Leader insights: David Rothenstein on evolving your career path
David Rothenstein (pictured below) always wanted to be a lawyer. After graduating from The George Washington University Law School, David began his career as a trial lawyer at the law firm of Paley Rothman in Bethesda, Maryland. After initially spending the majority of his time on litigation matters, David subsequently served as outside corporate counsel to two different technology startups founded by friends and acquaintances, which led him to make Partner when he was only 29 years old.
David eventually worked on the sales of those companies, and he realized then that he wanted to pursue opportunities in the technology sector. “I knew early on that I wanted to be a lawyer, but tech was not initially on my radar. Today, the idea of not working in tech is kind of strange to me,” said David. “It’s a different, more fast-paced, and rigorous operating rhythm than some other industries.”
And as fate would have it, Ciena recruited David in 2001.
“I had never heard of Ciena and had no knowledge of what optical networking was or had any experience working in-house. But I did know that I was interested in being a part of a business,” said David. “Instead of litigating a case or negotiating a deal and then moving on to a different client, I wanted to be involved in how a company makes and implements strategic and operational decisions.”
When David joined Ciena, he was the fifth lawyer in an eight-person legal department. Ciena had approximately 4,000 employees at the time, who were only based out of the United States. David served as Ciena’s Assistant General Counsel for three years before becoming Vice President and Associate General Counsel.
In 2008, David was promoted to Senior Vice President and General Counsel, covering all of Ciena’s legal matters while also serving as the Chief Compliance Officer, managing Ciena’s compliance and ethics program. Two weeks after becoming General Counsel, David signed a non-disclosure agreement with Nortel that would ultimately result in Ciena’s acquisition of Nortel’s Metro Ethernet Networks business in March 2010. Thereafter, David also headed Ciena’s human resources team for a year and helped create the Management Development Program that Ciena still offers its managers today.
“I’m hugely proud of the Management Development Program because it led to many other development programs that Ciena now has for both leadership and early in career individuals,” said David. “I’ve always believed that you can never stop learning, and part of the reason I’m still here after so many years is that Ciena has given me every opportunity to expand my portfolio and take on new responsibilities – even those that are outside my comfort zone.”
This feeling of empowerment at work allowed David to create a government relations function within the company and also manage its enterprise risk management, corporate real estate, and sustainability functions. Last year, he was asked to lead Ciena’s strategy and corporate development activities on an acting basis, and earlier this year, he was permanently appointed as Chief Strategy Officer. At the same time, he stepped down from the General Counsel role that he had held for over 14 years.
“In many of those cases, I learned something new and was forced to use muscles I didn’t know I had and build new muscles that enabled me to do those jobs,” said David. “Now, in the second half of my career, I’m shifting out of a role that I did for so long and doing something a bit different. I’m continuing to develop and look at this as a challenge and an opportunity”
But David still attributes part of his leadership success to his time working as a trial lawyer.
“The key to success as a trial lawyer is being able to read people and situations and persuade others toward a particular outcome,” said David. “I think my experience as a trial lawyer has significantly helped me drive a relationship-based culture at Ciena because it’s all about communicating and interacting with people.”
In his new role now as Chief Strategy Officer, David finds fulfillment when he’s working with others and helping them succeed.
“I am motivated by the fact that I love this company and the people that I work with. It’s very gratifying for me when I can communicate a strategic plan, direction, or initiative in a way that people can understand and relate to, and that then motivates them to go and achieve that objective,” said David.
When David’s not working or traveling for business, you’ll find him kayaking, golfing, or playing with his dog at his family’s home in Saint Michaels, Maryland. And although David has been with Ciena for over 22 years, he’s not thinking of changing his trajectory anytime soon.
“One of the things I get asked a lot is, ‘What do you think about slowing down?’ But I’m all in with Ciena, and I really enjoy what I’m doing. I can’t see myself doing anything else right now,” said David.
David’s drive for continuous learning and exploration in his career is shown through his various achievements across Ciena. Whether it be legal, human resources, sustainability, or strategy, David has pushed himself out of his comfort zone to grow and develop himself. His curiosity and success in trying new things have prepared him as he sets out on this next adventure in his career.