CFO Studio

Following is the transcript of a CFO Studio Reception speech delivered by Barry Rowan, CFO of Vonage, on October 4, 2012.

I want to share one idea that for me has transformed my perspective of work. Without it I would not be in Corporate America. I would have quit a long time ago. And that is that what we do every Monday morning at 10 o’clock has the ability to make a dramatic contribution to the society that we live in. In fact, the second part of that is that we not only have the opportunity to contribute to a better society, but I would tell you that I have grown in my character more through the crucible of my career than any other aspect of my life. And why is that? You all know the answer to that. Right? It’s because it’s so hard. This is a crucible that we work in.

Let me tell you a little bit of what led me to this transformed perspective. When I started in my career after business school, I joined a start-up company. I was working the usual 60 to 80 hours a week. My wife was doing the same thing. She was a financial manager at Hewlett-Packard. By the way, always made more money than I did for the first eight years, which I thought was awesome.

We were both working really hard and I got into one of those situations where I said, “Why? Why am I working so hard?” And I could not make a connection between why I was working so hard and what I was doing in this moment and my purpose in life.

It led to this deep, deep angst over that question: By what measure will I judge the success of my life? Does it really matter? and that led to a conversation, mostly with myself, out of this question: How do I connect what I’m doing in this moment to my purpose in life in a way that matters?

And being the anal, retiring type that I am, I wrote about 350 pages to myself, mostly in the middle of the night. I could not make that connection.

We all struggle with balance, the question of how much time we’re going to stay at home? How do we balance our lives, between being with our spouses, with our families and at work? For me, I struggled with that question, also but for me, the harder question to answer was kind of the vertical question: [he holds his arms out straight to the sides] This is balance, [he gestures a vertical line, straight up and down in front of him] This is congruence.

How does what I’m doing in this moment align? And make sure that what I’m doing in this moment is aligned in such a way that I can live my entire life on purpose?

And I could not answer the question. I remember I was taking one of my inevitable trips. I’m one of those cheapskates so I park at one of those outlying parking areas.

I was on one of those buses with my fellow cheapskates, undoubtedly most of them CFOs, and there was an African American woman driving the bus, and she was chatting it up with the people on the bus and clearly seemed to be enjoying her job.

All my fellow cheapskates got off and I was the last one on the bus, and I said, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

She said, “No, of course.”

“Do you like your job?”

She said, “I love my job.”

I said, “Why do you like your job?”

She said, “Because I meet interesting people going interesting places.”

I thought, you know, she’s driving the same bus that every other person drove. It had a lot more to do with how she was thinking about her job than the actual job.

As I was on an airplane to Singapore trying to think about that for my own life, I got tears in my eyes as I was thinking about this. I drew a picture of different jobs. And I realized you could have either a life-giving or a life-draining perspective of any job.

Let’s take a few examples.

High-school English teacher. Life-draining: I’m teaching a boring subject to kids who don’t want to learn it anyway. … But what about the other side of it which is: I’m giving these kids at a very important time of their lives the ability to express themselves and understand and appreciate literature, and it could change the way they go about their whole lives.

What about a hospice worker. What’s a life-draining perspective? I change bedpans for people who are going to die anyway. How about a life-giving perspective: I’m creating an environment of unconditional love in the last few precious months of these people’s lives. And I can tell you a few years later my mother-in-law died of cancer, and she was under the care of hospice and I didn’t even have to ask. I could tell that the people who were taking care of my mother-in-law had that life-giving perspective of their job. It just showed up in everything that they did.

So I make this list of these kinds of jobs and the life-draining/life-giving perspective.

I started to do it for a CFO of a public company. I was a CFO of a public company at the time. I was 35 years old, we had about 2,500 employees, [it was] on the New York Stock Exchange. CFO: Life-draining perspective.

