From Pet Store to Global Pro

Nic Cary interviews Michael Scharff, the global head of Communications at PA Consulting. They discuss Michael's journey from working in a pet store to his current role in global communications. Michael shares his experiences and offers advice for young adults and entrepreneurs. He emphasizes the importance of taking risks, being open to new opportunities, and constantly learning and adapting. He also discusses the value of understanding customers and building relationships with them, as well as the importance of networking and building a support system. The episode concludes with a discussion on staying informed and recommended reading.

Untitled design (9)-1

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • The importance of taking risks and stepping out of your comfort zone in your career
  • How to practice talking about your interests and experiences to potential employers
  • The value of surrounding yourself with the right teammates and mentors
  • The importance of staying informed and continuously learning in a rapidly changing world
  • The significance of understanding and connecting with customers in order to succeed as an entrepreneur or founder.


In this episode…

Nic Cary welcomes Michael to discuss the lessons learned during his career journey including:

  • How taking risks and stepping out of your comfort zone can lead to valuable experiences and personal growth.
  • Why writing an aspirational cover letter or press release about your future self can help clarify your goals and focus your efforts.
  • How building relationships and networking with others in your industry can provide valuable insights and opportunities for collaboration.

Sponsor for this episode:

This episode is brought to you by Sky’s The Limit, one of the largest nonprofit programs for underrepresented young adult entrepreneurs in the US. Sky’s The Limit is a quick-growing digital platform that connects entrepreneurs with their peers, volunteer business mentors, training resources, and funding.

Our goal is to develop the social capital that founders need to chase their business dreams.

To learn more, please visit today.

Episode transcript

Intro  0:04  

Welcome to The First Buck Podcast, where we feature stories about entrepreneurs and the people who support them. Now, let's get started with the show.

Nic Cary  0:24

Welcome to the First Buck podcast. Brought to you by Skys the We feature stories about entrepreneurs and the people who support them. Today we're joined by Michael Scharf, global head of Communications at PA Consulting and Innovation and Transformation Consultancy. PAs more than 4,000 experts in design, digital science and engineering to name a few specialties, help organizations create opportunities from the biggest global shifts shaping our world. In his role, Michael oversees PA's global portfolio of internal and external communications and research programs and activities including content marketing, brand message development, and executive and investor communications. So we're super lucky to have Michael with us today. Michael, we have a little tradition around here. We always like to ask our guests, how did you earn your first buck, pound or euro?

Michael Scharff  1:12

Hey Nic, well first of all, it's great to be with you. Thanks so much for having me on the podcast. I've loved listening to the episodes thus far. You guys are doing some great work and it's an absolute pleasure to be here with you today. So how did I earn my first buck? Gosh, wow, it's a bit of a silly one. So I was working in a pet store. I was 16 years old in the town where I grew up in Baskin Ridge, New Jersey in the US had just received my working papers. I had a teacher in school who mentioned to me one day he saw that I was, I think quite business savvy as one could be at that young age. And mentioned to me that he and his wife were setting up a new business in town, started asking a little bit about it and turned out that it was a local tech store with the name of Paus Abilities.

I just jumped at the opportunity when he said, you want to come along and spend the summer? Basically helping us open it up. Great memories. I love the idea of working at the register. I remember really loving that notion of customers bringing products up and then being able to engage with them in conversation, really trying to understand why they'd come into the store and talking to them about some of our other products that might help to suit their needs. And gosh, that feeling when, I suppose it was sort of the earliest signs of cross-selling upselling to people and of course it was dog food and pet products, but when they would walk out of the store having purchased maybe two or three times what they expected to come in with, that was a great feeling and it was a really fun and I think formative early experience.

Nic Cary  3:02

I love that. And small businesses are such good training grounds for us to gain skills and learn about customer service. You talk about cross-selling. It's like come in to buy a tennis ball. You probably need to chuck it and you can scale up those small interactions and businesses that get bigger and bigger are really good at doing those things. So I'd love to hear a little bit about how you went from working in a small pet store to becoming head of global communications at a multinational consultancy. Talk to us a little bit about those formidable steps in your career and what were those moments where maybe something changed or opened up and it kind of led to the path you're on now?

