The road to the Special Forces is paved with pine cones. At least, that’s how it seemed to Matt Watters when he first began the journey—and he wasn’t thrilled about it.
At the time, Matt had just stepped away from his role as Team Leader in our Public and Social Sector Practice, where he’d been working side by side with senior clients and managing teams of McKinsey consultants, so that he could enlist in the U.S. Army. The arrangement would give Matt the opportunity to fulfill a dream: a tryout with the branch’s elite special-forces unit, the Green Berets. “It was a hard decision. I’d be stepping away from everything for years and I wasn’t sure I’d come back, but I knew I had to,” Matt says.
Before the Special Forces tryouts, however, Matt would first have to get through Infantry basic training, which, along with courses in infantry tactics, navigation, and weapons operation, included drill-sergeant-designed menial tasks intended to cultivate mental toughness. While he knew he’d need that trait in the field, some of the tasks, Matt says, felt neither elite nor special—like picking up hundreds of cones dropped by Fort Benning’s nearly 15 million longleaf pine trees.
“I thought I’d be jumping right into intense, specialized training, but there I was picking up pine cones, moving them across the field, and then, moving them back to their original spot,” Matt says. “Going from my work on the Ebola pandemic at the firm to something like that was humbling, to say the least. I definitely started to question my decision to do it and that was exactly what the drill sergeants wanted.” But he wouldn’t for long. He soon headed off to Special Forces Selection and Assessment (SFAS).
“SFAS was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but then I entered the Special Forces Qualification course, which was twice as hard,” Matt says.
Over the course of the next year and a half he’d learn how to complete the core missions of the Green Berets: unconventional warfare, direct action, counterterrorism, and special reconnaissance. He graduated and earned his Green Beret in November 2018.
Matt grew up in Ramsey, New Jersey, where he was the oldest of five children. His dad and mom run a small business in the area, and he grew up idolizing their fathers: a World War II-era fighter pilot and a civil-rights lawyer, respectively. After what he describes as an average performance in high school, Matt worked hard in college and won a Rhodes Scholarship. He joined McKinsey when he completed his studies.
On a visit to Manhattan during his first year as a consultant, Matt encountered Douwe Blumberg’s “America’s Response Monument,” known as the Horse Soldier Statue. Overlooking the National September 11 Memorial in New York City, the life-and-a-half size sculpture depicts a Green Beret on horseback to commemorate Task Force Dagger, America’s earliest response to the 2001 terrorist attacks. Those attacks had deeply affected his hometown, a commuter town of NYC. The statue became a source of deep inspiration for Matt.
“The statue’s inscription spoke to me in two specific ways,” he says. “First, it includes the Special Forces motto, De Oppreso Liber or ‘to free the oppressed,’ which to me gets at the moral imperative to help those who need it. And second, the inscription described how the task force worked in partnership with those it had aimed to help.”
Matt says the notion of working in partnership for impact has translated well to his McKinsey work. In particular, he recalls a project that helped an African nation rebuild in the wake of an Ebola outbreak that ravaged the country. “We couldn’t just come into a situation like that, solve the problem, and leave,” he explains. “We helped them solve the immediate challenges, but then focused on their capabilities so that they could be more empowered going forward. We made sure the change we created could endure.”
He goes on: “In a sense, what we were trying to do is work ourselves out of a job—to create a situation where the client is so well equipped that they don’t need our help on that particular issue anymore. That’s true of the work I do at McKinsey and it’s true of the work I’ve done as a Green Beret. To me, working in partnership like that is so inspiring.”
After he completed his Special Forces training, Matt returned to McKinsey and resumed client work while awaiting his chance to deploy. It arrived in the spring of 2019. Matt headed to Afghanistan with his team, to serve on an expeditionary force.
He was struck by how kind the rural communities were to his team. “These were areas where people didn’t have a lot, and they were bringing us fresh-baked bread to say thank you,” Matt says. “U.S. and NATO forces have been partnering with Afghan forces for a long time to bolster security in these communities. It is my hope that these villages remain safer after our deployment,” Matt says. The deployment was memorable in many other ways as well. Matt recalls the bravery of the Afghan Special Forces soldiers he fought with, the comradery of his own team, the courage of the women advocating for more freedom, and the solidarity of the communities they worked with.
He also got some good news from back home: his work and impact at McKinsey had earned him election to associate partner.
Today, Matt is back at our firm serving clients. While serving clients in an office is widely different than his deployment, he sees a connection between the two settings that helps define his work and his purpose. Both, he says, provide access to people who have big problems to solve—and who want to partner with a team that can help them solve them in ways that endure.
Matt remains in the reserve and trains regularly with his Special Forces team when he isn’t at McKinsey. And if the itinerary for his next training is any indication, his days of pine cone pickup duty are long behind him. “I’ll report to Fort Carson, Colorado for drill next month,” he says, “Close Quarters Combat (CQB) training is on the agenda.”
Read more profiles of our veteran colleagues here.