Name: James Tholen
Time with company: 5 years
Education: Bachelor of Science in Economics from Davidson College; MBA from Yale University
Company headquarters: Gaithersburg, Maryland
Revenue: $138 million in 2011 up 40 percent from 2010
Countries of operation: employees in 21; customers in over 75 countries.
Number of employees total: about 500
Number of employees the CFO oversees: 40
CFO’s areas of responsibility: finance, accounting, financial planning, M&A, investor relations, legal, human resources, facilities, information systems
About the company: BroadSoft provides software that enables mobile, fixed-line and cable service providers to deliver voice and multimedia services over IP-based networks.
1. Where did you start in finance and what experiences led you to the job you have today?
I actually got the tech bug early. I just loved the ability for the entrepreneurial technology companies to change and disrupt an industry, to really change how things are done. For me, finance was a way to get to play in that tech sandbox.
I started out in the technology investment area of Morgan Stanley. As much as I enjoyed banking, I was really interested in how companies are doing and how they’re doing it, and I realized I could be a real change agent for companies from inside rather than outside as a broker. That’s what has really driven me for the last 20 years to be a CFO or COO at companies. I’ve been able to have the opportunity to work for and partner with the entrepreneurs who had the vision and the tenacity to work for a company that creates that kind of change. I’ve been able to partner with those folks to build great companies.
2. Who was an influential boss for you and what lessons did they teach you about management and leadership?
Three actually really came to mind and they were all CEOs I had the good fortune to work for.
The first was Jerre Stead, he came in as CEO at Legent, which was sold to Computer Associates. Jerre is a master motivator and a driver of change. He’s been able to do that and drive cultural change at very large organizations in a deliberate way. I began to understand how you could create that kind of change and drive performance in [observing] the way Jerre did it.
The second is Rob McGovern, who founded Careerbuilder. We created a brand new company that really helped change the way people look for and get jobs. It was a radical idea at the time to do job search via the Internet instead of newspaper job postings. Rob really taught me how to have not only that tenacity as an entrepreneur but to be willing to constantly reinvent what you created as your drive forward.
The final one is the current CEO at BroadSoft, Mike Tessler. Mike had the vision, courage and tenacity to take on something that had never been done before — in this case disrupting global telecommunication. What Mike has really taught me is the notion of a global startup. We went global very early. And now we have employees in 21 countries and customers in 75.
3. What are the biggest challenges facing CFOs today?
There’s an external set of challenges and an internal set of challenges — they obviously coexist and co-mingle. First and foremost, there’s a very uncertain macro environment and that creates challenges. It creates challenges from an investment standpoint and from a street standpoint. It’s a very demanding investment environment for public companies. There’s a white-hot spotlight on public companies and you tend to operate in that kind of environment.
The regulatory and compliance requirements for public companies have just become bigger and bigger and more complex, and that creates challenges. The overlay is you’re trying to manage short-term and long-term growth in the company, but with the macro environment and challenges of how Wall Street looks at you and evaluates you.
On the internal side, it’s a very good challenge to have to manage rapid growth. How do you nurture and encourage company growth and individual growth as we get bigger and bigger?
4. What is a good day at work like for you?
I like to say I’m a horizontal guy in a vertical world. I really like to overlay myself across an organization, so a great day is when I spend time with our technology and product folks understanding the newest and the best and the coolest. And with our sales organization working with them to drive revenue and expand our relationship with our customers. And finally with my team on whatever issues and challenges we have to problem-solve to keep driving .
I guess another good day for me is that I travel a lot with my job and as part of that what I enjoy most is spending time with our customers and partners and hearing how BroadSoft can help create value for their companies and their growth.
5. How would you characterize your management style?
I guess I’d characterize it as wide-ranging, informal and direct. Wide-ranging in the sense that I really play a broad role at the company beyond the organizational structure. I like being accessible and being out across the organization, feeling like the organization has a real relationship with the CFO. I keep it pretty informal and accessible. I like the informality and brainstorming and willingness of people to engage with me on that basis.
At the same time, I think as CFO you’re really the economic conscience of the organization and you have to be very direct about where you think the investments should go. You have to be very clear in your leadership and your communication — that’s what I mean by direct.
6. What strengths and qualities do you look for in job candidates?
At BroadSoft, we really are very demanding in terms of what we ask of our employees and what capacity they need to have to grow. In that context, I really look for initiative, intellect, compassion, a real capacity to grow not only in that job and as part of the company, and a person with very high ethical standards.
I like to see people that have been in the technology industry, especially in a scaling organization. I think our pace of change and the RPMs of the organization tend to be a lot higher than at traditional organizations. You really have to have people who have the capability to change and move with the capacity to prosper in such a dynamic environment.
7. What are some of your favorite interview questions or techniques to elicit information to determine whether a candidate will be successful at your company? What sort of answers send up red flags for you and make you think a job candidate wouldn’t be a good fit?
We’re really looking for people that have initiative and intellect and capacity for growth. So I really like to understand decisions and transitions that people made and why, so that I can get a sense of their decision-making and to understand, when things weren’t so good, when they had big challenges, how they dealt with those challenges, what were their strengths and how did they achieve them. I like to create a situation of some sort, a described situation, so that I can see their ability to problem-solve and their see their intellectual skills in action.
I think the red flags are around either attitude or their capacity to do the job. You’ve got to really embrace a fast-paced, high RPM, demanding environment to succeed at BroadSoft. I think we’re a welcoming place for new employees, but it’s a demanding environment.
8. What is it about your current job, at this particular company, that sets it apart from other chief finance positions?
The special things for me about being the CFO at BroadSoft is twofold — the role I get to play and the opportunity I have had to take the company public. I love a really broad canvas as a CFO and an ability to help the company in many facets — from traditional finance and accounting leadership to strategy and M&A. The two co-founders have really created a partnering environment for me that allows me to do that. Secondly, I think there is something really special for a CFO when you take a company public. The IPO process is a remarkably CFO-intensive process. I’ve done it before, but I think it’s a particularly special time for a CFO in a company, so that makes it different for me.
I guess the final piece for me is the ambition we have at BroadSoft as a company. We’re helping to change the telecommunication industry worldwide. I think that dynamic of change and that dynamic of working at a company with employees and customers all over the globe — that dynamic and that culture sets it apart in my mind, for me.
9. What do you do to unwind from a hectic day?
For me it’s all about family and friends. It’s always hard because we work these crazy 24/7 jobs, so I think the interplay of work and home is much more than, say, when my father worked. I unwind with family and friends. That’s how I blow off steam. That’s what I love to do.
10. If you weren’t doing this job, what would you be doing?
That’s a really interesting question. I think it would still have to be something in the entrepreneurial technology world, helping great entrepreneurs and great companies succeed. It’s part of the buzz about what I do that I love. If I wasn’t CFO, I would be doing something else, but still doing that sort of thing.