Feature Story

Cisco Creates a New Generation of Collaborative Leaders

by null

The company has built a program for shifting emphasis from super stars to super teams that has generated millions of dollars in savings and billions of dollars in new business opportunities. Part Four of a four-part series.

Please see the previous installments in this series, Part One: The Case for Collaboration, Part Two: Cultivating Organizational Collaboration, and Part Three: The Journey to Greater Organizational Collaboration.

Dec. 7, 2009

by Charles Waltner

Experts agree that changing the culture of a company is by far the most challenging part of developing greater organizational collaboration.

"But to change the culture, you have to change the behaviors of the leaders," says Annmarie Neal, vice president of the Cisco Center for Collaborative Leadership.

That, however, is the hardest task of all. Leaders are the order-givers, the bosses and the superstars who bring in the money. Often they have the super egos that go along with such prominence and success, Neal says.

With this thought in mind, Neal, a licensed clinical psychologist and talent management consultant with a business management background, came to Cisco about four years ago to help broaden Cisco's efforts in developing collaborative leadership.

While executive leadership programs are common, the Cisco Center for Collaborative Leadership – known as "3C"­ – is unusual in how it implements such teachings. As part of the program, Neal's team helped design Cisco's Executive Action Learning Forum (E-ALF). In E-ALF, five to six teams of 10 promising executives work together to build the strategy and tactics for addressing crucial business issues that have $1 billion in potential revenue generation or cost-savings. In most cases, the work of the teams leads directly to major initiatives the company implements. Each program has at least one senior executive sponsor.

"We've flipped the idea for executive training around," Neal says. "This is not a training program for practicing executive leadership. This is a business transformation initiative that helps executives develop their leadership skills."

Practicing Collaboration

But before Cisco could expect its executives to be more collaborative, it had to define exactly what it meant to be a collaborative leader, Neal says.

It did this by creating C-LEAD, a model that establishes a common understanding of the behaviors by which Cisco evaluates its executives (C-LEAD stands for collaborate, learn, execute, accelerate and disrupt). Two hundred Cisco executives contributed to defining C-LEAD's core principles.

C-LEAD is the main ingredient in the "secret sauce" of E-ALF: a series of strategy, collaboration and leadership frameworks. The frameworks guide managers in how to organize their thinking and decisions according to C-LEAD principles, helping executives prioritize what psychologists call the "super ordinate objective."

"It's about shifting focus from the individual to the group level of performance," Neal says. "The program guides executives in how to collectively reach group achievement and shine everyone's star."

To clear the path for collaborative interaction, Cisco "strips the stripes" of the participants – rank, expertise, political connections and accomplishments are neutralized in these teams to achieve broader collaborative goals. "Everyone is a learner, a teacher and a contributor," Neal says.

Though teams are tasked with reaching bottom line strategies for real business issues, they are judged not only by end results but also by how they get there. Neal's group has "failed" teams that came up with good ideas but did not embrace and absorb the collaborative teachings of the program. 

Cashing In on Collaboration

The 3C curriculum has proven highly effective at both developing collaborative leaders and tackling pressing business issues. Teams working in E-ALF have identified $25 billion in market opportunities for the company, several of which Cisco is already putting into play, including its Smart Grid initiative and market strategies for Mexico, China and Brazil. The program has also been the catalyst to several operational initiatives for Cisco, including new pricing and quality control strategies.

E-ALF and other aspects of the 3C program are also proving an excellent stage for viewing Cisco's most promising leaders in action, helping identify the very best for future promotion.

The 3C program is critical for Cisco as the company seeks to improve how its 65,000 employees share collective knowledge and coordinate resources across the globe. In particular, the Cisco of the go-go dotcom days was built on fiefdoms and rock star leaders compensated primarily on entrepreneurial principals of how much money their business units made.

Such narrowly focused incentives cannot work for today's Cisco, which is looking to build integrated, "end-to-end" networking systems rather than simply selling routers or switches. Through collaborative leadership, Cisco wants to break down internal divisions within the company to offer a single face to partners and customers throughout the world, in the process creating greater productivity and efficiently building revenues.

Challenges for Leaders

Cisco's collaborative leadership efforts, however, are not without costs. Beyond the $200,000 to $300,000 price for each E-ALF session, management changes to develop greater collaborative leadership have created both "regrettable" and "unregrettable" executive attrition. In fact, John Chambers, Cisco's chief executive, has publicly stated that Cisco has lost 20 percent of its executives since he started his campaign for greater collaboration within the company eight years ago.

Neal says the regrettable executive attrition rate is now very low, though Cisco did lose a couple of iconic executives in the past few years. Unregrettable losses of executives who don't show promise as collaborative leaders are now about 4 percent.

Neal says the early attrition rates are clearly attributable to successful executives who simply could not appreciate why they should give up their power. Unfortunately, even the savviest psychologist can't always change an executive ego that refuses to subordinate itself to the organizational super-ego. But for Cisco, collaborative leadership is no longer an option but a necessity.

"Survival of the fittest is a tough instinct to overcome," Neal says. "But your can break that down by making it clear to executives that their interests rest with the success of the group. And from Cisco's perspective, collaborative success is the key to our future."

Charles Waltner is a freelance writer in Piedmont, Calif.