Let’s hear some of those for a CFO: firing people, monthly closes, cutting costs, cash flow… We could probably go on until breakfast. Lots of things to not like about that job. But what about a life-giving perspective? I, with tears in my eyes on the airplane to Singapore, just had to write a big question mark because I could not articulate it.

So some 349 pages later, I went through what I would describe as a succession of paradigm shifts. I realized that I was looking at work completely wrong. And I had it wrong in a couple of fundamental ways. The first one was: I was looking at life from the outside in instead of the inside out. I thought if I could just get the right job somehow I will be fulfilled. I was working for a company that the chairman of the board… he was on 27 boards. Now why do you think someone might be on 27 boards? Do you think that there might be something inside of them that they were trying to get filled up?

And the same was true of me when I was honest about that. Why was I discontented in my own job? It’s because I was looking to be filled up from the outside in, instead of realizing that everything we do is an expression of who we are from the inside out. And that led to a really fundamental paradigm shift for me. Which was:

I was trying to derive meaning from my work and the deeper truth is that we bring meaning to our work. It’s the perspective we have of our work that brings meaning to it. “I meet interesting people going interesting places.”

“I am bringing an environment of unconditional love in those last few months of someone’s life.”

It’s easier to do in an organization like Easter Seals, but what about the knockdown, drag-out business life? And I’ve been CEO, CFO of a number of companies, many of them public. And we could have talked about 13-week cycles in a public company and the pressure on stock price as one of the life-draining dimensions of this work.

So how do you do that? Is it just about making money?

So what happened for me is, as the culmination of these 350 pages, I developed a completely different view of work. And one of the ways I describe it is that I changed jobs without changing business cards. I still went to the same office everyday. But here and I’m going to end on this:

I began to realize that the purpose of business is to serve. Do you know that business serves society in some very fundamental ways that are unique to business? You can make a long list of those. Let me give you four.

First is:

It serves society by responsible value creation. With all the talk about profit being a dirty word, without profit, we wouldn’t survive.

I knew a woman, a nun, who ran a hospital. She said, “No profit, no mission.” She got it. She got it a lot better than many CFOs I know. Responsible value creation. We’re very involved with helping the poor in Central America. In fact, we’ll be taking our fifth trip with Harvard graduate students this January to show them our work with the poor. It’s a way of just exposing them to that and saying we can walk together. It raises questions about who is rich and who is poor, what are really our priorities. It does bring up a whole number of those questions.

When you get off the airplane in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, you go, There’s something different about this place. There’s lots of things that are different but surely one of the differences is GDP per capita. Have you ever thought about the notion that business is the only institution that creates economic value? Every other institution distributes it. I’m not saying that money is the solution to the world’s problems. What I am saying is that economic value is a hallmark of a well-functioning society and that is our role in business. I would say specifically to the CFOs in the room, we have a particular responsibility to drive value creation.

Vonage, which I had the privilege of joining three years ago, was a turnaround. We had $230 million of debt at interest rates as high as 20 percent with the most egregious covenants you can imagine. We spent $49 million a year in interest expense. Through two refinancings we’ve been able to cut that: Now we have $50 million worth of debt, the interest rate is less than 4 percent and we’ll spend $2 million a year in interest instead of $49 million. That makes a big difference. Vonage is stable now. We still have to grow, but it’s stable and the people’s jobs are much safer now—all of our jobs—because of that.

There’s something visceral, something almost I would use the word sacred about responsible value creation, not in a way that’s inappropriate. But business is the only institution that does that.

So that’s one way. The second way:

Just delivering on the promises we make to our customers every day. We sell phone service to Vonage customers. There’s something really important about that: We have a contract with our customers, to do what we say we will do with them. That’s a precious relationship.

[Third way:]

How about creating an environment for employees that enables them to grow into the fullest expression of themselves? … Has anybody ever done the math on how many hours we’ll work in our lifetime? Do the math [the length of time we work at our career]: about 100,000 hours. You know, that’s a lot of hours to go home and kick your dog at night. And we have a lot to do with creating an environment for employees that either enables us all to contribute up to our abilities and again, living life from the inside out [so] that our work’s an expression of who we are.

