“Go Deep, then Go Broad”

Four tips on managing your career from Rob Falzon ’83, CFO of Prudential and a 35-year veteran of the company.

Print this page

Columbia Business School: You started at Prudential in 1983, 35 years ago. That's a significant tenure at one company for anyone these days. How did you start there, and what drew you to Prudential in the first place?

Rob Falzon: I had the fortune of being able to go directly from undergraduate to graduate school. That was an advantage in many respects. It allowed me to finish out my education without interrupting my career. It was a disadvantage, though, when it came to interviewing for jobs. My initial desire was to get into something like investment banking, but I found that, given my lack of experience, I was less competitive for those roles, whereas I had a lot of opportunities to go into traditional banking.

As I interviewed, the opportunity at Prudential seemed interesting because the role was a hybrid between traditional banking and investment banking. I thought it offered a more challenging and interesting beginning to my career and so that's what originally drew me to Prudential.

I’ve stayed for a very long period of time, it’s true, but I’ve had four very distinct careers. I’ve been able to change what I was doing without changing the company that I worked for.

While I’ve had opportunities to leave Prudential throughout my career, I made the decision to stay with the company because I like the culture, I like the focus on talent, and I connect with the mission of the company. I’ve been able to progress my career and do different things in an environment that I could blossom in.

CBS: Given your tenure with Prudential, do you think that people are mistaken when they look at the job market and feel that they need to hop around in order to gain experience?

RF: I have three adult children, aged 25 to 31. Two of them are on their third job, and the third is on his second. They've now had more jobs in their less-than-a-decade-long careers than I've had in my three and a half decades of a career. I’ve encouraged the moves that they've made because in each instance they were making a move to gain experiences that they couldn't get where they were.

The lesson for companies, and for leaders like myself, is that you have to pay attention to that. Having learned from the experience that I had, the mobility that I had, and the diversity of experiences that I had—which turned out to be a really good thing for my own career—I looked at it and said,”Well, you know, everyone should be doing this.”

If we can offer people the opportunity to gain new experience within the company, we can actually keep these people instead of having them leave to get that experience elsewhere. So, I'm very focused on what we call a”mobility program,” both within the broader enterprise and specifically within the financial organization that I run, and we make an effort to move people around.

If someone's been in a position for four years, I think, “Let’s take a look at that person.” If they're a high performer, let’s get them out of that job and into a new experience because it's time for them to learn something. If we don't do that, they will—and they'll do it by leaving the company.

CBS: In 35 years, obviously there must have been times though when you’ve wanted to throw your hands up and walk away from the organization. What's kept you there?

RF: There are always frustrations. There are frustrations in executing against business. There are frustrations in dealing with people. And there's always the struggle of work-life balance, though I don't really like to use the word”balance”—it's a dynamic, not a balance.

People’s level of engagement goes through cycles. I've remained highly engaged at Prudential because of my connection to the mission of the company. At Prudential, we make promises that improve people’s quality of life and financial security. That's something that resonates a lot with me. And working in a place where I can connect with what we're doing—that it's not just about commercial success—is important to me.

The culture of the organization fits me. Our chairman says, “We're low ego, no drama, high impact,” and those are the kind of people that I like to work with. And I've developed really good relationships with individuals and that's helped my career along the way and that's part of the bond that I now have with the organization. The diversity of experience that I've been able to have, the culture and mission of the organization, and the relationships that I’ve developed—despite periods where I’ve felt less connected—all contributed to my desire to stay and continue my career there.

CBS: Thinking specifically about finance, you’ve spoken before about how core skills in finance and accounting are still essential, but there's a much broader skill set that people need now. What is that broader skill set and why do you think it's so important now?

RF: At the core, people need basic technical skills in order for them to be successful in their careers, particularly in the initial stages. My experience has been that your first, and probably even your second, promotion are going to come by virtue of being a really good technician in whatever your area is, and that's not just in finance.

As you continue to progress your career, a broader set of technical skills becomes more important. As that set of skills broadens out, soft skills become critical.

At Prudential, we look for this early in people’s careers. You want to make sure they have good interpersonal skills, that they play well as part of a team, and that they find ways to have an impact as a team as opposed to just as individuals.

As they continue to evolve in their career, becoming managers and leaders, communication skills become increasingly important. When people ask me,”What do you think was the key driver that led to your becoming CFO?” I say,”Surprisingly, it's probably communication.”

Being able to explain really complicated things in a very simple fashion without losing substance is a skill that people need to develop in all areas. And I think, in my case, that skill contributed significantly to the board's decision that I could take over the CFO role.

articles by Topic