Come Behind the Scenes of Tech Pioneer Cisco, Part 2

The following is part 2 of a two-part series.  Click here for Part 1, which was published Friday.

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Cisco (CSCO) is basically everywhere. 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 #5

Cisco is obviously a tech giant and veteran, making it a prime target for start-up nation. From your experience in sales and amongst your team, how much time is reserved for studying competitors and how to thwart their initiatives? I feel as though businesses large and small do not pay attention to the upstarts nipping at their heels until it's too late.

Cisco holds a firm place as a leader in technology around the world. Part of that leadership is acknowledging our competitors, but "thwarting" initiatives might not be the most accurate way to describe how we spend our time. Quite often, start-ups identify an area of opportunity that the technology community feels is worth dedicating more time to.

Rarely are these start-ups taking advantage of an opportunity that Cisco has not already recognized and started work to develop, and if they have, then we need to assess whether it's something we compete with directly, or if there is greater opportunity in working with a company that has proven its capability. With Cisco's home in Silicon Valley for nearly 30 years, we've seen many businesses, large and small, work to gain market share in all sectors of technology. We are fortunate to have so many of the best engineers and business leaders to guide our development in all sectors of IT, and we are always looking to acquire new talent and push to drive innovation where it makes the most sense.

As I have said, I have a great team and critical parts of my team are the systems engineers that work with our customers. They see these start-ups and the problems that they are trying to solve. Further to this point, Cisco also sees start-ups as advantageous for our overall business and growth strategy. Our approach is centered on build, buy and partner, which fuel the company's innovative culture. Oftentimes, Cisco expands into new disruptive markets by either building internal incubator programs, and buying or partnering with companies large and small. A combination of a good strategy and exceptional leadership inside the business allows Cisco to aggressively seek out opportunities in the market and stay competitive.

Some problems that a customer may face will require us to present a solution that has been put together by an ecosystem of partners. Many parts of these solutions are built by start-ups that enhance Cisco products and technologies. Again, we don't automatically assume that a start-up means a competitor because they might be critical in solving a customer's problem. The focus is on what are we doing to help a customer solve a problem.

Question #6

Cisco has become legendary, or at least in my finance circle, for the use of its technology to make meetings more efficient. Help us all with a few tips on getting us in and out of meetings quicker!

Virtual meetings today are so different now than they were in previous decades, and the capability is increasing all the time. The move from audio-only to a fully interactive meeting experience with video, desktop sharing, real-time editing, and the ability to do everything from any device and from any location is an important change for those of us who participate in meetings for the majority of our days. It also works to keep teams connected and engaged, regardless of where their desk maybe located.

Being able to make eye contact and interact in real-time allows us to appreciate real people, and not just a voice at the other end of the line. We're more inclined to work together and align with that "one team, one fight mindset" mentioned earlier if we are seeing peoples reaction to our dialogue or having the ability to determine if "Yes" means I hear you or if "Yes" means I agree. Video eliminates these barriers to communication, which often leads to longer meetings.

In terms of tips for making meetings more efficient, utilizing the full suite of features available with meeting technology is the best way to get things done quickly. Always share video so you can respond to verbal and nonverbal cues, record a meeting so you can go back and reference the materials, and share materials via real-time instant messaging and screen sharing so that you can collaborate without relying on a huge email chain.

Cisco's WebEx Meetings technology offers these features and has seriously streamlined my workdays, about 70% of which are occupied by meetings. I often present to a live and a virtual audience and I always try to include the virtual audience into the discussion. I often ask questions to the live and virtual audience to engage in the topic. Keeping things lively and moving is critical.

Question #7

Unfortunately, market conditions continue to be challenging in the U.S. Even though the Americas division has been a top performer for Cisco in recent years, an interesting development seems to have occurred: more discounts and rebates needed to drive a sale. When is the right time for a business owner to offer a discount, and is there a smart way to do it as to make it financially impactful?

The focus on price occurs for many reasons, some that you have mentioned. It is hard to agree with your generalized comments on discount and rebates given the breath of our products (hardware and software), solutions and services. Our "go-to-market" includes dealing with our partners and often contracts where if we did not ensure that the customer did not understand the value of the acquisition we would be focused primarily on price, discounts and rebates.

What is the goal of the technology? Where is the technology in its lifecycle? Is a customer buying components, an architecture or a system? How critical is the technology or the end-users needs? What is the technical capability of the customer and is other services required for success? What is the risk profile of the customer in a particular situation for a particular solution? When a customer evaluates an acquisition is he/she also taking into account the cost to maintain, to operate, to hire knowledgeable, quality engineers? I can build you a usable communication system with barbed wire, string and a few tin cups, but is that what you want in a hospital, or being used by first responders or in our classrooms?

