Rising Through Resilience: “They told me it was impossible but I did it anyway” with Matthew Gonnering of Widen

Resilience is the ability to work through adversity to accomplish a goal. Resilient people are hopeful. When bad things happen, resilient people contain the bad to just-that-moment. They also view bad things as only temporary. They can get over things quickly in pursuit of what’s next. I think resilient people spend a healthy amount of […]

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Resilience is the ability to work through adversity to accomplish a goal. Resilient people are hopeful. When bad things happen, resilient people contain the bad to just-that-moment. They also view bad things as only temporary. They can get over things quickly in pursuit of what’s next. I think resilient people spend a healthy amount of time reflecting and they use historical pain points to fuel transformation. At times, I think a resilient person can be viewed as stubborn. They know what they want and they’re willing to risk more than the average person to get it. They have a vision and you’re either with them or against them.

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Gonnering. Matthew leads the highly-intelligent and playfully-engaged people of Widen –people dedicated to unlocking human potential by navigating the next frontier of digital content. Widen is a freedom-centered software company helping the most influential brands in the world organize their digital chaos. Widen aims to become the most admired organization in the world, setting an example for good growth, and is continuously featured as one of the best places to work in Madison. Widen also proudly represents a culture of organizational democracy, earning certification from WorldBlu as a freedom-centered workplace for five consecutive years.

Matthew started at Widen in 2000 with a background in printing earning the CEO role in 2009. He is a forever learner in pursuit of helping people realize their potential. With the help of 150+ colleagues last year, he earned Executive of the Year honors from Madison InBusiness Magazine. He gives a few talks each year with some noteworthy presentations including a TEDx talk highlighting the need for more empathy in business by employing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, a Disrupt HR presentation where he posed the question, “What if Mother Teresa Ran HR,” and various presentations drawing attention to a multidimensional wellness approach to integral human development. His writings have been featured in prominent publications such as Forbes, Chief Executive, Entrepreneur, and Inc. Magazine.

Matthew loves his wife and six children, is tremendously grateful to work with the best-of-the-best, is active in the Catholic Church, and is always thinking about what’s next.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

Iwas born and raised in northeast Wisconsin with loving parents and three sisters. My mom and dad set a great example for faith, work ethic, charity, and morality. And my sisters, well….they’re sisters. Growing up with that many females in the house was informative. I received a business education from St. Norbert College and worked in the printing industry for several years. That industry experience brought me to Widen in 2000 as they were looking for a rep to sell printing services. In a few years, I had shaped my role into marketing then transitioned into leadership roles. I earned the CEO job in 2009 and the last 11-years have been quite a whirlwind of business and personal transformation. I have been blessed with incredible colleagues and enjoy representing the people of this great company. This is all possible because of my wife of 17+ years and our six children. It’s beautiful chaos. Saint Mother Teresa said it best, “How can you say there are too many children? That’s like saying there are too many flowers.”

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Early in my career at Widen, I almost left. I wanted to do more and felt like I needed to leave in order to do that. I gave notice to my boss, informed everyone, and had several people talk to me about staying. The attention was nice, but I was already set on leaving. Then I explained why I was leaving to the CTO, who was obsessed about disruptive change (and still is). He said, “Why don’t you do those things here?” I really didn’t know that was an option until he asked that question. Then I wondered what I was waiting for, did I need an invitation to make change happen? And so I stayed, then told the CEO I wanted his job. That’s another story.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Stock answer is ‘the people.’ What does that mean exactly? There is so much talent at Widen that we need to make sure everyone is given the freedom to let their talent loose on the markets we serve. It’s what makes work so rewarding. We get to show up everyday and apply our skills to serve market demand. As we apply, we also refine, and the Widen culture accommodates. This iterative loop of human development is ripe with challenge, and therefore, ripe with reward. One reward is the ability to properly serve our customers. On the public review site, G2 Crowd, Widen has a 4.6/5.0 rating with abundant comments on the experience we provide. For example, one comment states, “A 5 Star Product with Amazing Service, Support, and People!”

But we’re defined by how we treat the most vulnerable, so I think what stands out is the opportunities we provide to people who have been neglected from the workforce.

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities have not been afforded the same chance to experience the dignity of work. We reserve 5% of our employment for people with cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, and other abilities. And sometimes their development looks different than going to a conference or earning certification in a particular subject matter. In one case, we learned someone’s reading levels were preventing them from absorbing new information. After failing to find a program on our own and trying to partner with local groups, I shared my frustration with my wife and she said, “Why don’t you just hire someone?” Of course! So, we hired a literacy coach. And the iteration of human development continues, no matter where you start.

None of us are able to 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?

My wife, Sarah. The story that started all other stories is that I married her on October 19, 2002.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Resilience is the ability to work through adversity to accomplish a goal. Resilient people are hopeful. When bad things happen, resilient people contain the bad to just-that-moment. They also view bad things as only temporary. They can get over things quickly in pursuit of what’s next. I think resilient people spend a healthy amount of time reflecting and they use historical pain points to fuel transformation. At times, I think a resilient person can be viewed as stubborn. They know what they want and they’re willing to risk more than the average person to get it. They have a vision and you’re either with them or against them.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

Saint Mother Teresa. I’ve read books about her, the letters back-and-forth with her spiritual advisors, and documentaries that captured her in action. Bringing the Missionaries of Charity order into existence was a feat in-and-of itself, and it was only a sliver of the resilience she demonstrated. She literally pulled people from gutters, brought the fight against the senseless killing of children, walked into the bloodshed of war zones and rioting, and cared for those who were left to die on the streets. She did this amidst her own internal darkness.

