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Hanging my Cisco shoes

My Cisco shoes

This month I had an opportunity to come back to Cisco System’s HQ in San Jose, exactly 3 months since I hung my Cisco shoes (more on this later).

A little bit over six years ago I embarked on an ‘experiment’ - joining a major multinational corporation, with only startup experience, to live first hand how it is like to work in such an organization. I was fortunate enough to join Cisco Systems - and at that time I never thought this curiosity-driven choice would turn into such a long period of my life. Neither did I know that the same unusual approach to join (as an experiment) would then lead to an unusual trajectory inside the corporation. During my time at Cisco I was in charge of the development of Cisco’s top 2% managers, I led the creation of an internal innovation initiative and I was finally in charge for designing the co-innovation strategy for Cisco’s worldwide network of innovation centers. I put myself out of a job once (and that got me promoted), I created a new role for myself, and then I switched functions.

Now as I look back at this period I realize that I need to hold some things in my mind and my heart that do not seem to be entirely consistent, yet they’re true at the same time. For example, I have an enormous amount of gratitude for Cisco as an organization for everything I received and for all the opportunities to give back to it through my work. At the same time, I needed to leave because some aspects of the work started eating and diluting the very same personal and professional strengths on which I founded my contributions to the company. For example, the resourcefulness that comes from having a startup background. This can take many forms, yet a simple story can help illustrate. At a time in which I was in charge of the development of the top 2% Senior Managers worldwide at Cisco, I formed a small team to launch an internal innovation initiative to help us ‘rekindle’ Cisco’s startup DNA (this was a few years ago before this type of efforts became so common that now ‘trying to innovate like a startup inside of a corporation’ is a cliché)… but I digress. When we were standing this grassroots effort we wanted to get some visibility inside the company, specially with our new CEO Chuck Robbins and his leadership team. After thinking about how to do this we decided to do a publicity stunt: we would get some Converse Chuck Taylor shoes branded with a Cisco logo and deliver them to the CEO during an internal Cisco TV live program, broadcast to all company employees over our intranet. Chucks for Chuck - and his c-suite leaders. So we found out the executives' shoe sizes through their executive assistants,had the shoes made in the Converse San Francisco store (which required creative fund management because, well, opening up a purchase order for shoes in a large corporation … short story: not fun). The day of the Cisco TV broadcast came and our leader, Brian Koldyke, was part of the transmission - he snuck in the shoes, passed them to our head of HR and in a few seconds thousands of people were looking at our CEO receiving his enormous Cisco branded Converse Chucks. That same week we had our event and delivered more shoes in person to half a dozen other c-suite members. When giving the shoes to the executives we told them about the work we were doing, we secured our initial meetings with them - and this was valuable for us to get the effort to move from grassroots to officially adopted later down the road. Why is such a mundane anecdote worthy of mention? Simply because it’s one of many examples of a non-typical, creative ‘hustling’ approach we took to push an initiative forward from grassroots to adoption.

Now, going back to the tile, Hanging my Cisco shoes: when we had those shoes made I kept a pair for myself. I started attending all major Cisco events (internal offsites, speaking engagements at conferences, etc.) proudly wearing my Cisco branded shoes - to the point that many times people referred to me as the guy with the Cisco shoes. A couple years later after this publicity stunt, I was driving work for Cisco’s innovation centers, and I was instructed by the leadership to follow certain guardrails - but something didn’t feel right. Even then, for the first time in my career I played inside the guardrails - instead of acting with a true entrepreneurial spirit, taking guardrails as mere suggestions and instead finding out a creative path to solve the challenge at hand. Interestingly enough, the first person to point this out to me was Maciej Kranz, our organization's VP. He told me “I was expecting you to be more of a disruptor”. Instead, I chose to follow the guidelines and treat the work as a program, which was detrimental to the outcome our organization was pursuing. I realized I was becoming a cog in the machine, and not the joyful disruptor that came into the company… and then it hit me, it was time to go. This was one of the hardest choices I’ve had to make, because I really appreciate the people I worked with and in many respects my job was a dream job: working in innovation in a major corporation, collaborating with a global team, presenting at conferences, learning from some of the brightest minds in the industry — yet none of these aspects were as valuable for me as being able to stay true to who I am. As difficult as it was, the timing to leave was perfect in many levels - and with a heart full of gratitude for past years, and the excitement of what is to come ahead I hung my Cisco shoes - and now I am touring the world with my own.

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