Barry Rowan has over 25 years of financial and operational experience building technology and communications companies. Mr. Rowan has been the executive vice president, chief financial officer and chief administrative officer of Vonage Holdings Corp. since March 2010. From August 2005 until June 2006, he was executive vice president, chief financial officer of Nextel Partners and its subsidiaries. Rowan joined Nextel Partners in August 2003 as vice president and chief financial officer, and from August 2003 to August 2004 he also served as the company’s treasurer.
From January 2002 to August 2003, he was a principal at Rowan & Company, LLC, a consulting and private investment firm, and from 1999 to 2001, Mr. Rowan was the chief financial officer at VeloCo, Inc., an international communications company. During that time he served as chief executive officer of Vesper, the company’s Brazilian subsidiary for six months. From 1992 until 1999, Rowan held a number of executive management positions at Fluke Corporation, including chief financial officer, and senior vice president and division general manager.
Rowan earned his M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School, and his B.S., summa cum laude, in business administration and chemical biology from The College of Idaho.
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Ethix: Barry, you have been in and out of the telecom business for many years now. What was your path to get to Vonage?
Barry Rowan: I have spent nearly 30 years now helping to build companies in the technology and communications space. Though I also earned an MBA, I have an undergraduate degree in chemistry and biology, which means I have enough “nerd” in me to be drawn to technology.
I accepted the lowest paying job of the five offers I’d received …I had a short stint at Hewlett-Packard after college, but my first job after business school was with a start-up company. I was very drawn to the entrepreneurial side of things. I accepted the lowest paying job of the five offers I’d received, and I found myself working in a tin shed in the middle of an alfalfa field in Colorado with seven other employees. I wanted to be what I described at the time as being “professionally naked.” I wanted a position where I could see if I was really making a contribution rather than hiding in an organization of thousands of employees. My first job at the company was as the chief financial officer at a time I couldn’t even spell CFO. It was an HP spin-out, and we grew rapidly, getting up to a couple of hundred employees over the next few years.
That company was ultimately sold. From there I took a position as CFO of Fluke Corporation, a 2,500-person manufacturer of electronic test tools, and I later ran a division there until that company was sold. After that, was my first foray into the telecom business. In 1999, I joined a large-scale startup in Denver with most of its operations based in Brazil.
I am now working for my fifth company over the span of nearly 30 years. I would describe my record in baseball terms as a single, a triple, a long fly-out, and a home run. The Brazil experience was the long fly-out. I am now working on my fifth “at bat” with Vonage, another telecom company. So far there has been solid contact and the ball appears to be headed deep into the outfield, but it’s too early to tell where it will land.
I learned a lot with the “long fly-out” in Brazil. Remember the timing, 1999, just before the dot-com bubble burst. The combination of the crash of the capital markets combined with some strategic issues related to the business and its investors led to the ultimate failure of the company. That was a tough experience — the most difficult of my career and among the hardest times of my life. From there I went to Nextel Partners, where I was again the CFO. Nextel Partners had gone public at $20 per share a few years before and traded briefly up to $40. The stock had slid to below $3, and was at $7-8 per share when I arrived. During the three years I was there we were able to grow the value of the company from $2 billion to over $9 billion, selling it for $28.50 per share. That was the home run.
After that experience my wife, Linda, and I took what we called a “purposeful pause.” It ended up lasting three years. I was ready for a break after so many years of intensive work. During that time, I was involved with as many as six boards, both nonprofit and for-profit, and we simply recharged our batteries. But after a couple of years, we both felt like I should get back to business. I’ve grown passionate over the years about the powerful contribution business can make to society, and I started the process of looking for that next spot, which led me to Vonage.
Didn’t you find yourself in an armored car in Brazil during this journey?
I did. That was part of the long fly-out experience. I was involved with a telecom company in Brazil that had won the right to compete with the incumbent phone company there. In order to win the license, we had to commit to building out service in 80 cities within two years. It was a consortium of the private company I was with, and two publicly traded communications companies in North America. We raised $2.5 billion and hired 4,000 people in two years to meet that commitment. The company took off like a rocket. The stock price tripled in the first year. We put on 500,000 customers in the first 10 months. We were one of the fastest growing alternative carriers in the world at the time.