Michael Scharff  3:39

Sure. It's a great question. I mean, I think if I go back to sort of the basics, when I was starting out, I knew there were a couple of things that I was really quite interested in. I think probably passionate would be a bit of an overstretch because how passionate can you be at 16, 18 years old? But growing up, I knew I loved storytelling, I knew I loved news, I knew I loved journalism, and I knew I loved politics. And I think the cross thread in all of that was this understanding of what makes people tick and what are those kind of decision points in one's life that causes them to take a step or not to take a step and what is their lived experience really like when I was thinking about going to university, I really had two paths. I mean, because of that kind of news and journalism side.

One was broadcast journalism and one was to go more towards the political world if you'll, and whilst I didn't choose to pursue a degree in broadcast journalism and I ended up having an opportunity to go to Princeton and study politics there, I don't think that journalism bug really ever quite left me. When I got to campus, one of the activities that I was really involved in as a student was writing for the student newspaper and got to interviewing so many interesting folks who were making the rounds and visiting campus. These are people like David Renick, long time editor of the New Yorker magazine, or the next day it was Jerry Adams. The next day it was sitting down and interviewing Prince Turkey, who at that point was the Saudi ambassador to the us. It was just fascinating and I started to think, gosh, again, this idea of having conversations with folks of really trying to build rapport and understand their perspectives and be able to share those perspectives with the world was absolutely fascinating.

Along the way in university secured a number of internships, again, kind of with his journalism bent in mind. One was out at Warner Brothers working with David Haman, who at the time was the executive producer of the Harry Potter series. Had a really fascinating eyeopening experience as an intern in the office at the White House, and this was during the Bush years, this was the summer of 2007 as we'll. All remember the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan were really at their height. It was also the summer just before things really started to fall off the cliff. And we went into the global financial crisis and being a part of some of those conversations where we're sitting with people like Hank Paul and the Treasury Secretary at the time, and we're working on those kind talking points about that. And I'll never forget it, but the fundamentals of the economy are strong, was the message that was coming out of the White House at, and then obviously see what happened, which was just absolutely saddening many times over.

So I go from having all of these really, really fascinating, quite one-off, but interesting conversations and experiences which were really formative to then thinking to myself, alright, well I really want to get out there. I really want to see a little bit more of, I grew up in New Jersey, brought of New Jersey, I went to school in New Jersey, there's more to it. And I think again, that kind of exposure to some of those folks who were coming through a campus to really wet my appetite to get out a little bit more. And so I'll just go through this quite quickly, but leaving campus went abroad, spent a year in Uganda working with a phenomenal organization called the International Rescue Committee and looking after the comms for their country program. I thought to myself at that point, all right, well I've done a year, but I feel like think I'm going to butcher the quote from Bono and you too.

But it's the more you see the less. And I recognize that that was absolutely true. Jumped over to Cambodia, spent another year out there traveling around the country, places like Bot Bank in the far north, talking with Buddhist monks about the social care that they were providing and all the various missionary groups that were coming through. It was a research program by the way, looking at how faith-based organizations are contributing to the country's development and recommending some policy changes to the government. But then came back actually to Princeton for a couple of years and worked as a researcher at a group called Innovations for Successful Societies, which is attached to their public affairs school. And that research that I was conducting was fundamentally asking the question of how do countries that have gone through periods of conflict and instability build strong institutions and more particularly how do heads of state build strong centers of government?

And so again, that was every other month, every two months, spending about a month at a time out on the road, places like Liberia, Sierra Philippines, Indonesia, going into these offices, having these conversations both with the heads of state, with their cabinet secretaries. And you have to put it from the perspective of somebody who at this time is probably what was 20, 28, 29 years old. I mean, gosh, what do I know? What do I know about this world? And I think we can come back to this, but I think one of the things you need to bear in mind as you go through all these journeys, it's just how humbling of an experience it really is. And maybe it's the entering these conversations from the standpoint of, I don't know, but I'm sure as heck want to learn is what I enjoy so most about chatter with people.

