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10 questions for Sesame Communications CFO Jon Engman

10 questions for Sesame Communications CFO Jon Engman

-- Name: Jon Engman

-- Age: 47

-- Time with company: 3 ½ years

-- Education: BA, Business Administration/Accounting; Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa

-- Company headquarters: Seattle

-- Number of countries: U.S., Canada, Australia

-- Number of employees total: 85

-- Number of employees the CFO oversees: 7

-- About the company: Sesame Communications provides cloud-based patient connection systems for the dental industry, offering a suite of tools including website design, patient reminders and software. More than 5 million patients use Sesame services to communicate with dental providers. The company's website is http://http://www.sesamecommunications.com/

1. Where did you start in finance and what experiences led you to the job you have today?

Out of college, I started as a public accounting auditor at Arthur Andersen in Seattle in the mid-'80s. It wasn't too long that I knew I didn't want to stay around for partner, but it was an excellent training ground, since you "parachuted" into different companies every month or so and had to come up to speed on their business and accounting systems very quickly to be effective. A lot of people treated it like it was an MBA, without getting the formal educational distinction.

From there, I started working for early to middle-stage technology companies and found that I really liked that type of environment. You have a chance to set the rules and procedures and it's very dynamic. It is essential to venture out across business groups, within the company, to be an effective financial executive. You have a real good opportunity to have a large impact on the business. Sesame Communications fits the prototype of businesses I've worked for or sought out, so that's why I'm here.

2. Who was an influential boss for you and what lessons did they teach you about management and leadership?

There have been a number of people who have influenced me, but I must say that my first job out of public accounting and its CEO has had the most impact on my career to date, since I've been using those teachings the longest. I went to work for this country's first PC-based voicemail manufacturer in 1990, and two weeks later, a turnaround specialist, Dick LaPorte, took over as CEO. It wasn't long before we downsized from 110 to 65 people and he established very aggressive technology development and other key strategic and operational goals. Far more was being asked of the team in the coming 12 months than it had delivered in the past two years -- with much less people. Then, we went out and delivered. He had a great way of making the goals clear and establishing enthusiasm across the company to get the job done. The company went from an unprofitable $10 million a year company to a highly profitable $50 million a year company, with a successful IPO in four years.

The basic formula was: bring in a strong management team; set aggressive, but achievable goals; hold people accountable; build momentum (or "wins") from incremental progress; reward the personnel when they deliver; and stick to "the plan." It's easy to abandon a plan in a very dynamic environment, but it is absolutely critical to stay the course if you've done a solid job on the strategy.

Our new CEO, Diana Friedman, I think believes in this formula as well, and we're already seeing great positive changes at Sesame within a year of her taking over.

3. What are the biggest challenges facing CFOs today?

Before 2008, the financial markets were relatively consistent. Sure, you had your stock-market volatility, but the rest of the financial system and infrastructure was somewhat predictable. The rules were set on how to achieve financial success and how to leverage the system to help achieve that success. In the last couple years, a lot has changed. The same rules don't apply. CFOs have to be very creative and resourceful to ensure the enterprises for which they work remain viable operating entities.

4. What is a good day at work like for you?

I think everyone likes to "win." A good day for me is getting one of those wins. Usually that means something I've done or supported has turned out to be very successful -- we developed the right plan or solution, executed well and we are reaping the rewards. A good day for me can come from any win across my team or the company. Again, we all like to win and at the end of the day, we are all on the same team at Sesame, so the victories should be shared.

5. How would you characterize your management style?

I believe that people perform best when they feel they have the freedom to add their own creativity and style to the approach they take to their work. No one likes to be stifled or feel like someone is constantly watching their every move. If you, as a manager or leader, do a good job of setting clear goals, offering some guidance from your own experience, and setting up clear checkpoints to ensure we're on the path to success, I feel you'll get the right outcomes and your direct reports will feel that they made a positive impact on the company. Employees have to enjoy what they are doing to have sustainable, strong performance.

6. What strengths/qualities do you look for in job candidates?

I'm biased toward former team sport athletes. It may be a cliché, but companies really do act like teams. You are competing against other companies (or time), and you have to work together well to be successful. Of course, any prolonged experience working on a team (e.g., a band or committee, etcetera) could substitute for team sports. I also put a heavy emphasis on references before I've extended an offer to join our company. Of course, a candidate will provide names of people likely to give a positive reference, but I focus more on flushing out views on the qualities or experiences that will be essential to navigating the work environment we will provide -- not how they performed (overall) in their previous jobs.

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? And what sort of answers send up red flags for you and make you think a job candidate wouldn't be a good fit?

I often include the following questions in interviews: "How would co-workers describe you?" and "How do your friends describe you?" It forces the candidate to view themselves through other people's eyes and it's always interesting to see if those answers are different or consistent.

In terms of "red flags," I'm really looking for the kind of answers that would indicate that they won't be a team player or won't be willing to "roll up their sleeves," since early- to middle-stage companies often require an individual to work long hours and venture outside their stated job description.

8. What is it about your current job, at this particular company, that sets it apart from other chief finance positions?

I would say that I am probably more involved in the ongoing evolution of our business model, compared with other companies I've worked at. Sesame has been in business since the year 2000, but only recently has brought in a team of seasoned executives in to run it. As a result, any changes that we make generally require more thought and strategy -- relative to the business model -- since the ongoing processes and approaches are more "entrenched" due to the long history, and you have to factor that in when effecting change.

9. What do you do to unwind from a hectic day?

Spending time with my family gives me great joy, so anything that involves them is a perfect way to unwind. This sometimes includes coaching them in baseball or basketball. It's a great way to keep "perspective" on life, as you see the excitement and thrills that young kids have interacting with each other and improving their athletic and team-building skills.

10. If you weren't doing this job, what would you would be doing?

I have a common refrain -- "should have been a rock star..." If I didn't care about making a living or raising a family, then I'd probably be a musician or volunteering full-time for some organization. However, since family is so important to me, I'm more than happy to have my current job and profession.

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