And then we saw some cracks show up in the operations. The shareholders’ concern prompted them to ask me to move to Brazil to be the CEO. My wife and I agreed over the weekend that I would take the job. Her only requirement was that I have a body guard because high-profile positions like the one I’d be taking can be dangerous in Latin America. So I had a body guard named Marcio Buseski, a 260 pound Polish Brazilian with a gun strapped to his leg, and he chauffeured me around in a bullet-proof car.
After I got there, it turned out the cracks were even more severe than I had thought. The company faced two major problems: First, was a chronic and Out of that experience I learned four very important words: “fully funded business plan.”growing bad debt problem. Ultimately 40 percent of the customers had to be turned off because they couldn’t pay their bills. Secondly, one of the partners decided not to fund the next round of capital. It was certainly within their rights to make that choice, but we had been led to believe that they were going to provide the funding of more than $100 million. That created a big hole in the business plan. Shortly after that, the capital markets collapsed, making impossible to raise the additional money we needed.
Out of that experience I learned four very important words: “fully funded business plan.” Make sure you have the money at the outset to carry the business through to the point of self-sustainability.
Changing Telecom Industry
The telecom industry was very different just 15 years ago. How do you find a stable niche when the business model is moving around?
I am not sure there are any stable points anymore. Everything is moving quickly. But the thing that is stable is peoples’ desire to communicate. And there are hundreds of billions of dollars spent every year on a worldwide basis to fulfill this desire. So the way I think about it is to focus on areas where there is a real need, where there are rising tides that will lift all boats, and get involved with companies that can benefit from these rising tides.
Let me offer some examples. There are three well-known trends that are currently creating opportunities. And they all bode well for Vonage. The first is increasing broadband penetration. With more and more access around the world through Wi-Fi and higher speed data capabilities, that creates opportunities to deliver communications services that run over these networks. Second, is the increasing ubiquity of smart phones. These didn’t even exist just a few years ago, and they now make all sorts of things possible. People’s comfort with downloading applications on these devices represents a fundamental shift that we can take advantage of. Third, is the increase and prevalence of social networks, which are here to stay. Couple these trends with peoples’ desire to communicate and disruptive technology that lowers costs to consumers, and there should be real opportunity at the place of this convergence.
Economics and consumer demand will drive services to be delivered over the least-cost network. For example, internet communications are much cheaper than traditional public switched telephony networks. Traditional carriers are moving in this direction. But there are also opportunities for non-traditional carriers such as Vonage, particularly as entrenched competitors are reluctant to lower prices thereby lowering their own revenue stream. New entrants are not saddled with this fundamental economic dilemma.
Future of Telecom
In the next 10 years, do you expect to see the same kinds of disruptions? What does your crystal ball say things will look like in 10 years?
I have no crystal ball, but you can see some trends emerging. Five to 10 years from now the prices people will pay for international calling will be significantly lower than they are today. Look at what Skype has done with free calling internationally, as long as both parties are on the Internet. That is a radical departure from what was happening just a few years ago, and radically challenges today’s business models. So we can easily predict that those high charges for long distance calls that are delivered over costly switched networks So in 10 years communications will be much cheaper, and the way we communicate will be much different.are going to come under severe attack. But I think there will be a long “tail” on some of these services, as you see with today’s landline business. The early adopters are getting this value now, and it will come over time to those slower to change.
So in 10 years communications will be much cheaper, and the way we communicate will be much different. The rapid growth of social networking will drive communications patterns and preferences, particularly as the next generation rises up into the mainstream of paying consumers.
Is it fair to say that the cost per second of communications will continue to go down, but the number of seconds used will continue to rise as more users do more sophisticated things? How does the business model capture this?
I think that’s a fair characterization. The amount of time people spend communicating electronically now is up dramatically, particularly if you look at how the generation of our children communicate, who they communicate with, and their many ways of staying in touch with each other. And the cost of delivering these services is also declining with this increased demand and the proliferation of digital technologies.