That is the opposite of what the world says. At a cocktail party, “Hi, my name is Barry Rowan, I’m the CFO of Vonage.” The deeper truth is not that we are what we do. What we do is an expression of who we are: It’s just the opposite. It’s an expression of our talents, our gifts, our passions.

Finally, being a good corporate citizen.

And every one of our companies has the opportunity to do that in different ways. When the earthquake hit Haiti, Vonage offered free calling to Haiti. When the tsunami hit Japan, we offered free calling to Japan for a month or so. It’s what we do and it’s what we could do. A small thing, but it’s part of being a good corporate citizen.

So for me, this perspective of work and really seeing business as an opportunity to serve in this way now enables me to make the connection between what I’m doing in this moment and my purpose in life. So if we have somebody working on an Excel spreadsheet thinking, “I’m going to die if I have to do formulas in Excel files all day long.”

If you think about: Why am I doing that? I’m doing that so we can develop a business plan that demonstrates whether this new opportunity to do a deal in the Philippines is going to work or not. By doing that, we’re going to advance the cause of Vonage. By advancing the cause of Vonage, we’re going to create more economic value, and by doing that, we’re going to create jobs and all the rest.

There’s a connection, then, between what I’m doing in the moment and our purpose in life that for me completely changes everything.

And the second part about that is:

It’s this wonderful journey where every moment in my better moments contains everything we need to fulfill our deepest purpose in life. It changes the way we approach things. None of us like to do performance reviews. But what I really do like

is the opportunity to sit down with somebody and say, Here’s your giftedness, here are your growth edges and you know that what is holding us back at work is holding us back in other parts of our lives.

It changes, as Nietzsche said, when we have a “why,” we can put up with almost any “how.”

So for me, that has been the power of it, and it continues to grow me through the challenge of thinking about it in these ways.

So that’s the one idea I wanted to leave you with: Instead of trying to derive meaning from my work, how do I bring meaning to my work. And what might a life-giving perspective of each of your jobs be?

Speaking personally, it’s through my own personal, deep transformation that it’s then that I’m able to go out and try to hopefully nudge the world forward in some small way that might begin to transform that.

It has radically reshaped why I do what I do, and like I said, I would have quit if I hadn’t come to some deeper understanding of that in ways that matter.


[ROWAN repeats the question] The question is: It took me a long time to come to that conclusion. What can we do to help people in larger corporations come to an understanding of that, perhaps more quickly, in ways that will help them and benefit the organization?

It’s a great question. First, one of my principles is management by looking in the mirror. It really has to start with us. I had a friend who said if it doesn’t work for you, don’t export it. If we are not transformed by this, we will not begin to have an impact on other people. So this is not something, at least for me, that is an intellectual understanding. Yes, I can draw you—and have drawn as I do presentations on this—some conceptual formulas about how all this fits together.

But ultimately, this is not an exercise of the mind. This is a transformation of an experience. It’s experiential. We live it. It feels different. I go to work differently than I did otherwise.

So for me, I would start close to home and say, How can I do that? As my perspective is transformed. People can tell whether you’re alive or dead at work. You can tell. You can tell if someone’s energized by what they do, even if you don’t have the opportunity to have a conversation at this level.

So I would say, if you can literally write down something like this for yourself/yourselves that brings energy to the work, that inspires you.

I think it was Coach Valvano who said, How do you inspire people? He said, I don’t inspire anybody, I only try to inspire myself. And if I’m inspired, others will be inspired.

For me, that’s really where it has to start.

Secondly, people watch our feet much more than our lips. You know, you get into these jobs, everybody is articulate. Hardly anybody drools anymore. So words are important. Believe me, I don’t mean to misstate that: Words are very important, but what really matters is what we’re like. If you want to know what I’m really like, ask the folks that I work with, ask my wife, ask our two sons. So it’s getting clear ourselves. It’s leading by example.