So I do that for a couple of years. I go off to the UK and I pursued a master's degree at Oxford in African studies, which was carrying that same thinking around this question of institution building in places. And then prior to the role that I have now at consulting, I was in New York City working with Mike Bloomberg at his family foundation, which is Bloomberg Philanthropies, and specifically looking at their government innovations work. So they fund dozens and dozens of city governments, primarily mayors and their immediate staff to help them to be more innovative in what they're doing day to day. And again, much of the work that I was doing was around helping to raise the profile of the work that Bloomberg Philanthropies was doing and the impact it was having to share those lessons with other city governments around the world. It's a bit of a whirl and tour, but not really quite

Nic Cary  10:36

Action packed, I would say,

From the possibilities to writing for a student newspaper to ending up the White House to Sub-Saharan Africa to academic work at Princeton and having a seat at Bloomberg Philanthropies on innovation in institution creation. I mean that is a heck of a journey. I'd love to get your perspective a little bit on earlier you told us how you sort of earned your first buck when that teacher sort of took a chance on you and let you run the register and learn a little bit about the foundations and fundamentals of business to all those things that you went through. Talk to us a little bit about maybe the time you felt like you took the biggest maybe, I dunno, risk is maybe the wrong word, but sort of really stepped out your comfort zone and what was the thing you sort of learned about that moment?

Michael Scharff  11:27

It's a great question. I think it was probably deciding to go abroad after graduation. I think a lot of students are faced with this existential question, what am I going to do? Whether you're 18 and graduating from high school, secondary school or whether you've, and this is a vast sort of simplification of it, but there are so many different career paths today and there are career paths that are still quite linear in terms of think of professions, think of law or medicine for instance, where there's a path, there's a ladder and there are certain expectations of what you're going to do and then there's a heck of a lot of careers and I'm sure you can appreciate this where it's kind of weird and winding and wonderful path and you set out on them potentially not really knowing where it's going to all end up. But just knowing there are a couple of things that come back to the point earlier that you're interested in and you want to explore them a little bit further.

I was choosing between when I graduated, I was choosing between going abroad, we actually going law and had that kind of paralegal. So in the US system, like a paralegal opportunity lined up in New York with one of the big white shoe law firms and there was a certain kind of degree of comfort in knowing that there is a path forward. But I think it's sort of choosing to almost allow yourself to be uncomfortable, to allow yourself to be a bit vulnerable. It's also, I think, important to acknowledge the very serious economic considerations that go into these kinds of choices as well. So people faced with all the time. For me, this was something that I was completely, I knew that by going abroad, this meant I was think I was being paid in cash in Uganda and Cambodia. I was

Nic Cary  13:54

Going to say the RRC probably paid very slim income.

Michael Scharff  13:59

Yeah, it was enough to cover the housing and basically to cover the grocery bill. There was stuff like savings or anything like that. So it was sort of this kind of leap of faith in knowing I'm going to basically scratch by and it's not going to be this kind of Manhattan dream that so many other classmates at the time were pursuing. But

Nic Cary  14:30

It's interesting you mentioned this because I wanted to say it's so important for young people out there to hear that, to have a little bit of confidence to go take that risk, to really invest basically in yourself and to open your aperture to know that it's a big world and some of the returns on gaining experiences may take a bit of time to come back around. But like you mentioned that bono quote, it's like the more you learn the less, but it's basically it is just a big wide world and the market of opportunities is expanding and quite huge. And so I just love the sort of attitude of basically having a learning appetite, which is going into the world and saying, Hey, I may not know everything out here, but I'm willing to give it a go and I'm going to put myself in maybe an economically vulnerable position knowing I'm passing up an opportunity to go to law school through this rigid program.

