Come Behind the Scenes of Tech Pioneer Cisco, Part 1

The following is Part 1 of a two-part series. Check out Part 2 for more on Cisco's behind-the-scenes business.  

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Cisco (CSCO) is basically everywhere, but I bet you didn't know that. If you did know that, perhaps you underestimated how much Cisco is everywhere. Follow? In addition to Cisco products and services being everywhere, the company is leading the charge in new growth areas, such as smart cities.

Bringing me behind the scenes at Cisco was Patrick Finn, senior vice president of Cisco's U.S. Public Sector Organization. The bonus points in this two-part series: Insights on leadership.


Question #1

Cisco is known as the "Internet's plumber," that necessary company ensuring that everything magically works on desktops and handheld devices. Yet, so many are still unaware of Cisco because it's not as visible to their lives as Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR). How is Cisco looking to play in the next era of tech, or as Cisco CEO John Chambers puts it, the "Internet of Everything." I think readers would be particularly interested in Cisco's view, and role, in smart cities.

I have often thought it was important to ensure you capitalize what you are known for, especially if you are good at it. Being the "Internet's plumber" has enabled us to ensure our customers communicate from the mobile desktop to the data center and in a secure manner. That is what you have described as the magic -- this magic allows us to create the foundation that makes the "Internet of Everything" possible.

Cisco's infrastructure technology has for a long time provided the building blocks for many of the technology experiences -- including the basic experience of being connected online -- that millions of people depend on every day across the globe. However, we are also present in the emerging technologies that promise to link millions of people, places and things through the "Internet of Everything" as well as connect the previously unconnected.

We are committed to transforming the way U.S. public sector organizations protect, serve and educate, and "Smart Cities" is one of many initiatives Cisco is leading as part of this effort. In February 2009, Cisco unveiled its holistic blueprint for "Smart+Connected Communities" (S+CC), a global initiative using the network as the platform to transform physical communities to connected communities that actually run on networked information.

S+CC communities rely on the network to enable economic, social and environmental sustainability; and we hope that the same principles of openness that have made the Internet a thriving ecosystem over the past 20 years can be applied to make communities a smarter and connected platform. We are currently working on more than 90 Smart+Connected Communities projects around the world.

But it is extremely important that the "Internet of Everything" is not just the redefinition of the "'Internet plumbing" that is only focused on the connection of these devices. You will see the network as an Internet of Everything platform. This platform will enable critical services including sensors, devices, networks, computing, storage, data analytics and control systems. Many of these technologies will be delivered by Cisco or by our Internet of Everything ecosystem of Partners.

One example is the work Cisco and our partners are doing for the city of San Mateo in California is focused on intelligent parking. Looking for parking in crowded urban corridors is maddening and it's also a big contributor to carbon emissions and poor air quality. To address these issues, Cisco is working with Streetline, a San Francisco-based technology company that aims to cut the time and frustration of finding an open spot. Together the companies have installed a sensor-based, real-time mobile parking application that automatically updates users with parking information for 21 locations. Consumers use the app to find an open parking spot in advance, saving them mass amounts of time and frustration.

Again being the "Internet's plumber" while developing intelligence, analytics and applications for our customers allows us to make the Internet of Everything a reality in many ways with our customers and partners with the focus of solving business or government issues. Today's issues are around creating efficiencies, revenue and productivity in a tough economic environment. That has always been our focus at Cisco.

Question #2

You oversee an important area for Cisco, the business plan for state and local government, educational institutions at all levels, and the U.S. federal government; and you also have extensive experience in expensive IT and communications technology. Help a small business owner: what are your secrets to rallying the troops to always be successful?

The honest truth about our businesses at Cisco, and it is especially true in the U.S. public sector, is that we are a microcosm of all of our business models from the small business owner to the global enterprise, from a vertical focus to ensuring we support a large geography that includes creating service providers and cloud provides in our customer environment.

Your point about rallying the troops is critical because it is important for our teams to feel empowered to solve the smallest problem to the largest issue with the ability to ask for help. I don't know if I have any secrets because I am very clear on the definition of success - which is to keep our focus on our customers and their mission and needs. In order to innovate we take risks and test out new ideas. The trick is to know when an idea has merit and to push forward and when to stop a trail and move on.

Keeping customers focused, I am clear about a few things:

  1. It is not about checking the box or being the "Ph.D. of the problem" but about being the seeker of the solution. I believe I have created an inclusive environment and a culture where people feel comfortable sharing their views, opinions and perspectives. It is important that this environment enables everyone to achieve his or her full potential.
  2. Failure is giving up or not learning from your mistakes. We all make mistakes. It is important to be self-aware of your strengths and your weaknesses because it makes it easier to ask for help. It is easy to see my development if I am clear that I must deliver for my customers. It is easy for me to ask for help or minimize the ego if I know I can solve a problem for a team member where a customer benefits.
  3. "Good enough" is not acceptable.
  4. I believe it is important to have a dialogue, discuss and debate prior to the decisions so that after the decision is made we all understand the clarity of execution. I don't have a lot of time for dialogue, discussion or debate after a decision.
  5. My final point on clarity, or as you have stated "my secrets for success," is that I want my team to know that I work for them. Sometimes I am providing a perspective, feedback or removing obstacles but the best is when you are directly involved with a customer opportunity or issue.

