“Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions,
to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us.” — Michelle Obama, Becoming
Imagine a world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where differences of all kinds are valued and celebrated. That’s my wish this holiday season.
And Cisco is working to make this wish come true.
Cisco’s purpose is to Power an Inclusive Future for All. I love this statement! It was totally aspirational and inspiring when we adopted it; other companies have since followed our lead. And look what we’ve done! As of today:
- 43% of Cisco’s executive leadership team are women;
- We ranked 3rd in the Fortune 2022 100 Best Large Workplaces for Women list;
- We have 30+ inclusive communities, which together serve 30K employees;
- 100% of Cisco VPs took the Multiplier Effect pledge;
- And we’re hard at work in 12 important social justice areas, outlined in our just-published Cisco 2022 Purpose Report.
This is what inclusion looks like by the numbers. I’m proud to share them! But we all know that these numbers stand for more—real change involves much more than words and numbers. Let’s explore this purpose in more depth: what is Cisco doing to power inclusive, full-spectrum diversity for all? And what can we do—as a company and as individuals—to make a difference when it comes to inclusion, until there isn’t any difference anymore?
I have lots to say here, but I want to call out three areas in particular:
Simply put, people need to see people who look and live like them achieving things. If you see it, you can be it! Without representation, there’s no model, no mental map of who can take on certain roles, and what they can/should look like.
Let’s take leadership and gender as an example. Leadership used to look like a man in a suit. Men had a uniform, but women never have! Huma Abedin was Vice-Chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. In Both/And: A Memoir, Abedin recalls how challenging it was to define Clinton’s look. Because there was no mental map for what women leaders look like—especially a woman president.
Sponsorship and mentorship
An inclusive future for all won’t happen by accident, and it won’t happen without the help of others. Luckily, we have processes in the corporate world that help a more diverse population advance in their careers.
Sponsorship is about finding that person in the organization who will sponsor you in rooms and spaces you don’t have access to. Someone who will be on the lookout for the right opportunity, the right initiative. They know your capabilities and they’ll make sure you’re matched to opportunities to grow your career.
There are plenty of potential sponsors out there! As I mentioned above, 100% of Cisco’s VPs have taken the Multiplier Effect pledge, promising to “sponsor at least one extraordinary person different from me to advance their career, and to challenge my peers to do the same.”
Yet there’s no prescriptive way to get to sponsorship. It’s organic—you can’t force it. It’s about being in the right place at the right time. You have to build rapport with a potential sponsor through your reputation and execution, so they know they can count on you. Sponsorship is an art, not a science.
Mentorship, on the other hand, is more concrete, more tangible, more scientific. I really love mentoring people, at Cisco and on the outside. I’m always clear that there has to be a purpose to the conversation, an outcome. Either it’s about solving a specific workplace challenge someone is facing, or they’re applying for a new role, or they want to think through their next career steps.
I see mentorship as similar to coaching. We have lots of that at Cisco: both informal coaching and coaching programs. So be bold and take action! Find someone you believe can be your coach, who you can learn from. Ask them, “Hey, I’ve noticed you’re really great at this. Would you mind helping me through it? It’s one of my development areas.”
And yet real change, a true inclusive future for all, happens when representation, mentorship, sponsorship, and community involvement all happen continuously. Along with countless small, daily attitudes and actions that make a difference.
It all adds up to… the hum. Let me explain.
Why do I call it the hum? (And no—I’m not talking about the scene in The Wolf of Wall Street!) It’s the subtle but unmistakable sound of change. It always starts with small sounds—whispers even—and then those whispers grow into a hum. Because all these actions I’ve talked about add up, and the more they add up, the bigger and stronger they become. And that’s the way that you get real societal change.
This hum needs to be consistent—a constant buzz, a constant need for action, for checking yourself, for fulfilling commitments you made. The hum is more about “doing change,” less “talking about” change. It’s in the details: what you say to your daughters or sons in the morning, how you greet your Uber driver or your coffee barista, how you interact with each person you talk to at work. It’s the cumulative effect of continuous, positive actions that breaks down biases and preconceptions. The hum means a constant noise that you’re putting into the system, to move and change it. Gradual changes, constant actions, where we collectively make a difference until a day when there isn’t a difference anymore.
This can sound exhausting! Yes, change requires work! But we’re not alone. We have each other, and many companies, like Cisco, who are setting the example.
That’s what companies can do: they can start modeling the change, setting things in motion. Cisco does this really well: it creates a vision, pushes us to think and act, and presents the opportunities. It helps us envision a new destination. It provides a structure, a path that can take us to that new place.
But we have to take this journey ourselves. The impetus for real change is within us—each of us! The hum is up to us!
Give the gift of awareness
So, what’s next? Since we’re about to head into the holidays, take a quiet moment to reflect on our collective purpose. If you exchange gifts this time of year, I encourage you to give the gift of awareness. Here are four books I love: each explores diversity and inclusion from a different angle. I promise each will inform, inspire, and occasionally challenge. I urge you to read them, gift them, and talk about them. And keep the hum alive!
- Huma Abedin, Both/And: A Memoir
- Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
- Mónica Guzmán, I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times
- Indra Nooyi, A Biography
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