Purpose of Business
As you look at telecom, what do you see from a business point of view? Is it all about making money, or is there some other value that comes from this telecom space?
I would like to answer that question first, not just for telecom, but for business in general. I have come to understand business in a very different way than I did in the early years of my career. I struggled deeply during those years over the question of meaning in work. I felt like I spent the first 10 years of my career wrestling with what I should do for my career. At the heart of that struggle, was the question of whether what I was doing really mattered. Were the many hours I was spending on the job making a difference in any meaningful way? Out of that profound confusion emerged a perspective of my work that I believe has broad applicability and which certainly brings life to my current work in the communications business.
The test for me personally is this: Can I make a connection between what I am doing at this moment and my purpose in life? And if I’m working for an organization, which most of us do who are in business, I must also see how that organization is contributing in a meaningful way. I mean this intrinsically. It doesn’t count to say that I make money and give it away and thereby make the world a better place. Simply going about the business of business, providing goods and services that are of help to people must be at the heart of our understanding of contribution. And this perspective can be applied to making soap, providing telecom services, or growing food. Virtually anything short of chemical weapons , looked at through a proper lens, can be seen as creating value for a society.
Said differently, I have come to see that the primary purpose of business is to serve. There are many ways business can serve society, but let me offer just four.
The first way business serves is through responsible value creation. Our family is involved with trying to help the poor in Central America, and you only have to step off the airplane in Honduras to know that the there is something different there from the place we boarded the plane. It shows up as donkeys carrying loads of firewood along the highways, and people eking out a living selling cans of Coca Cola lined up on a board they might call their store. The difference is GDP per capita.
Business is the only institution that creates economic value. Every other institution distributes it.Business is the only institution that creates economic value. Every other institution distributes it. So business has a huge role to play in serving society through responsible value creation. I am not saying that having more money is all we need to make the world a better place. That’s simply not true, and to say it is would be promoting a hollow materialism that leaves many wealthy people aching for more. But the value created by business across the millennia has laid the foundation for a much different world than that of our agrarian ancestors. And for people at the bottom of the pyramid, creating opportunities for them to earn a livable wage and their dignity along with it is an important hallmark of a well-functioning society.
A second way business serves society is in serving its customers. Every business does this every day. Businesses provide goods and services that are of value to people or they wouldn’t pay for them. I have a very down-to-earth view of the way this applies to telecom. People want to communicate, to make connections to others. We are relational beings. Telecommunications contributes to society by providing that opportunity. Our sons who are away at college want to talk to their mom. A shipping clerk needs to call a vendor to get an invoice right. We enable these interactions. Like the old GE ad used to say, “We bring good things to life.” It’s a bit corny, but I think it happens to be true.
Another way business serves is by creating an environment that enables employees to grow into the full expression of themselves. Being a numbers guy, I have done the math, and a lifetime of work comes to about 100,000 hours. That is a long time to work, particularly if we go home and kick our dog every night to release the frustration. Work should provide an opportunity for people to express their innate gifts and talents. Teddy Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “There are few things more rewarding than working hard at work worth doing.” There is much we can do to make this more real. We can create an environment that encourages people to work with each other rather than against each other. We can help people make the connections between what they’re doing and why it’s important. Electronic assembly-line workers aren’t just soldering printed circuit boards, they are building hospital monitors that will save people’s lives. Hospital janitors aren’t pushing a mop, they are contributing to a sterile environment that reduces the spread of disease.
In addition to responsible value creation, serving customers, and creating a positive environment for employees, business also contributes to a better society by being a responsible corporate citizen in the communities where we operate. Vonage offered free calls to Haiti after its devastating earthquake. We did the same for people calling to Japan after the Tsunami hit there. Press releases aside, these are simply the right things to do.
So, hopefully this offers a glimpse into how I think about the purpose of business. By the way, this is not an academic exercise for me. This perspective is a major source of the joy I derive from my work. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.
How do you balance these four things? Do you have an equation to guide you?
