Interview with Barry Rowan: Bringing Meaning to Work

This post is related to our upcoming business forum “Taking Your Soul to Work.” Join us Thursday, November 19, 6-9 p.m. as we explore how our spiritual lives can grow in the midst of workplace challenges. This interview is excerpted from Ethix, a publication of the Center for Integrity in Business in the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University. It was republished here with permission. 

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.

My first foray into the telecom business [was] 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.

Ethix: 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?

BR: 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. 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.

Read the full interview with Barry at Ethix.orgFeatured photo by Jonas Boni on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.