Le roi est mort, vive le roi!

As these things go, the 26th CiscoLive! user conference was a feast for the drama lovers among us. And who doesn’t love drama? Apparently quite a few, as a record 26,000 attendees gathered in San Diego last week looking to learn more about changing of the guard at this key IT vendor organization, adding speculation about the company’s direction to tech professional development. In many ways, the conference was about leadership – at the CEO level, but also in staffing for diversity, in building solutions for today and in visioning solutions for the marketplace of the future.

In his last keynote presentation as Cisco CEO, John Chambers addressed the leadership issue head on with a discussion of why companies fail. Chambers is bullish on the concept of fierce competition in a market that is transforming, and he introduced his talk with the observation that “in the next ten years, it’s predicted that 40 percent of enterprise companies will no longer exist.” He attributed this high attrition rate to companies’ failure to recognize market transition, to stay close enough to customers and partners and to their tendency to “do the right thing for too long.” Leaders, he argued, need to “reinvent,” to “think exponentially” and to “see around the corner” in order to understand market transformation, now in particular when the pace of change in IT is so highly accelerated. The primary transition Chambers spoke of is ‘digitization’ of the enterprise – a key theme at the event that serves in his schema at the litmus test for survival: “IT no longer enables business; it is business,” Chambers proclaimed, and if a company does not transform “it will be taken out. “Disrupt or be disrupted” are the only options.

According to Cisco research, 87 percent of CEOs think going digital is crucial but currently only 7 percent actually have a digital strategy. In Chambers’ view, effective strategy will consist of an architectural solution based on FAST IT – Cisco’s nomenclature for highly responsive, highly available IT infrastructure and applications – but it must be one that is framed in terms that business can understand. Cisco’s own strategy differentiation, he added, relies on connectivity and architectures – “a single product company will get crushed” – on intelligent networks (ACI, SDN, SLN, NFV) working together as an architecture. At the same time, he argued, Cisco’s ability to grow faster than the industry average is due to the company’s shift “from selling boxes to outcomes,” based on a company culture that encourages innovation and cooperation between teams and product silos, and is willing to make the required organizational changes. In an oblique reference to restructuring, he added, “we had the courage to change everything in the last three years.”

This architectural approach, and Cisco’s willingness to test the water in new markets – think China or Cisco’s successful entry into the server market – are only a few of the many legacies that Chambers will leave as a reminder his dynamic 20 year tenure as CEO. Timing his exit (he will stay on as Executive Chairman of the Board and “wing man” for incoming CEO Chuck Robbins) to provide new leadership for the coming transition to ‘digitization’, Chambers was careful at the event to point to the qualities in Chuck Robbins that will enable him to support Cisco’s continued growth and trajectory: an “incredible track record,” the “courage to redesign sales,” and his disposition as a “customer-driven, partner person” with the “best ability to take a vision and tie it to execution,” all uniquely qualified Robbins, he explained. According to Chambers, these qualities were apparent to the Cisco board responsible for evaluation of CEO candidates – at the conclusion of a gruelling 16 month review/interview process, Robbins was accepted for the leadership role in a first time, unanimous vote. Going forward, Robbins’ key stated priority is to “set priorities,” which as yet remain unspecified. (For more on Robbins views on leadership, the market and Cisco direction, see the video presentation of John Chambers’ onstage interview with Robbins at CiscoLive! at the end of this article).

One decision Robbins has made is for diversity in his new executive team. In leadership transitions of this kind, it’s not unusual for alternate candidates to seek their fortunes elsewhere once a decision has been made in favour of a leader. According to Robbins, he asked each of the candidates to make a minimum commitment of three to five years; however, at Cisco as in many other similar scenarios, several of the executives, including president of development and sales Rob Lloyd, CTO Padmasree Warrior, COO Gary Moore and and chief globalization officer Wim Elrink, have opted to seek new opportunities. In staffing up his executive team, Robbins has set a precedent that is unmatched elsewhere. As the executive lineup in the graphic below shows, leadership at Cisco will be 50 percent female – a share that is far in excess of the 25-30 percent female participation rate for the IT industry as a whole and an expression of confidence in the notion that the best executive search looks at the whole pool. At the IoT World Forum event held in Chicago last October, John Chambers asked “where are all the women?” Eight months later, Robbins has a definitive answer designed to promote Cisco success: as VP of the IoE practice in Cisco Consulting Joseph Bradley observed in his presentation on digital transformation, research has found that 93 percent of enterprises characterized by inclusion and diversity are more successful than those which are not.

