I took time to discuss Jordan’s life and service and to reflect on his valor as he is responsible for saving the lives of many service members. Jordan represents the best of us and was an amazing Marine.
As a Gunnery Sergeant, Matt elected to go the master sergeant route because he wanted to specialize in operations: tools, parts, timelines, and deliveries. Gunny was his favorite rank because he felt like it most connected him with being a servant-leader.
Matt encountered extraordinary leadership from his second unit in a small group of about 15 Marines. When speaking about his own Gunnery Sgt. who helped mold him, “no one worked for him, they worked with him,” and those leaders from that group were “heavily invested in growing us, not just as Marines, but as people. They cared about us. They cared about our personal lives, they cared about what we did after work. If one of the team members was coaching soccer, they could leave work early to go teach those kids how to play. The investment in us was great, and it made me decide that not only am I reenlisting, but I am staying in the Marine Corps for at least 20 years.”
Matt explained that the hard work and strong ethos instilled and shared by such leadership led him to think, “This is what I want to do. I want to be a Gunny. I want to be Gunnery Sergeant Griffin, and I want to do what I can for others, for other Marines, for other people.” In that shop of 15 Marines and 12 re-enlisted (amazing when one considers the retention rates for the Marines—around 25 percent for the first term). According to Matt, “If you can inspire 15 people, and they inspire 15 more each, and so on and so on, you can have a huge impact on an organization and the world.”
It has been three years since Matt retired from the USMC as the most senior Maintainer for the entirety of the Marine Corps Reserve. In that role, Matt was responsible for the functionality of every maintenance site around the country, and of course, those tremendous logistical skills and operational excellence translate well to technical management roles. Still, Matt made it clear that his focus always remains on the people and the mission ahead of the individual tasks. Matt states that “efficiency is great and all, but heartfelt servant leadership is what transforms a company and a culture.” He says that if he “plants the seeds now,” he truly believes that he will continue to see a “widespread impact” – that is what motivates him to keep pushing forward.
“When you leave the military, you don’t even understand the skills that you have, because frankly, the military does not rely on puffery and salesmanship. It operates on precision, accuracy, and blunt unobstructed language.”
About transition, we both acknowledged that communication in the civilian world is frequently less candid and direct than in the military. We talked about the difficulty of competing for a place in the civilian world during the transition out of service. Matt said that “when you leave the military, you don’t even understand the skills that you have, because frankly, the military does not rely on puffery and salesmanship. It operates on precision, accuracy, and blunt unobstructed language.”
Matt’s transition into his role at Intuitive began after a veteran friend told him about the company. As we at America’s Warrior Partnership counsel veterans through the Corporate Veteran Initiative, the best way to recruit a veteran or active military member is through another veteran. Matt researched the company and felt positive about Intuitive’s outlook and mission statement. After phone calls and interviews, Intuitive worked with Matt’s retirement timeline and helped him plan his transition into the organization as a Field Technician for da Vinci surgical systems.
From Matt’s point of view, there were two transitions: the first, from the Marine Corps into Intuitive, and second, from his introductory technician role into a people-leadership role. The first transition from the military to Intuitive was “simple and effective,” and Matt attributes this ease of transition to the fact that many employees at Intuitive are veterans themselves. The leadership at Intuitive understands the veteran perspective and what veterans need to transition and thrive.
Intuitive paired Matt with a team leader who also was a retired Master Sergeant -- an informal mentor can be an important tool an employer can deploy to facilitate effective military transitions. The similarities for Matt in the subject matter of his new civilian role and the mission-driven orientation of his teammates kept his motivation high and his mission readiness solid. Patients are the main motivation – “helping them get the care and courage they need.” Matt feels connected to the patients. He knows they need the surgeries. They need help, and when he thinks of the mission, he has a vision of people who need help, and that makes the transition easy. Matt says that “the culture of a company is not enough” when thinking of outward transition. “The mission itself is equally important.”
Matt’s most recent transition has been into a leadership role at Intuitive Surgical. When applying for that position, Matt oriented himself in the interview process around how he might fit his skills and leadership. During his assessment, he explained to his interviewers that he believed that his “experience in small unit leadership translates perfectly to the civilian community” as it enables Matt to “empower individuals to make decisions on their own.” He said that while qualifications are certainly necessary, it’s demonstrating leadership that helps you stand out from the crowd.
Matt notes that the mission-driven focus of Intuitive to expand the potential of surgeons to heal without constraints through intelligent technology resonates with him, and the supportive culture at the company encourages him to engage with his work. Matt stated, “Intuitive cares about patients and the health care delivery process in a meaningful way, and their approach is that their devices and robots must work, and everyone shares that attention to detail and concern for uncompromising success.” The more we spoke about Intuitive and its mission to help surgeons “heal without constraints,” the more I reflected how Matt’s success is greatly enhanced since he shares the same values and vision. I believe that through his desire to serve others, Matt -- and other outstanding veterans like him -- will continue to be catalysts for growth and examples of excellent leadership at Intuitive.
Matt is honored to help surgeons perform their jobs and appreciates that Intuitive’s mission is anchored to patients. He cherishes the “ability to give back to society.”
Matthew Davis has 23 years of field service experience, including 20 years of leadership in management and conduct of maintenance, providing oversight, supervision, mentoring, and training on teams ranging in size from 10 to 250 plus. He also has three years of experience as a maintenance logistics technical manager and first-line supervisor overseeing ground electronics maintenance for Marine Corps Reserve at more than 160 sites throughout the continental United States. His awards include four Navy Marine Corps Commendation Medals, five Certificates of Commendations, two Meritorious Promotions, Meritorious Service Medal, three Navy Marine Corps Achievement Medals, and three Letters of Appreciation.
America’s Warrior Partnership wishes to thank Retired Master Sergeant Matthew Davis for his service to this country, and the opportunity to learn about his leadership and life. We also thank Intuitive Surgical for making a commitment to empower veterans in the workplace.
I am Joshua Wilson, the Corporate Relationship Manager and prior Corporal in the Marine Corps. I was lucky enough to be provided an opportunity to interview Intuitive Surgical’s Matthew Davis for the purposes of learning from his leadership and discussing transitioning from the Marine Corps to Intuitive Surgical as a Master Sergeant in the USMC
About the Corporate Veteran Initiative
America’s Warrior Partnership’s Corporate Veteran Initiative (CVI) empowers businesses to develop and implement workplace solutions to enable veterans to thrive in their careers and become valuable assets to their employers. The Corporate Veteran Initiative accomplishes this by providing businesses with insights, guidance, and training to improve engagement of veterans in the workplace through a three-phase approach: Assess a company’s current workplace culture; Serve veteran employees through a customized veteran-engagement program; and Retain veteran employees by providing long-term guidance and support for both the company and employees. For more information about CVI, contact Joshua Wilson at 706-306-1283 or firstname.lastname@example.org.