She was a fiery leader who wouldn’t take no for an answer when people were in need. As written by Father Leo Maasburg in the book, “Mother Teresa of Calcutta, A Personal Portrait,” she was told it was a dangerous offense for the Sisters to make contact with families inside the totalitarian communist regimes. To which Mother replied, “Then the Sisters should visit as many families as possible; they cannot lock them all up.”

It may have appeared that her workload was too great at times, yet she accepted every new challenge knowing she had the strength to deliver. As Father Maasburg wrote, she communicated, “I know that God will not impose on me anything that I cannot bear. But sometimes I wish that He did not have such great confidence in me.”

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

I worked in sales role for a book manufacturer early in my career and one of my customers, Collector Books, published 8.5 x 11, high-page count (300–400 pages) books using gloss pages for the interior with a glue-binding. We had a production problem where pages were falling out of finished books. You could tug a page out of the binding with little effort when opened to the middle of the book. Not good. I spoke with the bindery manager and he said there wasn’t anything we could do. I didn’t believe him, so I went on my own quest.

At the local bookstore I found all kinds of similar books, opened them to the middle, grabbed a page, then shook it until the bind gave loose or the page ripped. As I disassembled these books, I found two major differences; the glue and the grind-off on the binding edge. The glue seemed like the obvious culprit. So I contacted various glue manufacturers and ordered samples. The bindery manager agreed to run some tests with the new glue. It only slightly improved performance, pages still fell out.

I asked for training on the machine to learn where the grind-off takes place. The bindery manager reluctantly agreed. I located a quarter-sized sprocket that placed small slits on the binding edge of our pages. The books I ripped apart at the bookstore revealed an extremely roughed-up edge allowing the glue to adhere better. It felt like finding a treasure. I brought the sprocket to a high school friend who worked at a machine shop. I explained what I was doing, and he produced a new part that would fit the machine. It had some wicked edges! I think it cost me a case of beer.

We added the new sprocket and used the new glue. It was awesome. You could pick a 384-page book printed on 70# gloss text with a 12-point C1S cover by the middle page and shake it without the binding giving way. I shared the result with the publisher and we earned opportunities to produce more book titles. I also convinced the bindery manager to bring in a professional trainer to teach more people the intricacies of the machine.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

My setbacks in business are most closely connected to business transitions. The most noteworthy was in the first few years of taking the CEO job. We changed the business dramatically. There were many difficult decisions in the interest of our future; personnel decisions on hiring and layoffs, who should lead and who shouldn’t, funding an unproven growth area while navigating a downturn in the majority of revenue, optimizing brand position to attract the next generation of customers, communicating undesirable information, setting product direction, listening to critical feedback. etc. Not everyone was onboard with the direction. One comment in response to the announcement I was taking over as CEO best represented the doubt people had. A former employee said something like, “People think he got the job to take the fall for the failure of the company.” When people doubt what you’re capable of, you can find yourself in quite a whirlwind. It was a setback only insofar as I was going to let it be. Game on.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resilience? Can you share a story?

A printing company I worked for, Master Litho, was started by my grandfather then eventually purchased by my dad. He also ran the company and told me he would not hire me out of college. Basically, find your own job and if you’d like to apply later, you can do that. So I did. Later, I went to work for him in a sales capacity. The company went into receivership in 1999, a few years after I started. The resilience was not in my own experience, it was in what I witnessed. I saw my dad address a room full of employees to communicate the company was going out of business. I saw what resilience looked like on personal and professional fronts. An invaluable example, one that I carry with me.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Participate. Actively engage in your profession through curiosity. Work is rewarding.
  2. Challenge today. As you engage, you’ll find areas to challenge. Prepare to be challenged.
  3. Be the change. As you challenge, things change. Some change takes longer. Patience.
  4. Do what you say you will. As you change, accountability rises. Time to step-up and deliver.
  5. Flourish, together. As you deliver, you’ll come together in support of one another. Win-win.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Let’s call it the ‘Eudaimonia Movement.’ The ‘good spirit’ at work involves creating opportunities for all people to experience the dignity of work. Work is intrinsically good, we are made to create things, to be productive members of society, and find meaning in what we do. How can we allow more people to flourish together? How can we invite those who have been neglected from the workforce to experience the dignity of work? People with cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, and other intellectual or developmental abilities contribute in more meaningful ways that you might imagine and we need leaders to create opportunities for them. You can start by hiring a Popcorn Manager.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders 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, especially if we tag them 🙂

Although I see her everyday, we don’t often get the luxury of a “private breakfast or lunch.” That sounds nice. I choose my lovely wife, Sarah.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Best way is to follow the company, Widen. You can get all the social handles at On occasion, I’ll repost Widen content on my LinkedIn at, you can connect with me there.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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