As usual, there is no formula. It is true that there is a tension between these in the short run, but I see far less tension in the long run. In the stakeholder model, which is a related but different way of looking at this, the question is how to divide up the pie between the various stakeholders in a business (shareholders, customers, employees, and the community). And there clearly are tensions there. But looking at this in the long run, many of these things work together for the common good, for the good of the company, and for the employees and shareholders.
I am not so naïve as to say this is easy, or that they all work perfectly together. I’ve lived too long for that. But I think we could agree that building a successful business starts by taking care of customers, and employees who feel like they’re being treated right will treat customers in the same way. As people develop a life-giving perspective of their jobs by understanding how their individual piece contributes to the whole, and are recognized for doing things right, they will speak of their work with pride to their neighbors over the back fence.
So I think, particularly in the long run, these things work together for good, but there clearly are tradeoffs. My approach to managing these tradeoffs is remind myself that there is no time like the present to do the right thing. At every moment we can ask ourselves, “What’s the right thing to do right here, right now?”
I appreciate your thinking in the long term, but we are in a short-term world. You must get pressures every day and every week in this area. How do you keep pushing out to the long term under this kind of pressure?
Certainly being a senior executive for a publicly traded company comes with lotsThere’s nothing like pressure to create a real sense of urgency. of short-term pressure. That is just the way it is. You live in that tension and there is not a simple answer. I would say, though, that pressure on the short term is not all bad. The discipline forced on companies through the short-term pressure keeps us from succumbing to the “mañana syndrome.” There’s nothing like pressure to create a real sense of urgency.
The challenge comes when making investment decisions that you know won’t bear fruit until well beyond the time horizons of some investors. But that’s just part of the job.
Making Purpose Real
When you went to Vonage, I know you approached it with this kind of thinking. That was just over a year ago. How has that year gone for you? How has it worked to go in with this vision for how you wanted to operate, and live in the reality of your job?
As I mentioned, my wife and I had taken this “purposeful pause” prior to joining Vonage. The pause accomplished its purpose. We viewed the time like a rest in music. Rests are not apart from the music. They are a part of the music. Our theme during this time was, “don’t slur the rest.” Like rests in music give it texture, body, and fullness, we hoped this time away from the grind would also add a richness and completeness to the adventure of our lives.
The period of rest rekindled a strong passion to return to business. A major source of this passion was the perspective we have been discussing — seeing the power of business to contribute to a better society. I think there was also a second, more personal reason. This thinking has been developed, tested, and refined by the fire of the challenges of my career. It has been evolving in me over a couple of decades and continued during our purposeful pause. I wanted to see if I could come back into the “heat of the kitchen” and truly live these principles. I wanted to see if I could make them even more real for me and for the organization I would be serving.
I have grown more through the challenges of business than any other aspect of my life precisely because it is so hard.That was the challenge. One of the reasons I love business is because of that kind of challenge. My career has been the crucible for the formation of my character. I have grown more through the challenges of business than any other aspect of my life precisely because it is so hard. I was drawn by this challenge. And this philosophical challenge was compounded by the business challenges Vonage faced. It was clearly a turnaround situation. Two years earlier, the company had lost $50 million, and we were paying interest rates of 16-20 percent on over $200 million in debt when I arrived. Those are expensive mortgage payments! The single challenge of restructuring this debt alone would make it plenty hot in the kitchen. So the demands of living out this proclaimed purpose in business in the context of turning around a public company presented a serious test.
I have to say that I have been very, very pleased at how well things are playing out. This fresh paradigm has brought meaning to the work. This way of seeing is the really the culmination of a succession of paradigm shifts that occurred within me over many years. The central shift in my understanding is that we don’t derive meaning from our work; rather, we bring meaning to our work. Each of us must bring meaning to our work. As we discussed, the core test for me is whether at every moment of every day, can I make the connection between what I am doing and my greatest purpose in life. I do feel like my work at Vonage represents an opportunity to fulfill that purpose.
So, this construct, these principles, this aspiration has inspired me and constitutes the reason I derive real satisfaction doing what I do. There is tremendous pressure. There is way too much to do. I haven’t worked this hard since I was in my 20s. But this purposeful perspective brings energy to me as I go about this work. The idea of simply making money just doesn’t do it for me.