And I can say that it does wire your brain a little bit differently if you practice being in a multicultural environment and making yourself uncomfortable physically and through demanding circumstances. These are things that pay dividends in the long run in terms of how resilient you are, how you can communicate with others, how you can build rapport with people with different backgrounds than yours. And it's one of the things we see in a lot of our podcast guests are this appetite for just growth and for learning and for putting oneself in a position to be maybe doing things that are a little bit different than your colleagues or contemporaries.

Michael Scharff  16:02

And I think when I said before, there's this linear linear career path, my sense is it'd be great to get your view on what others are saying too, what you hear. But my sense is that there's such a sort of a decentralized nature of the job market today that you can afford to be, and you can afford to be a bit more out there with some of the choices that you make particularly early on in your career. I think it absolutely gets harder the further you get into your career, but I think you can afford to take a few risks earlier on knowing that those more traditional roles, for instance, are increasingly pleaing the qualities that you just mentioned in people who are experimenting a little bit and that those roles too are increasingly open to people who are not just 21 years old and 22 and coming out of you or even coming out of high school, secondary school, but people are kind of coming in and finding some of these roles later in life. The idea of career reinvention I think was really going to go back to the financial risk in thousand 8,009. I think there was a lot of talk for the very first time about the importance of reinvention for the older generation, people who found themselves suddenly out of work. But I think that that idea has certainly trickled down even into the younger workforce today where it is, whether you realize it or not, you're constantly reinventing yourself and therefore those more traditional employers I think are looking to those skills of agility. Yeah,

Nic Cary 17:46

This is good. Let's dig in here a little bit more because one of the things I think our audience could benefit a lot from is you have this expertise in communication and storytelling and narrative arcs. What advice would you have for young adults to practice talking about their interests and their stories and defining a bit of their identity as they go out and seek mentors and advisors or maybe begin their job search? Because I think it's hard for young people to maybe talk about themselves when they're applying for a job that has minimum three years experience, even though it's an entry level role. And so frustrating to see those types of job applications like, well, how can it be entry level if there's three, five years experience required? So what are ways that young adults or just anyone that you maybe have spoken to think about how to talk about themselves or story get a little confidence in doing that? I think it can be awkward for young people.

Michael Scharff  18:37

Yeah, great. The first thing I'd say on that is the idea of the number of years of required experience in a job description. If you're listening to this, if it says three years and you've got zero years, don't worry about it. Just apply anyway. We always, as hiring managers, Nic, you probably might be able to appreciate this. We always inflate that number. It's just this game that employers kind of play, so don't, don't ever be scared to just go for it. Very kind of tactically, I suppose one of this is going to sound really quite cheesy I suppose, but one of the tactics that I logged is, so in my world of comms, we often write the press release before we have the product ready. We write that pressure release because we want to understand in theory, what are the headlines that we'd like to be able to come up with? What's our dream headline in the top of the financial times to our board? And in some ways, there's a similar exercise for writing the car letter to your future employer that I love to encourage people to do.

Now you don't necessarily know who that future employer is, and that's sort of the point of it. But what you can do is you can think about first and foremost the kinds of things you're interested in and you can spend some time just doing your desk research, literally just Googling around and reading up and reading LinkedIn job posts, for example, and getting an idea for the kinds of skills and traits that would be required of somebody coming in at the three to five year level experience, for example. And then you can write that cover letter hypothetically as to why you would be an amazing fit for that role. And again, 50, 75, maybe a hundred percent of what we say in that cover letter is completely made up at this point in time. But what I think it does is it focuses the mind on exactly the sorts of things that are going to be required in you as an individual in order to secure that position.

It sounds like a relatively simple exercise, but I've done it for myself in transitioning through jobs, and I've actually found it so helpful because it brings to the fore the white space and therefore forces you again as the individual to find ways to seek out those opportunities. Again, whether that's in your current role that you have these skills you want to be building, whether that's externally by joining networks and getting involved or whether it's literally as simple as finding interesting people and having conversations with them. One of the things that I, even at this stage of my career, I set a personal goal every month at a bare minimum, I'm going to have a coffee with someone interesting who is tangentially related to the industry that I work in, not directly related, but tangentially related, because I think that that's built tangentially. They sort of somewhat get what you do and hopefully you get what they do, but there's just a huge amount that you can learn from one another, right, and bring in those. And this comes back to this kind of idea that every career is interdisciplinary. Today, every career is liberal arts education.