Cisco executive team, 2015
Cisco executive team, 2015

In some ways, Cisco’s bold move at the top is the ‘good news’ and the ‘bad news’; while this degree of diversity is laudable, the inclusion of women at a rate that is commensurate with demographics should not be newsworthy. But an important tenet of change is working with the real world, rather than the ideal, a perspective that informed a Women in Technology panel convened at the event to explore barriers and opportunities for women across all areas in the industry. The panel began with a level set delivered by Cisco’s chief communications officer Melissa Selcher, who provided a number of key stats on women’s participation in the IT industry: despite new executive appointments, currently only 25 percent of the Cisco workforce is made up of women; in Europe, for every thousand women who hold a degree, only 29 hold a degree in information technology, and only 4 of these will eventually work in the IT sector; in the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, only 21 percent of engineering students are female; in Latin America, women comprise only 23 percent of workers in systems and engineering; and in the US, though women earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, only 12 percent of computer science degrees are held by women. In historical context, these numbers are even more alarming as they represent a decline in rates for training and workforce participation from the highs achieved in the 1980s, a decline that is sometimes belied by the celebrity hiring of women in top level positions. This matters, from both an industry and a women’s perspective: while policies of inclusion will help to widen the pool of workers in an industry that is chronically short on skills, for women themselves, ICT can offer well-paying, sustainable jobs of the future.

Women in Technology panel: Melissa Selcher, Fran Katsoudas, Lauren Cooney, Inbar Lasser-Raab, Susie Wee. Courtesy: Cisco
Women in Technology panel: Melissa Selcher, Fran Katsoudas, Lauren Cooney, Inbar Lasser-Raab, Susie Wee. Courtesy: Cisco

So how can panels like this help? While awareness building around broad industry issues is instructive, the sharing of individual stories and the description of concrete actions that can be taken to create more inclusive workplace cultures all serve to inspire confidence that advance on this challenge is possible. At Cisco itself, chief people officer Fran Katsoudas noted that while there are “still social dynamics that we have to get over,” the company has invested $1.3 million in STEM education in order to reach girls (and boys) at a younger age, before gendered notions around subject area interests kick in. Inbar Lasser-Raab, VP of enterprise solutions, pointed to establishment of the IoT World Forum Young Women’s Innovation Grand Challenge designed to inspire girls to consider STEM careers, but also to Cisco culture which allows women to try on different roles – a stance that enabled her to “follow my passion.” Susie Wee, CTO for Networked Experiences, added that the company proved its acceptance of her new motherhood with work flexibility in terms of time off and collaboration via Telepresence which helped her to juggle career and parenting. For Lauren Cooney, senior director of Software Strategy, Cisco provided lots of opportunity to take courses, allowing her to build skills in coding, but also to develop skills in the business behind it.

Beyond these environmental factors, panelists drew on their own experiences to offer guidance to other women who may be negotiating a career in ICT. In no particular order, panelist advised:

Inbar Lasser-Raab: Harsh critics may be saying the very things you need to hear so accept criticism as a source of growth. Get out of your comfort zone – dare to make an impact as this is where real advance is possible. Branding is important; develop a core competency that demonstrates clear value. This can help you advance as people know what to expect of you. Don’t be afraid to push yourself into a new role.

Fran Katsoudas: Women need to raise their hands when they are “50-60 percent” sure (as do men) rather than wait for 100 certainty, and to participate in groups in Dare or Jump that can help accelerate their careers. Having mentors that can help you develop skills for the current and next job is key – sponsorship can support movement that can help leaders understand the business from multiple angles.

Susie Wee: Get really good at something, become synonymous with it and produce sustainable artifacts at work that people can point to. Develop new skills but do what you’re good at – bring skills from weekend activities back into your day job. Be yourself – it’s okay if you don’t look like a guy with khakis.

Lauren Cooney: Listening skills are under-rated and are in fact what is needed to help the team get the job done. Own your career, figure out your network and find your mentors. Don’t underestimate your financial worth as you may have to insist on it.

According to Katsoudas, individual efforts are finding their counterpart in industry-wide activity. For example, she engages with companies such as Intel and Microsoft about the latest trends in the hiring of women and has observed much more sharing of best practices. Ultimately, though, the specific must become standard: as Lasser-Raab concluded, “we need more male advocates for women in technology,” a message that has clearly resonated with incoming Cisco leadership.


  1. Canadians fared well in the First IoT World Forum Young Women’s Innovation Grand Challenge, taking two 2nd place spots for an Interactive shower and The Book of Everything, and one 3rd place prize for an Arthritis Prevention through Motion Detection solution – nice work!

    Congratulations to all 16 young women winners.

    Executive Sponsor of the challenge, Inbar Lasser Raab, Cisco VP Products and Solutions Marketing noted: “We are thrilled to see the passion, innovation and professionalism of all participants in the challenge. We hoped that the great excitement and opportunity around the Internet of Things will appeal to young women and attract them to get involved in STEM fields. The results exceeded our expectations, demonstrating great creativity in utilizing IoT to address everyday challenges and better people’s lives.”