When you talk with colleagues either in your company or other companies, do you get the sense that more people are beginning to think about business this way? Or are they mostly head down, focused on near-term profits?
There are more people who think this way than you might think, but when I look across the spectrum I see a bifurcation in peoples’ motives. Some people are thinking less about these things. Look at the financial crisis over the past few years. The role of greed, the absence of higher values, a waning interest in the common good were clearly contributors. With my career now spanning 30 years (though it hardly seems possible that I’m becoming such an old geezer …), I can say that it’s a much, much tougher environment today than it was. I can feel it. It’s a more dog-eat-dog world. The intensity has grown. BlackBerrys and email create a constant crush. Time frames have collapsed. The business environment has grown much more demanding than it was when I started my career.
Then there is the other side of the divide. Perhaps the second is in response to the first. I see a growing number of people who are committed to fill the vacuum of meaning that seems to permeate much of our society. I’ve had the privilege of traveling to 41 countries, and people around the world are asking these questions. People on the upper rungs of the economic ladder people are asking questions about the meaning of work. And the next generation is asking the question broadly. They are not simply interested in stepping on a corporate race track and following it around for 30 laps before retiring. They want to make the connections between how they are spending their time and what’s important to them — friends, balance, wholeness. Gratefully, many members of our next generation seem unwilling to let the important questions go unanswered.
There are lots of people, and I sense a growing number of people, who want to make these connections.
Proactive Administrative Leadership
My experience is similar. Most people I have interviewed in Ethix, in one way or another see their work in business as service.
You are operating at Vonage as chief financial officer and chief administrative officer. Many people think of those positions as being a guardian, a defensive role, someone who keeps track of things and tells people what they can’t do. Yet you are sounding very proactive. How do you mix these in your particular role?
There are certainly different kinds of people who take these jobs and there are very different ways to do these jobs. I am a strategic CFO. I have spent about 60 percent of my career as a CFO and 40 percent of my time in general management as CEO, president or division manager. I like both. I view the CFO job as very strategic and directly connected to the purpose of business we have been discussing. For example, I am deeply committed to value creation. The fact that Vonage’s market value grew from less than $300 million to over a billion dollars over the past year, is very gratifying to me. And it is explicitly aligned with the principle of serving society through the responsible creation of economic value. Restructuring the high cost debt and meeting our operational targets are important contributors to that progress, and these are key responsibilities of a CFO.
Perhaps it might be helpful for me to offer a couple of concrete examples of how I approach the CFO role in a more strategic, purposeful fashion. First, I don’t think about cost-cutting as cost-cutting. Vonage has dramatically reduced its cost structure. We reduced SG&A by 10 percent in the last year. We reduced customer care cost per line by 20 percent in each of the last two years. The goal is to drive operational improvements that result in structural cost reductions. By doing that you create this virtuous cycle of better quality and lower costsWe reduced our costs of completing international calls by 25 percent over the past year. I don’t take the “cheese slicer” approach to cutting costs where you take a little bit out of every line. The goal is to drive operational improvements that result in structural cost reductions. By doing that you create this virtuous cycle of better quality and lower costs, and it all works together for the good of the organization. So that is one point, driving operational improvements versus slashing costs.
Secondly, I am focused as much on the top line as the bottom line. You can’t save your way to prosperity. You have to grow your way into ultimate success. Most of my career has been spent with very rapidly growing companies. I am very entrepreneurial; I love to see things grow. Incidentally, the best way to create a great environment for employees is to grow the company, to make it successful financially. While I love a good holiday party and attractive company benefits as much as the next guy, business success will do more to drive sustained, higher morale. We all want to be part of a winning team.
So I view my job proactively, strategically, and focused on growth. And while you have to say “no” sometimes in this kind of a position, my view is that I don’t want to be Dr. No — the person with the big hammer poised to crush every idea that involves spending money. I want everybody to have their own small hammer in their hands. If we have 3,000 people in the company, I want 3,000 people with the CFO’s perspective saying “no” to things long before they reach my signature folder. The goal is to create a culture of financial discipline throughout the organization.