I have learned from my military customers that it is important for the troops to have clarity, vision and a mission that is larger than any one person, including the leader. Our vision in U.S. Public Sector is to "transform how our customers protect, serve and educate." We do that through our mission of "connecting, innovating and leader" with world-class products, solutions along side a set of world-class partners. Our external rallying cry is to "Serve those who protect, serve and educate." Our internal rallying cry is "One team, one fight." Everyone in the organization needs to know and live the vision, the mission and demonstrate the rallying cries.

I think this applies to small or large businesses in any vertical focused in any industry.

Question #3

Sad but true, most businesses view customers as only that: the engine that helps to keep the bills paid. But, customers stay customers in this competitive world if you go above and beyond to make them feel valued. How do you build and maintain customer relationships at Cisco? I can imagine Cisco deals with big accounts that if lost, would bring pain to the bottom line.

I'm fortunate to work with U.S. public sector customers, which are the people and organizations that have an impact on citizens' lives and their daily experiences with organizations' emergency response teams, schools or local and state government offices. We also support the Department of Defense, which is on the front lines for our country. The fact that my team has a role in their success is something that all of us can connect with on a personal level, which means they are never "just a customer."

That's the first place I suggest business leaders start, connect with customers over what they are trying to do, not just what they are trying to buy. I would suggest this is a focus on execution and outcomes. This focus eliminates the selling, the winning and losing and that customer's purpose is to pay the bills.

Instead of thinking of my job as strictly sales, I reinforce with my team that our jobs are to ensure success for our customers in whatever mission they are working toward, by providing the best IT solution we can. It's very different when you think about your goal being focused on enabling a police officer to spend 20 percent more time patrolling for public safety (and not uploading administrative documents), versus selling a solution for mobility. It is clear that we need to sell to remain viable but we can also educate and solve customer problems.

I try to put myself in the customer's shoes and really understand the challenges they are facing. I spend time with our customers and partners to understand their real needs to simplify their complexities and determine what challenges they need to address. Before you talk about technology, products, services or solutions, you have to ask good questions and listen. Customer relationships are built over time and based on trust, respect, confidence and execution. These are just words if you don't understand the problem you are trying to solve. I was told once that it is easy to solve problems if you don't listen to what the customer is trying to do.

Our customers are in the business to protect, to serve and to educate. If technology doesn't help them do those important things for the citizens of the United States, customer relationships will always be out of reach. I am honored to serve these customers.

Question #4

Like countless businesses during the 2009 economic downturn, Cisco had to restructure its business to meet new demand levels in the marketplace. Part of that involved layoffs. Can you describe how an announcement of that kind impacts closely integrated teams, and how you sought to energize and motivate those remaining at the company? I am also curious what you learned about leadership during that downturn that you still employ today.

This is a tough but a good question. Honestly, one that I would always prefer to avoid because it is never easy to go through layoffs or lose members of your team. I have always prided myself on building high performance teams and have worked with some amazing, talented and intelligent professionals. These events and downturns require you to make some very tough but necessary decisions.

  1. It is not personal but you need to be human. Transparency and authenticity is critical and helps.
  2. It is important to focus on the mission of the team and make decisions for the good of the whole. Not everyone will see this during the downturn but it must be the rallying cry for the go forward plan.
  3. Determine the course of action and act quickly. Face the team to ensure they understand what is going on and the decisions that have been made while being respectful to the individuals impacted. There is no need for rumors, drama or defensiveness.
  4. Be visible, be clear, be respectful, be confident about the future and don't be negative. "Negativity travels around the world before good news gets up in the morning." Make sure you wake up with a positive outlook and a plan for the future. Hope Floats.

From a leadership perspective, it is clearly these times of adversity that you learn the most about yourself. If you can't answer the question for yourself, "Why am I here?" It will be impossible for you to lead others through the difficult times.

Failure is quitting when people are counting on you. You can lean on your hero's like Winston Churchill, Vince Lombardi or Franklin D. Roosevelt, who have all lead through adversity. You can come up with catchy phrases like..."don't give up the ship" or " as you see it, so be it." But it is at these times that you have to be present and have clarity of what your vision and mission is for yourself and your organization.

You have to make the words and the culture of "One team, one fight" real for your teams. During these times, your team becomes your customer where you need to demonstrate with actions what we talked about earlier. You have to bring the words: trust, respect, confidence and execution, to life for your team. My greatest leadership lessons during this time are the realization that it is not about me.

Check out Part 2 of this article to find out more about Cisco. 

-- By Brian Sozzi CEO of Belus Capital Advisors, analyst to TheStreet

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

At the time of publication, Sozzi held no position in the stocks mentioned.

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