Thirdly, it’s finding opportunities to reinforce this point of view. Why are we doing what we’re doing, for example, and it’s speaking in a language that people can understand. If each person can hear it in their own language, that’s when it begins to take effect.

We talk, for example, at Vonage about when we do SEC filings, every number there should have your signature by it. Imagine that your signature is on that number. Because people are making multimillion-dollar decisions based on the accuracy of those numbers.

Vonage unfortunately had had a restatement before I got there. And the last two years, not only has there not been a restatement, there has not been a single audit adjustment.

As we begin to set the bar high for ourselves and think about it in those ways, people rise to the occasion and I think us ordinary people can begin to perform in extraordinary ways.

Question: [An audience member suggests that corporations can do volunteerism as a way to help employees find meaning in their jobs]

[ROWAN] That’s a great point. I’d add a piece to that too: We talk about being corporate citizens. And at Nextel Partners we got 60 people and we went and worked for Habitat for Humanity and built a home for a day, and it was a wonderful, bonding experience. Our son ended up moving to El Salvador and working for Habitat for Humanity. Sold his car and did that after college, and it really begins to get in your blood. You see just the joy of giving.

The part I was going to add to that is, this is another part for me that has been a radical difference: People talk about why do I work. I work so that I can retire one day and really do what I want to do. I work so that I can make a pile of money and give some of it away. You know what has happened to me? There is now no so that to what I do.

I don’t work so that.  Yes, I do and we do try to give a lot of money away. I don’t ever expect to retire, by the way. I might do something different, but for me it’s about making a contribution. I think that’s what we’re wired for.

Now that I have this perspective of work, there does not have to be a so that because there’s an intrinsic value in what I’m doing, again, in my better moments, every moment of every day, because now I can make the connection between this piece of work that I’m doing and my purpose.

For me it’s been enlivening, because, gosh, to think about that 100,000 hours, I do it so that I can go do something else. Wow, that’s a waste of a lifetime. So for me now, realizing that every one of those hours, in fact every one of those moments, matters is just deeply freeing for me.


[ROWAN] question was: Have I thought about taking this philosophy and moving from business to other political environments?

Not explicitly. It may just be that I’m not that involved in the political world.

But here’s what I would build on what you’re saying. This doesn’t apply to just business. And one of the charts that I draw because we’re CFO types is a graph of, you can think about there being intrinsic value in the work as one dimension of value and the other is what we bring to the work.

If you’re a doctor, society says there’s a lot of intrinsic value to that work. I’m healing people, I’m helping people.

I’m a social worker. The same kind of thing.

I work in refugee camps.

Business is w-a-y out at the far end of the spectrum where the onus is on us to bring the meaning to the work, because at least from a societal standpoint there’s very little intrinsic meaning. I think it can be just as meaningful but it has to be that we bring the meaning to the work. If you can have this perspective that it’s life-giving and do it in the context of business, I think you can do it anywhere.

I have encouraged people from all walks of life to take this challenge: Write a life-giving perspective of your job and how does that fit in on a daily basis and for a lifetime as a career.

At some point, I think in another life, I will do something along these lines.

You know there is only about 5 percent of Russia that is Communist? It doesn’t take a majority to move the needle. In fact, I spoke at the Harvard Business School a couple of weeks ago and I said that very thing.

All it takes, in the words of Margaret Mead, “Don’t underestimate that a few committed people can change the world. In fact, indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

So back to the original question: If we are transformed deeply, we will begin to transform the world, but it’s not platitudes and it’s not fancy words. It’s living lives that are evident of that life being in us that we can then bring to other people.

So I think it’s highly transportable and it needs to start with it kind of growing deep into each of us as we go through our lives.


Copyright Real Estate Strategies Corporation 2012.  All Rights Reserved.




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