There were times it was indirect, “Did you lose your razor?” Other times, it was very much direct, “You need to trim your sideburns; they’re too long.” But in both cases, during my pre-Cisco life, it was made clear to me that there was a certain appearance I needed in order to fit in – a corporate mold I needed to adopt, and I complied. I wasn’t one to rock the boat, and I figured everyone had to sacrifice a bit of their own personal expression in order to keep in good standing at work.
Then, in January of 2010, I made a career move – welcome to Cisco.
On my first day, my manager said to me, “Chris, one thing you need to understand is that Cisco was born on the West Coast. And because of that, we have a very strong, progressive West Coast mentality that supports and celebrates individuality, freedom of expression, and everyone having a voice and seat at the table. It may not be what you (or many) are used to.” It wasn’t. But it sounded great – I supported all those things too!
It wasn’t until one of my first onsite customer meetings, however, that I really started to understand and appreciate the extent to which that was true.
It was the Spring of 2010 and I was readying myself in my hotel room for the customer meeting that day. Dress pants – freshly ironed. Dress shoes – wingtips, shined & waxed. Cufflinks – cuffed & sparkling. Dress shirt – white & starched and finished with a blazer. Hair – well-coiffed. Face – clean-shaven. In hindsight, I probably looked like the typical stock photo image for “clean cut businessman.”
I was all set to meet with the CIO and other senior members of the IT staff (which, no pressure, included one of the founding fathers of the Internet!) Joining me would be one of our Cisco security experts who would be driving much of the conversation. After everyone was settled at the table in the room, he appeared at the door – my jaw dropped.
Camo shorts. Flip flops. Huge chain wallet hanging down. Baseball hat. T-shirt. Tattoos galore. Big bushy beard.
I was in shock. My previous employer required business formal four days a week, and business casual was for Fridays – which meant we could wear a blue shirt with our tie instead of a white shirt! And then, in comes our Cisco security expert – I was amazed and wondering what the others would think.
No one missed a step. There wasn’t a hesitation. No one looked concerned, even the customer wasn’t fazed. It simply didn’t matter what he looked like or what he wore – he was the smartest person in the room, and not judged by his appearance but rather his knowledge! He commanded the room’s attention purely on his credibility – not because he had a tie or no tie, but because he knew his stuff.
As my tenure at Cisco increased, I too began to explore my own areas of personal expression through appearance. Most recently, it has been with this insanely long beard I’ve been growing. It’s not exactly what people think of when they picture a “clean cut businessman.” And, yes, I’ve been told I look like everyone from Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (the running scene) to ZZ Top, the guys from Duck Dynasty, and even the Grumpy Old Troll from Dora the Explorer.
But you know what? Not once has anyone from Cisco told me that I needed to shave or trim my beard – and I’m not exactly out of the spotlight in my role.
As part of the Worldwide Collaboration Sales team, I’m often presenting at Cisco Live, at third-party conferences, at Cisco Executive Briefing Centers, and other customer events. A lot of people see me – and my beard.
That is why I love where I work, because at Cisco we are not judged by our physical appearance but rather by our knowledge, talents, and contributions – which is exactly how it should be. I love working at a place where individuality isn’t only tolerated but encouraged and celebrated.
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