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Leadership & Strategy


A day in the life of former Cisco CEO Phil Smith

Phil Smith Cisco
Phil Smith is now chairman for Innovate UK and The Tech Partnership

While the average working day of a top-level CEO is hard to nail down, Cisco’s Phil Smith had some tried and tested strategies to ensure his hours in the office and on the road were as efficient and effective as possible.

When Phil Smith took the reins as UK and Ireland CEO for Cisco back in 2008 the credit crunch had just bitten. Big corporates were battening down the hatches for a storm with an end date that nobody knew.

It was in this period of global uncertainty that Smith began to hone some of the management and leadership skills that would help him guide Cisco through the downturn and maintain its position at the forefront of innovative technology.

“We had been doing brilliantly, and the financial services market was a big one for us,” he commented looking back. “Then, all of a sudden, it was struggling, and we were looking at whether we had issues with restructuring in the company.”

Smith’s response to the uncertainty, which hits employee confidence whether they work for a company with 1,000 members of staff or ten, was to go big on communication. It’s an approach he believes is critical for any CEO, and one which he tried to blend into every day.

“It’s important for leaders to show confidence and calmness. When you flap around a lot it gets magnified as it goes down the operation,” he added. “Some like to lay low until they have the full answer, but we never had the full answer. People generally prefer it if you keep talking to them – doing so as openly and transparently as possible. I saw a lot of businesses where leaders would come in, lock the door, look at a spreadsheet all day and come out with some kind of proclamation like they were getting rid of half the workforce.”

Dividing up his day

The variety his job at Cisco afforded him was one of Smith’s chief motivators. “It’s probably the thing that changes most as you move up through the hierarchy at an organisation,” he added.

His day would involve anything from a discussion about numbers, to a meeting about health and safety, to engaging with government or dealing with people management issues. “Not only do you have a set of variables in the company, but now you are leading a big business that has lots of people coming in from all sides wanting to talk to you about what you’re doing.”

Smith’s way of dealing with this was to see very little difference between a virtual and face-to-face meeting. With up to ten catch-ups with one or a number of people every day, this technique meant he was able to shrink the world down and cover off a lot more than if he stuck to in-person meetings.

Video at Cisco has been incredibly effective at cutting down the amount of national and international travel completed. “When the financial crisis in 2008 hit we banned travel for internal meetings. You could travel to see a customer, but if it was just an internal Cisco meeting then it had to be done on audio or video,” he remembered.

“In the first year we cut out half a billion dollars of airfares, and it really reset the level of travel being done.”

Digital communication

During his time as CEO of Cisco in UK and Ireland, and then as chair for the same region, he was leading a widely-spread team. To deal with this, and create a sense of unity amongst the workforce, he spent a lot of time doing blogs, videos, online meetings and other means of communication so that his staff always felt an open and frank conversation was possible.

However, he was careful to not layer in too many of what he called “executive emails”. Referring to those rambling weekly or monthly digital updates that are accompanied by a smiling executive, Smith believes the predictably of these meant members of staff either set them aside to read later or simply ignored them. Rather than “baking in methods of communication”, he preferred to mix things up and use mediums that kept people engaged.

Digital, he believes, should serve as a way of breaking down barriers and silos, reducing the time spent between important updates and creating an open communication forum that is open to everyone.

Making meetings work

Monday at Cisco was always numbers day. Some very smart back-end technology meant the business was able to close its books in a day, giving the senior leadership team the opportunity to sit down weekly and scrutinise the last week’s performance.

“Around lunchtime we’d have a forecast meeting where I’d pull in senior leaders to go through the output and numbers. That evening would be a call with the next level up of country leaders, after which the European leader would go into a global call,” he explained.

“I liked to try and make those operational meetings very action oriented, with the strategic ones a bit more organic.” This organic approach, where he wasn’t someone who required a pre-meeting briefing document or whitepaper, created an environment that encouraged innovation and collaboration.

As a leader, it was all about employing people that were not only better than him but were afforded the autonomy to get on with leading their particularly division without being micro managed or referring all decisions back up the management chain.

“I have hired people who I could have given any job to,” he said. “You realise more and more that it is just about getting good people and giving them fulfilling jobs to do. I definitely got better at identifying these people.”

When he looked back at his ten years spent running Cisco, his proudest achievement came in the form of employee engagement.

“In that last year as chief executive we ran a people survey. We scored 97.5 per cent for employee engagement and 100 per cent of employees said they were either proud or very proud to work for Cisco,” he said.

“That means people want to work for you, do better and go extra mile – getting to that position is great. If you can engage people in the business, making them want to be part of what you are doing everything, else fits in after that.”

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