Matthew Gardiner was raised in Essex, England, the oldest of three boys. As a young child, he was fortunate to travel the world with his family. He had no way of knowing then that travel would become his career. In fact, he had planned to become a famous pianist.

Matthew Gardiner

“Having fallen in love with the film Sparky's Magic Piano, the only thing I ever really wanted as a child was piano lessons,” Gardiner says.

At the age of seven, his dream came true. Yet, his musical progress was initially bumpy. He failed his grade one lessons twice but was determined not to give up.

“My piano teacher told my mum that I should maybe try another instrument,” Gardiner says, “but I had a better idea. I thought the problem wasn't me, that it was grade one, and that I should just skip it and move on to grade two.”

His persistence paid off. Gardiner went on to pass his grade eight with honors, and was later awarded a performance diploma by the prestigious London College of Music. Although a strong student, he had already lost hope in a music career and realized he needed to find a better way to make money.

“I realized early on I was never going to become a concert pianist,” Gardiner says. “So, in parallel, I studied management and tourism at the University of Surrey. I knew I could apply the other interests my parents gave me: writing, entrepreneurship, and a love for travel. I still carry those piano lessons, though. Learning the piano teaches you how to perform under pressure and improvise in difficult situations.”

Transitioning from Music to Travel and Business

The University of Surrey offered a study abroad program at Nanyang Technology University in Singapore, where Gardiner studied for seven months and traveled extensively, reinforcing his interest in a travel career. In 2006, he earned his bachelor’s degree in management and tourism.

After earning his degree, he combined his newfound business skills with his wanderlust and was hired as a marketing executive at a luxury tour operator. After 11 years, and many advancements in marketing within the travel and leisure sector, he was offered a position at IAG Cargo, a division of International Airlines Group—the parent company of British Airways and Iberia. There, he quickly found himself fascinated by the world of logistics and cargo operations.

“From life-saving drugs to priceless works of art, one of the things I found fascinating was the breadth of what IAG Cargo handles,” Gardiner says. “We recently transported over 450 tons of roses for Valentine’s Day.”

In his current role as head of marketing and external communications, Gardiner is responsible for leading IAG Cargo’s global marketing, communications, and public relations activities, in addition to overseeing the company’s loyalty programs and partnerships.

Deciding to Pursue Disruptive Strategy

When asked what inspired him to take HBS Online’s Disruptive Strategy course, Gardiner notes his desire to develop new skills.

“I wanted to build on my commercial acumen, so I deliberately chose to study outside of the marketing realm,” Gardiner says. “Innovation, disruption, and value creation all appealed to me, so the program felt like an obvious choice.”

He notes that the course “beat all [his] expectations.” It also came at a critical time in the world and his career.

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In March 2020, COVID-19 surfaced and began running rampant around the globe. The whole world, and every industry, including travel and tourism, was faced with a stark reality that many couldn’t survive an extended period of dramatically reduced consumer spending. Travel and tourism businesses, in particular, came to a screeching halt, and revenues plunged. Airlines scrambled to develop a survival plan.

Just after completing Disruptive Strategy—and only a couple of days after his first child was born—IAG Cargo offered Gardiner the job of head of marketing and external communications. He says it was a big promotion and a leadership role he was excited to tackle. But, when COVID-19 hit, the roller coaster ride began.

Gardiner, like many professionals around the world, was asked to work from home. Though challenging to adjust to being away from the office and his colleagues, he felt grateful to have more time with his wife and baby daughter.

“In terms of managing the disruption that COVID has brought, I'm proud of how our people have stepped up to the challenge,” Gardiner says. “I've found the lessons I learned from Disruptive Strategy have equipped me with the skills and understanding to develop strategy, organize for innovation, and lead in an uncertain world.”

IAG Cargo reacted quickly and reinvented its way of operating. It began to utilize passenger aircrafts to transport over 20,000 tons of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, shields, and gowns, to health care and other front-line workers throughout Europe and beyond. Today, IAG Cargo is one of the leading transporters of vaccines worldwide.

“I’m proud to be part of an organization that pivoted so quickly and part of a team that adapted and found creative solutions for customers,” Gardiner says.

IAG Cargo operated more than 1,000 charters in 2020 and created more capacity for essential supplies. They also removed the seats from five aircrafts so that they could efficiently transport additional goods.

Gardiner believes that what he learned from Clayton Christensen and his peers in Disruptive Strategy helped him navigate and lead his team to rapidly shift their focus.

Looking Forward to the Future

When asked what the future holds, Gardiner says he aspires to establish IAG Cargo as a globally recognized brand in the logistics community. For now, though, his focus is on ensuring that IAG Cargo continues to keep vital supplies moving and supporting the world in distributing COVID-19 vaccines.

“We've delivered millions of doses so far, and there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Gardiner says. “But with world-class facilities and the most dedicated team, we're well prepared for the challenge ahead.”

He’s looking forward to attending HBS Online’s annual gathering of past participants, Connext, which will be held virtually on May 7, 2021.

When reflecting on the past year, Gardiner feels that, despite the pain, suffering, and loss that COVID-19 has brought, there have been some positives, both personally and professionally. He emphasizes that he’s proud of the resilience of his team, who’s performed exceptionally and somehow maintained a positive attitude throughout the pandemic.

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He adds, “Working from home has also given me a level of flexibility, so I’ve been a more present father, and that has been amazing. I now get my daughter up each morning and I pause work most evenings so that I can do her bath time before returning to my desk. I will miss that when I go back to commuting to the office, but I’ll always consider myself fortunate that I was at home during her first year in this world.”

Gardiner is now aiding IAG’s return to more normal, hybrid operations but thinks his organization, like so many, is forever changed. IAG Cargo will continue to transport life-saving equipment, vaccines, and essential supplies. He firmly believes that whatever future challenges come their way, the business will once again meet them head-on.

If you’re interested in pivoting your career—and maybe even your business—explore how HBS Online’s Disruptive Strategy course, or other strategy courses, could directly impact your career.

Michele Reynolds

About the Author

Michele Reynolds handles brand marketing and PR for Harvard Business School Online. Prior to HBS Online, she led communications for TripAdvisor and Gazelle and has been widely quoted in national media outlets, including CBS News, Reuters, and The New York Times. Michele earned her bachelor’s degree from St. Bonaventure University. Outside work, she spends time with her teenage daughter, plays tennis, and visits her enormous extended family.