Feature Story

Lessons in leadership and innovation at Cisco Live

Inspirational tales of leadership, setting direction in uncertain times and continued innovation were key themes at Cisco Live 2020.
Jul 01, 2020

This is a post by Sean Michael Kerner

The world today is beset by multiple issues that challenge the leadership and resilience of businesses, governments and individuals. Yet, it's also a world in which innovation exists and leadership continues to emerge to help deal with challenges old and new.

At Cisco Live 2020, inspirational thought leaders across multiple areas of endeavors including technical, business, academic and even the four-time champion of the Iditarod, shared views on leadership and innovation.

Ethernet moving forward with innovation

Among the key enablers of innovation and resilience is Ethernet which is at the foundation of the internet and modern connectivity. Leading the Ethernet Alliance is its Chairman, Peter Jones, who is also a Distinguished Engineer at Cisco.

While Ethernet was first developed back in 1973, it has steadily evolved over the decades and continues to innovate today. Among the recent key Ethernet innovations is the ability to provide up to five times the bandwidth on existing CAT5 and CAT6 cabling, that is strung throughout offices and facilities around the world. Until recently, the maximum bandwidth that was possible on CAT5 and CAT6 was 1 Gigabit per second, but there is increasing need for more bandwidth as demands on networking continue to grow.

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Another key innovation in Ethernet is the expansion of Power over Ethernet (PoE) to support more than 30 Watts per port. PoE is increasingly essential to help enable industrial and Internet of Things operations and the ability to deliver more power over the same wire that brings connectivity is useful for many organizations.

"Ethernet is the foundation, it's at the foundation of Cisco and it's at the foundation of the internet," said Jones.

Seeing around corners: Plotting the post COVID-19 era

Rita McGrath, Author and Professor at Columbia Business School, delivered a master class in business strategy planning during her Cisco Live 2020 session titled, Seeing Around Corners.  With the uncertainly of COVID-19, many business leaders are trying to prepare for an unknown future. McGrath noted that the world today is at a strategic inflection point, which is a place where business strategy should be re-evaluated.

"A strategic inflection point is usually something in the external environment that causes the assumptions in your business to shift in some meaningful way," said McGrath.

Strategic inflection points challenge assumptions that businesses may have in how they view the world or measure performance. She noted that in such situations, leaders should not just blindly follow the strategy of the past. Rather, there is a need and an opportunity to forge a new path forward. McGrath outlined a multi-step process that can help leaders to build a new strategy for uncertain times.

The first step in the strategy is to do a portfolio inventory and see what's relevant and what perhaps is no longer needed. She also advocated that organizations revisit strategy overall, since many prior assumptions that leaders had taken are no longer valid in an era of strategic inflection. Part of the strategic update should also include exploring new opportunities that might well be better aligned with the market conditions. Finally, McGrath advocated for using what she referred to as discovery driven planning to move forward.

"Instead of a big monolithic plan which you probably are used to in the corporate business, we're going to think about planning, but planning to learn and planning to recognize patterns," McGrath said, "So we're not going to have a big monolithic plan, we're going to have a more orderly stage-by-stage planning that's broken up."

Team building lessons from an Iditarod Champion

In uncertain times, organizations of all sizes need to rely more on their team members. Among the most inspiring talks about team building at Cisco Live 2020 was not one about building a team of humans, or robots, but one of dogs.

See also: Cisco empowers the Inclusive Future

Among the most challenging sporting events known to humans is the annual Iditarod dog sled race that runs 938 miles from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. The race challenges the pack of dogs and their human leader to finish the grueling race as fast as possible, racing against the elements and other competitors.

Dallas Seavey is a four-time winner of the Iditarod. In his session, he charismatically outlined the seemingly insurmountable challenge of building a team, using dogs that other teams had deemed as rejects. Part of Seavey's team building plan was to help each dog achieve its full potential and to put them all in a position to succeed. During a particularly difficult stretch of the race where the team was hit by strong gusts of wind, Seavey pushed his team forward by focusing on small wins - 100 yards at a time.

"We could not focus on the fact that we had 40 plus miles of this [wind gust] to go through, we had to just focus on the next 100 yards and then the next 100 yards," Seavey said. "By breaking it into manageable pieces and having a realistic expectation for the team, they were able to accomplish that little goal each time."

All those little goals, ended up helping Seavey and his team achieve the bigger goal - emerging as the champion of the 2014 Iditarod in record time and the youngest person to ever win the race.

It's time for companies to step up

While the current environment is often referred to as being unprecedented, there have been other eras of conflict and uncertainly throughout American history. Jon Meacham, author and Presidential Historian provided some historical insight into challenges faced by some of America's greatest leaders in a conversation with Michael Timmeny, SVP & Chief Government Strategy Officer at Cisco. 

Across a broad ranging discussion spanning two hundred years of American politics, Meacham detailed why and when different times of change have come to the U.S.  While the government has a role to play in helping to define society, so too do business leaders.

"We are in a golden era, one hopes of private people doing public service things and that's terrific, it's what we're supposed to do," Meacham said, "Our history tells us that great progress comes when public and private intermingle."


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