Swimming With Sharks: A Swimmer’s Guide to C-Suite Supremacy

J.R. Ball Finance, Issue 10 - March/April 2014 Leave a Comment

Former swimmer and military officer Greg Freiberg went from backstrokes to barracks to boardrooms. Here, the CFO of Dex One recounts his journey.

By  J.R Ball

greg_frieberg_imageDuring the 2012 Chicago Ideas Week Conference, Bob Bowman, revered swimming coach who channeled Michael Phelps’ preternatural abilities to win an unprecedented 18 Olympic gold medals—22 medals overall—waxed poetic on what it takes to be a champion.

“Champions have physical attributes at the top level, but that’s not what makes them great,” Bowman said. “Champions welcome challenges and rehearse success on a daily basis.”

Bowman also surmises that champions work harder than their would-be usurpers, and clearly his assessment holds water.

It seems it is no coincidence that Greg Freiberg, former Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of print and interactive marketing company Dex One and current Managing Director of Foretress Investment Group and CFO of New Media Investment Group, forged his work ethic in the fast lane of the competitive swimming pool at The University of South Dakota.

“I learned early on that if you want to achieve anything in swimming, you have to work your butt off,” Freiberg said.

The pool is also where Freiberg began rehearsing success on a daily basis. “It meant practicing 10 times a week, being dedicated in the weight room and having a focused you-can-do-it attitude.

And what Freiberg has done over the course of his career in finance is impressive.

On the heels of the .com boom in the early 1990s, he joined telecom provider MFS Communications, based in Washington, D.C, as International Controller. As MFS expanded, the company was looking to relocate someone trusted into the burgeoning Asian market.

“I was coming of age at the same time MFS was growing rapidly,” Freiberg said. “The leadership within the company knew I represented their values and would be a good investment overseas.”

When the opportunity to work in Hong Kong arose, Freiberg jumped at it.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working in Hong Kong for eight years, but I quickly learned how different the cultural expectations can be,” Freiberg observed. “There, people in leadership roles are expected to be experts. Everyone looks to you to make a decision.”

Leadership Drills

Fortunately, he had volunteered for leadership training years earlier. Not a weekend seminar or coursework via a corporate manual, but rather on-the-job training with the U.S. Army National Guard.

“At 22, I graduated from college and was commissioned as a second lieutenant,” Freiberg said. “I found myself standing in front of a group of 40 people I was in charge of—many of whom were older and more experienced than I was.”

greg_frieberg_quoteThe challenge was perfectly suited to Freiberg’s personality of jumping into new opportunities, including ones with a steep learning curve.

“As a leader, it’s natural to make mistakes your first few times out,” Freiberg said. “But the military taught me to see around corners, anticipate what can go wrong and be prepared for tough questions without being defensive.”

It also gave Freiberg, who rose to Captain and Infantry Company Commander, what he considers to be a sizeable advantage over his peer group.

“While my peers had to wait until they were close to 30 to step into leadership roles,” he noted, “I had a huge head start.”

By the time he assumed large-scale corporate leadership roles, such as CFO at XO Communications, Savvis and Dex One, Freiberg’s skills had been honed to the point that they produced significant results.

At Savvis, he led the company to its first credit rating from Moody’s and S&P and raised more than $600 million of public debt. During his tenure, the company’s stock price rocketed from $6 to $40 a share. At Dex One, Freiberg transformed their digital group into a $300-million segment, with shares growing from $6 to $22 each. In total, his contributions to the fiscal agility of both firms totaled more than $2 billion.

Mixed Medley CFO

Freiberg says his success as CFO comes down to managing people and influencing the corporate culture as much as managing the company’s financial well-being.

“While the CFO role is critical in making sure a company meets its expectations, it’s important to step out of that office and recognize what other people are doing to help the organization,” Freiberg noted. “That approach helps me build partnerships.”

Once these partnerships are forged, Freiberg finds that people begin to shift their focus back to the issues at hand and work cohesively. In his words they, “stand shoulder to shoulder to tackle big challenges.”

In doing so, Freiberg has learned that it never hurts to take a compassionate, supportive approach. “When I meet someone for the first time, it’s about being warm,” he said. “When it comes down to it, we’re human beings and we want to make valued connections.”

Final Heat

While one clearly need not be a competitive swimmer or commissioned military officer to find success in a corporate environment, Freiberg finds being proactive and volunteering for opportunities to be critical.

“Success is not a golden ticket,” Freiberg said. “Volunteer for as much as possible. If you fail, fail fast and fix it. And work as hard as you can. You’ll see how it plays a huge role in your advancement.”

As Freiberg lays it out, this is sound advice that we all can dive into.

J.R. Ball is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas.


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