Proximity is like opening curtains on a bright, sunny day: the light comes in and shows you all the details of the room, especially the things you may not have noticed before.
The Proximity Initiative is a Cisco-original program that is an integral part of our purpose to power an inclusive future for all. A proximity meeting is a one-on-one authentic and transparent conversation with someone who is different than you. The intent is to understand their challenges, perspectives, and overall employee experience. I joined Mayte Marquez, the Customer Experience EMEAR South Theatre Lead and 23-year Cisco veteran, for an honest and illuminating conversation about her unexpected proximity meetings and the lessons she learned when she made a commitment to understand the life and work experiences though the lens of someone different from herself. Mayte has lived in four different continents and has worked in all three regions at Cisco.
HELEN: Hi, Mayte! When you first heard about the Customer Experience Proximity Initiative*, what did you think?
MAYTE: I thought, GREAT! I have this! I’ve travelled, I’m always interested in people (learning about our differences and similarities), so I believed I was already doing it. I felt as though I was already a very inclusive leader; as I, myself, am different than many of my colleagues.
HELEN: So, how did you get started with this new program?
MAYTE: I thought this program wasn’t going to change me at all. I was going into the program using the same approach I’d always use, and I was sure the outcome would be the same. BUT I quickly realized that it was a totally different conversation. I could not believe it. I realized how blindsided I had been by what I was hearing. I had no idea.
HELEN: Wow, Blindsided!, Why do you say that?
MAYTE: You think that you are close to people. I have friends from all over the world that represent different cultures and faiths, so I thought I understood their differences. But I REALLY didn’t. I did not know the nuances that weigh people down.
HELEN: What was your biggest surprise?
MAYTE: How much people are holding in and the scars this leaves on the identity. For example, I had no idea the pressure put on black girls in schools to cut their hair in a certain way. This is life-changing to tell a child to change their identity to fit into an environment that’s different from theirs. This made me think: how many more experiences am I not aware of?
HELEN: What is the greatest value of the Proximity Initiative?
MAYTE: We’re giving our employees a voice to authentically share in a safe space.
HELEN: So, how did the Proximity Initiative change the conversation?
MAYTE: Proximity allows for two important things:
- It provides our employees from underrepresented groups a forum to tell how it really is.
- Leaders are given the time and safe space to truly listen.
This change in dynamic allows leaders to challenge their notion of diversity and inclusivity.
HELEN: Were there any difficult subjects?
MAYTE: The unexpected difficult subject was from employees who shared biases from working with partners and customers. We do not have control over their culture and behavior, yet, we cannot condone it. We must help our employees navigate these situations. It was really disappointing to hear female colleagues share how some customers defer to male colleagues first.
HELEN: These conversations are hard. What advice do you have for hesitant leaders?
MAYTE: Be courageous! It takes a lot more courage for our employees from underrepresented groups to open up and be honest. Proximity has really created a safe environment for us to share, listen, and learn. The concept of ‘raising your hand’ gives our employees permission to volunteer into the conversation and help leaders see through their eyes. And when you hear their stories of what they have to bear, you’ll learn that having these conversations is imperative and truly a fulfilling experience.
HELEN: Has the Proximity Initiative given you a new way of thinking?
MAYTE: I go into every meeting consciously. I am now acutely aware of not singling out anyone in a group because I’ve learned through proximity how it feels to be the outlier.
HELEN: What else could we be doing?
MAYTE: Recently I had a young, Muslim female join the team and it was not until a proximity meeting when I realized how much she would have benefitted from more care for my side with skip-level leadership. We need to be more proactive with our new hires across the full spectrum of diversity.
HELEN: Is “proximity” just for a “proximity meeting”?
MAYTE: Absolutely not! My meetings have taught me to ask different kinds of questions. Once you have that new perspective, you can take it into every meeting you have and slowly but surely evolve our culture. Proximity meetings are one of the most fulfilling learning experiences for me.
HELEN: What are the implications of not being proximate?
MAYTE: We compound suffering. The 2020 lockdown has taught us that isolation has a devastating impact on mental wellbeing. By not acknowledging differences and social injustice, we risk disconnecting affected employees and making them feel forgotten.
HELEN: What’s your advice to leaders who haven’t had a proximity meeting?
MAYTE: It’s a missed opportunity! Even if you are someone like me who has always taken an interest in different cultures, there is still so much we do not know. It’s a good feeling to have someone appreciate you for wanting to learn. The more exposure, the more we learn, and the better we become as leaders to create a more inclusive culture.
HELEN: And finally, what has this meant to you personally?
MAYTE: It’s humbling. I sadly realize so many people have never been consciously sought out for their opinion or truly heard. It’s as though they have been silenced all their lives. To be able to give genuine interest and time is a wonderful gift!
What can you do?
If you want to get proximate with someone different than you, all you have to do is:
1. Have a conversation with someone different from you. Listen and learn about their lived experiences with positive intent.
2. Take one action to be more inclusive as an individual and a leader.
* The Proximity Initiative was launched in 2019 in the Customer Experience organization at Cisco, led by Maria Martinez (Cisco Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer). The vision was for leaders to get proximate to underrepresented identities across CX in an effort to understand unique challenges, perspectives and experiences. Leaders would then gain new insights and understandings about their organization which would compel them to take action. Over the last 18 months there have been 500+ proximity meetings with 200+ leaders participating.