Building the Culture
What specific steps do you take to move these ideas from your way of thinking to a culture in an organization that responds this way?
I try to start with “management by looking in the mirror.” Having had my own thinking so radically transformed, I need to start by asking myself, “Am I living what I believe?” It is so much easier to say what’s true than to live what’s true. I hope that my beliefs are animating my behavior. And it’s a moment-by-moment challenge. It’s not something to be assessed sitting on the beach during an annual vacation.
Second, and related, is leading by example. Cultures are contagious as people pay more attention to our feet than our lips. Do people see that I find joy in what I do? Do they see me working hard, inspired by a perspective that transcends myself?
I had a one-on-one conversation with a fellow executive last week where I found myself sharing much of what I have just described to you, Al. At the end of that discussion, she said, “Now I know why you love what you do. It shows.” What inspires me will inspire others. These ideas have made my work life come alive. When we are alive, others will come alive around us.
One final point, lest you think I am a giddy-eyed Pollyanna. I recognize that these ideas are both aspirational and inspirational. It’s been said that one of the real challenges of life is that it’s so daily, and the daily grind gets to us all. But I truly would not have stayed in business all these years had I not been transformed by this renewed perspective. The job of simply “creating shareholder value” would have sent me packing my briefcase in bored disillusionment a long time ago.
When you look around you see a number of companies, particularly recently in this economic crisis, that have fallen from ethical scandals. Beyond your aspirational view, what do you do to keep your own company focused and avoid having it become another bad example?
I would draw a distinction between the personal ethics of individuals and the systemic ethics of an organization. It’s important to look at both.First, I would draw a distinction between the personal ethics of individuals and the systemic ethics of an organization. It’s important to look at both. Good people in bad systems will produce bad results. Consider the process of producing accurate financial statements. A few years ago before I joined the company, we were required to cite a Material Weakness in our internal controls resulting from some very complex accounting issues that were not handled properly. As we closed the books at the end of my first year on the job, we were very pleased that there was not a single adjustment required after the comprehensive review of the statements by our external auditors. And it was essentially the same people preparing the reports.
Accountants are fond of referring to “the tone at the top.” It makes a big difference. But we also need to ensure we have people in place with high ethical standards and a commitment to getting things right, and then support them with systems and oversight that ensure quality work.
I say to our people, “Each number in these financial statements has your signature beside it.” We can point to a line item in the balance sheet and say, “You are responsible for this number.” Investors are making multimillion dollar decisions based on the accuracy and the fidelity of these numbers. We have a responsibility to get it right and to do it well. Our reputations and our names are literally on the line.
Costs of Health Care
Let’s talk about another cost issue. Health care costs have grown incredibly in this country, and this affects the bottom lines of businesses. How do you view the health care situation from your view as a CFO of a publicly traded company?
I’m not an expert on health care, but I certainly see some systemic issues at the core of the crisis. Our health-care system appears to be broken in some fundamental ways. Let me cite just two. First, people who are receiving the service are not responsible for paying for the service. This decoupling will drive up costs virtually by definition in any economic system. Don’t we all pay much more attention to costs when it’s our money rather than OPM (other people’s money)?
Secondly, and I realize that this may be somewhat controversial, I think that as a society we have a distorted view of the role of health care in extending the length rather than the quality of life. Others could quote the statistics, but a very large portion of health care goes to support people in the last six months of their lives. Death is a natural, and even a sacred part of life. We seem to fear death and therefore spend billions to prolong it, without regard to the quality of the life we are extending. My mother-in-law died of cancer a few years ago and was under the care of hospice in the last precious months of her life. Hospice cost a fraction of what it would have cost to spend her last months in a high-tech hospital, and she was treated with love and dignity that left us in awe of the care she received from those dedicated hospice workers. It seems that technology, and people not responsible for paying the bills, often ask “what’s possible” instead of “what’s necessary.”
So there are some structural flaws in the way the U.S. health-care system operates. Yet, it seems that the problems are deep and very difficult to solve. I do believe some basic level of health care is important to people. It is one of the hallmarks of a civil and well functioning society. But the amount of money we spend on health care is out of control in my view. Twenty percent annual increases in health-care costs like we’ve seen over the past several years are unsustainable for our companies, our employees, and our country.