Our goal is to provide competitively priced solutions that address our customer's needs that allow them to operate into the future. Lasting relationships are never developed on the price of a product or a solution but what happens when that product and solution is in production. We stand by our customers and ensure we support their needs. You can't put a price, a discount or a rebate on that type of approach. To reiterate, we provide competitive solutions focused on customer needs. I believe that solving customer problems creates the financial impact that is required.

Question #8

Cisco has acquired a good number of businesses through the years. On day 1, 30, and 90 from new people arriving at Cisco, how do you seek to integrate them into the Cisco culture and measure their performance?

Our main goal when we acquire a company is to let the individuals who created and have mastered their technologies before joining Cisco continue to do what they do best. One great example of working with an acquired company is Cisco-Meraki. We acquired Meraki, a San Francisco-based maker of Wi-Fi, security and mobile device management for medium-sized businesses, in December 2012. The tight-knit, young, do-it-yourself culture of Meraki was something that we wanted to preserve while integrating the 300 plus employees into our organization.

As part of that process, we created an innovation-friendly workspace in San Francisco for Cisco-Meraki employees that felt similar to their old office. Earlier, I mentioned the importance of inclusion, and that means creating a work environment that respects and appreciates differences, including diverse perspectives, work experiences, life styles and cultures. These differences are sources and drivers of innovation.

Earlier, we talked about leaders being responsible for the vision and the mission. At Cisco, we make sure that our new employees are clear on the "road map" that our leaders have established. We then have to trust that this person has demonstrated their ability to do great things, and we have to give them the freedom to do what they do well in their own way.

It is important that we create this culture for new, acquired and tenured employees to ensure we have a healthy environment. We measure everything at Cisco but we focus our measurements on execution and outcomes. Many of our acquisition do the same thing. As we work through the integration process, we are aware of the "People, Process and Technology" that needs to be considered in order to create success.

Acquiring does not mean we kill the people, process and technology of the company that is joining Cisco. Actually, we try to understand it and often focus on scaling it through our "Go-to-Market" strategy. We can create synergy and scale if we understand each company and how they operate around "People, Process and Technology."

Around the Horn

In all of these executive exclusives, we try and end with a fun "around the horn" session. A couple of quick questions I had (answer in one or two sentences):

  1. Prior to Cisco, you were at Pepsi Cola International. How did you make the transition from a consumer company to Cisco?

Easy. Both companies focused on the customer. I received my training at IBM (IBM) and then went to Pepsi (PEP) to understand the challenges of being a customer. I believe Pepsi taught me how technology can be a differentiator and an enabler for customers.

  1. You work with a lot of high-profile professionals across government and other public and state entities. How does Pat Finn preserve his sanity while dealing with such high-caliber individuals?

Keep it real. The greatest people keep a perspective on things and don't take themselves too seriously. I laugh at myself and see the humor in every situation. I never get lost in a title or a position or a job. I practice being authentic.

  1. Long-time, legendary Cisco CEO John Chambers -- what are the three things you have learned from him?

I've learned to ask good questions, be prepared and be approachable by perfecting the art of listening.

  1. You were very much part of the Sept. 11, 2011 events, leading a team to support New York City customers who were affected. How did you inspire your team at the time to help in the wake of this event?

Sad days...I don't tend to talk about those days. There were many great leaders involved in Cisco's response at that time and I was honored to be a member of the team. A very important secret about inspiration: Leaders are inspired by the people around them. If you were aware of what some amazing people accomplished during that time, you would know that they inspired me and they still do every day. Ingrained in Cisco's culture is giving back not just in times of turmoil but every day.

  1. You are highly committed to a great not-for-profit called Inwood House. How have you sought to inspire the teens you are in contact with, and what are your broad observations on the next generation of potential leaders?

Through my work with Inwood House, STEM, U.S. military and through students I have interacted with, I believe our country is in good hands with the next generation of young men and women. I see a group of motivated, high-energy, articulate, focused, committed, loyal and smart men and women who are not being defined by where they are at today, but where they are going.

I am proud of what organizations, such as Inwood House, are doing to give inner city youth a chance for a complete education in the 21st century and give them a shot at success by providing a foundation. If you thanked a young man or woman in uniform for their service to our freedom and our country, you will see that foundation that I am talking about.

-- 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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