So I think just being able to put yourself out there, that job after you've written that cover, that is really, I

Nic Cary  22:18

Think that's such a good exercise. And so if I could summarize it, it's basically write the press release that's aspirational about your future self succeeding in a given function or role. And I think mapping out your sort of inventory of interests and passions and things you might want to learn about and then describing yourself being successful at doing those things in a given job or function would really make candidates stand out. And I think it's just a good thing to potentially practice doing, even maybe on an annual basis or just having a rhythm to it. Because as your career changes, as you start to stack up some experience and wins, like you mentioned, those will be things that draw you in particular careers or paths. But I think starting off with that aspirational cover letter, press release is a great way to think about how to introduce yourself to a potential future employer. So I know you've probably hired a bunch of people in your career, and one of the things I think is always interesting to ask is sort of how do you go about surrounding yourself with the best teammates and maybe what is your maybe favorite interview question to understand a little bit more about a candidate that you're speaking with?

Michael Scharff  23:38

I love to ask a candidate the question of, tell me what you would look for in a EO you'd want to work for.

Nic Cary  23:47

Oh, cool.

Michael Scharff   23:50

Now you don't necessarily need to be the CEO to ask that question. You hear such a diverse range of responses to a question like that responses that really tell you how the candidate views life and how the candidate professional work and what they value, again, both professionally and personally. I think it's a really probing question in part because we know that the CEO sets the agenda and therefore they set the tone for the organization and finding that alignment is so important.

Nic Cary  24:29

Yeah, I love that question too. I ask it in a slightly different way, but it's basically describe the person that has gotten the most out of you in terms of you being motivated to show up for work and sort of like that player coach who's that sort of ideal coach for you to work with? And it gets at the same thing, which is do you want to have someone that is really driving ambitious expectations or do you need a little bit more mentorship or do you need a hands-off situation? And all those answers are okay, but organizations have different cultures. Exactly, exactly. It's important to get into a culture where you have a lot of alignment with the performance in that organization and how they measure it and how you react to the personality of that organization. And there's not one way that's right, it's just that it's important to get into it in a way that's consensual. And the relationship is one, you can anticipate how to navigate in an effective way. So

Michael Scharff  25:28

I couldn't agree more. I think it's how really trying to understand how the other person sees the world, right? Yeah.

Nic Cary  25:32


Michael Scharff  25:32

Percent they value. Yeah.

Nic Cary  25:34

Okay, so let's ask a couple of questions here. As someone that's had a lot of fascination with geopolitics and the world, how are you keeping informed these days? And maybe what a book you've read in the last year that sort of triggered, I guess some interesting thinking for you or you would recommend to someone?

Michael Scharff  25:53

Wow. I mean, we certainly live in interesting, interesting times, right? Interesting times. I have a colleague the other day who just pulled me aside and said, Michael, for once in my life, I just want to live in unprecedented times. I thought that was a pretty just normal,

Nic Cary  26:09


Michael Scharff  26:09

That possible? Just normal? Can we just have a normal day? Yeah. Gosh. So look, I read a ton of new sites, right? I sort of a mix of the mainstream, but I also enjoy newsletters. I have to say it's a way that I can consume information relatively quickly. I really like, for instance, you may be familiar with Axios, the media group. They have some great, great newsletters out there. I think they've really nailed this, what they refer to as their smart brevity format you need right away without the sugarcoating. I love that In terms of a book, oh, Nic, you'll appreciate this. I just finished reading Michael Lewis's going into it

Nic Cary  26:58

Going, isn't it? Yep.

Michael Scharff  26:59

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Wow. What a tell.