Perhaps we could back up and talk about the time you had a crisis of meaning in your work and what you did about it?
I did have a deep crisis of meaning in work. In retrospect it probably spanned a 17-year period dating back to my college years. Even in my first job in business after college, I wondered whether what I was doing mattered, and actively considered switching to a job like serving meals in a soup kitchen — something that would deepen my compassion for people during the two years before I would go to graduate school. But I never really dealt with the root cause of the consternation. It was like a game of Whac-a-Mole. The questions would come up and I would smash them down one question at a time, but it would be years before the questions were addressed in the substrate of my soul.
After business school the questions had deepened in me to the point that I could no longer live without answers. I was CFO of the startup company we discussed, and the questions came to an unavoidable head. During that time, I found myself sitting on the side of a mountain in the Colorado Rockies overlooking the beautiful Arkansas River Valley. Tears started streaming down my face. The serenity of that environment stood in such striking contrast to the turmoil within me. I blurted out through the tears, “I am tired of living a divided life.” I could not make a connection between what I was doing in my work and my purpose in life.
Programmed as an overachiever since my childhood, the question that penetrated my heart was, “By what measure will I judge the success of my life?” All of the external measures of success — do well in high school so you can get into a good college; do well in college to get into a good graduate school; do well in graduate school to get a good job — all of those external milestones that were programmed into me from my earliest years were gone. The next milestone, so-called retirement, was 40 years away. How would I judge my life? I didn’t know. I couldn’t answer the question. I was not suicidal, but I was not willing to go on living without answering the question. I was tired of living a divided life. I couldn’t run in a direction with conviction. I felt like I was walking haltingly down a path, looking over my shoulder, wondering if I was on the right road, whacking the questions down to keep them from pestering me. I got up from the rock on the side of that mountain with an unshakable conviction to get to the bottom of the questions.
What I thought was a crisis of meaning in work was really a crisis of purpose in life. I couldn’t answer the question of meaning in work until I could articulate a purpose for my life. The answer to the life question would provide a context for answering the work question. I didn’t know if this crisis had anything to do with God, but apparently it did. I stopped going to church, which I had done almost every Sunday for my whole life, because I thought it was hypocritical. I couldn’t say I believed in God anymore. My understanding had to be rebuilt from the bottom up, brick by brick.
I concluded that I couldn’t prove the existence or absence of God. He either exists or he doesn’t, irrespective of whether we believe he exists or not. It’s simply a matter of fact, I concluded. Over the ensuing months, I grew into a willingness to bet my life on his existence, not because I had proof, but “based on the preponderance of the evidence” as the lawyers would say. Then came the next question. “For whom am I going to live my life — God or myself?” I concluded I would live it for God because it appeared that there was no meaning apart from God.
I took that step of surrender with heel marks in the sand. I had a deep reluctance born of a profound sense of skepticism. While this decision went a long way toward answering the question of my purpose in life, it still did not answer the question of meaning in work. It would take another six years and 350 pages in my journal before I could answer this question in roughly the way we have already discussed.
I came to see that I had been thinking about work all wrong and mostly backward. I had to be taken through a succession of paradigm shifts. For example, I was looking at work from the outside in rather than from the inside out. I thought if I just got the right job I would be happy. I spent the first 10 years of my career wondering what I should do for my career.
It was through that process that I concluded that we don’t derive meaning from our work; rather, we bring meaning to our work. It is the perspective of our work that brings meaning to it. For any job, we can bring either a life-draining or a life giving perspective to that work. Take a hospice worker, for example, like the one who took care of my mother-in-law. I could describe that job as changing bed pans for a living for people who are going to die anyway. Or I could view the work as creating an environment of unconditional love for God’s people in the last few precious months of their lives. Even with the life-giving perspective, you still have to change the bedpans, but it is with a radically different way of understanding what you are doing.
As I came to see this distinction, it became incumbent on me to articulate a life-giving perspective of my job as a CFO, as a business leader. For years I couldn’t do it. Not honestly and in a way that inspired me anyway. But as I wrestled through the question, my understanding grew and my perspective shifted. I realized that I had also listened to the clamor of the culture that says, “We are what we do,” instead of seeing the deeper truth that, “What we do is an expression of who we are.”
Through this struggle, I stumbled on a working job definition for myself, which is “to contribute to a better society as seen through the eyes of God.” That, in turn, led to the understanding that the fundamental purpose of business is to serve.
Out of this crisis and through this process, I radically changed jobs without changing business cards. I went to the same office every day, but the way I went about my work and the reasons I went about my work were very different. Finally, I was inspired by my job rather than tired by it. With this new perspective, I could now view my life in business as just as important as loving my wife, loving our two sons, and helping the poor. Each of these roles is an opportunity for expression of who I have been made to be.
As I hope you can see, this process had a huge impact in me. It was not an academic exercise. I am deeply grateful for the gift of being able to spend the rest of these 100,000 hours of work in my life in a way that brings meaning to it.
As you have arrived at this position, do you think you are done with this pursuit, or is there more to uncover?
There is much more to uncover. Honestly, while I have been on this journey explicitly for some 25 years, I feel like I am just getting started. The real challenge is for these truths to truly come alive in me. I don’t want them to remain constructs or spoken words, but I want the truth to become flesh and be more fully expressed in my actions as we go about our daily lives.
There is a story in Scripture about Jesus healing 10 lepers. He told them to go to the priest, and “as they were going they were healed.” That is one of the ways I think about my own journey. As we are going, we are healed. We are brought into this deeper perspective. We are brought into this deeper intimacy with God. We grow into a way of seeing that releases the love within us in ways that we could not previously see. It’s a beautiful adventure.
Advice to Young Professionals
What advice would you offer to college students and young professionals as they embark on their careers?
I would give them two suggestions. First, to recognize your professional life represents an important opportunity fulfill the purpose for your whole life. You can fully live out your purpose in life in the context of your career. You don’t have to check your life at the door of your office. Take the time to develop a life-giving perspective of your work.
The second thing I would offer is related to the first, and it is this. Stay with the questions. You will have questions. I still have questions. Are we willing to stay with the questions long enough that we can “one distant day live into the answers” in the words of the Austrian poet, Rainer Rilke? Particularly when we are young, we want to run from one thing to the next. I’d encourage younger folks not to run away from the lessons that our current circumstances have to teach us. Embrace the questions, embrace the pain. There is purpose in the pain when you look at it from this point of view. My struggle to find meaning in work was painful, deeply painful. It was spiritually anguishing. Yet out of the difficulty of the pain came this entirely new understanding.
The world and our natural wiring tell us to avoid suffering. And for good reason. Pain is painful! How often I wished to be delivered from my suffering, but I am much more often delivered through my suffering. It is in embracing life for what it has to teach me that I learn and grow. Our temptation when things get dark is to skirt around the edges of the blackness. For me, the real way to the light is to allow the darkness to grow as dark as it needs to — to become blacker than black if necessary. Am I willing to walk through the center of the darkness? It is in the heart of that darkness that the darkness gets dissipated. If we will enter into those things causing us interior strife, particularly if we submit our lives to God in an act authentic surrender, he will bring us into the light. We will enjoy intimacy with him. We will come to know him, and to fall more deeply in love with him. And isn’t that at the heart of becoming human?
5 thoughts on “Barry Rowan: Bringing Meaning to Work”
Al and Barry,
This was a superb and insightful interview. So much life wisdom and vitalizing perspective and clarity on the value of doing all things well to honor God and add value to humans. Thank you.
Barry, I heard you this morning on wmbi in chicago and I couldn’t wait to read the entire article. It is very inspiring. I appreciate your insight as I am starting my own journey. May God bless you and your family as you strive to do His will.
Great article, Barry and thanks for sharing many gems of wisdom from your remarkable journey.
Great to read this inspiring story of a great leader. It sort of validates my decision to switch my phone system over to Vonage – which I did about 1½ years ago – long before ever hearing of him.
Thanks for sharing your journey and the gems of God-given insight you found along the way.
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