Nic Cary  27:05

Yeah, they're working on the movie script now. So are they really? Those that dunno. Michael Lewis obviously has written a bunch of great books including Flash Boys, Moneyball, and then famously sort of the Storytelling behind the Big Short and is writing a new one about the SBF and FTX basically rise in fall of the Empire. And so the book came out just a few weeks ago and is basically a co-pilot interview with the founder of that organization. So interested to hear, maybe we'll have to get a cup of coffee and talk about what you learned about that. Alright, we're going to ask one last question here, Michael. What advice would you give to early stage entrepreneurs or founders out there that are struggling to find maybe that balance with their work and forging product market fit? What are some tips you might have for someone that's sort of struggling with that?

Michael Scharff  28:13

It's cliche, but really trying to understand the customer in a way that is exceedingly difficult today because customers are just so fickle. There's absolutely no way that unless you as an individual have daily interaction with your customer that you know what they're thinking, feeling, doing, right? I mean, it used to be that we could commission a market research agency to go out there and collect a whole bunch of data and we'd spend a few months pouring over it and then a few more months prototyping something and a few more months getting it out to market. And a year's gone by and I mean, that was gone, right? A month can't even go by. I genuinely believe a day can't even go by that you're not out there on the front lines having those conversations. And you asked the question specifically about founders and entrepreneurs, but this really, I think applies to anybody in the organization. It's incumbent on organizations, no matter how big or small you're to create a culture whereby every single employee has the opportunity to interact with customer. And if you don't, you're dead in the water full stop. And again, it's so hard to do that and it's so easy to just get mired in the day-to-day of what you're trying to do, but stopping and asking questions and listening hugely valuable.

Nic Cary  29:51

Well, I think we can see your interest in journalism coming through in these pearls of wisdom. And so if I could summarize them, I think one of the things that I've had the privilege of interviewing some amazing business leaders, and almost all of them have this lifelong learning sort of in their DNA, and it's to constantly seek out more knowledge and perspective and try and understand others. And I think you bring up some really, really valuable perspectives around just how important it's to get back to the fundamentals, interview your customers, ask them what their problems are, how are they feeling about their challenges? Have them describe those challenges. How expensive are those challenges to them? Is there anything else you can do a better job with and integrate that feedback into your product or services? It's just hugely important. Don't rely on third parties, go do the primary research.

It's so critical. And then I think the other thing you mentioned about personal development that I thought was just an excellent tactic is reach out to someone once in a while and invite them to a cup of coffee to have a conversation or on a walk or find a networking event. But find those people to build a constellation of supporters and people that you know that can teach you a little bit more about what they're working on. And find ways to be helpful when you can and ask them how you can be helpful, I think is very important. Know one accomplishes things independently. It takes a team, it takes a whole organization of support at the end of the day. And so I think having a lifelong learning, getting out there and talking to potential clients, customers, existing ones, and constantly refining your offering and then building your network is just so important.

And honestly, it's an in-person thing too. We're blessed with technologies that enable virtual correspondence, and it's great that we can do even recordings like this podcast virtually. But at the end of the day, coordination, trust, building collaboration still requires a good deal of in-person relationships. And it's why we still send our kids to in-person school to socialize and build trust with each other. We might practice online dating at first, but we still have to meet in person to find out whether or not we have that in-person chemistry. And I think getting back out in the world exploring it, forging real life connections, authentic ones is just so important today. So Michael, we are so grateful for all your perspectives and your extraordinary journey across your career. I'm looking forward to catching up with you and having a cup of coffee at some point because I think there are probably some extra stories we didn't get a chance to get into today. But I'll summarize again. So for everyone listening, thank you at We connect underrepresented entrepreneurs with volunteer business professionals for free. one-on-one mentoring. We also provide business guides to all of our members, plus monthly funding opportunities, so can sign up for free. And if you like what you heard today, please subscribe and share this podcast. Thanks again to Michael. We really appreciate your time today. Thanks, Nic, and thanks to you.

Outro  32:54  

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