Varsha Kanwar has seen the power of the right workplace culture. As chief of staff in Cisco’s CX Portfolio Product Development organization, she’s passionate about the “power of we” and how teams can make amazing things happen — if we share the right purpose.



Five ways to build powerful cultures

    1. Play to your strengths. Recognize that diversity can strengthen your team. We all play a role. 
    2. Find your collective purpose. What’s the north star that guides your people? Remind yourself of it, every day. 
    3. Show up and lead change. Our flexibility and openness to new perspectives helps us turn every challenge into an opportunity. Show up and lead that change. 
    4. Communicate to bring people along. Change means uncertainty and stress. The only answer is open communication. 
    5. Reward and recognize contributions. Celebrate the behaviors that really matter to your team culture — even if they’re not shouting the loudest.



Step 1: Play to your strengths to find the “power of we”

A deep appreciation for diversity is key to Varsha’s approach to team performance. “Being from a military family, we moved around a lot and I learned at a very young age to respect and embrace differences in culture. I’ve always thought of myself as a global citizen. I was born Hindu, but we celebrated all the different festivals throughout the year.”

This perspective has translated perfectly into the workplace. “We all have our individual strengths. We should stop seeing our differences as divisions; instead, they’re something that we can leverage. For me the sense of “we” is always higher than sense of “me”. We become a force together.”  

Varsha’s own strengths are the perfect example: she sees herself as a connector of ideas, people and processes.

“I view the leaders on my team as the South Sea pearls, each unique in what they do. I see my role as an unbreakable thread that brings them all together into a beautiful necklace.” 

Step 2: Find your collective purpose

Finding what role you play in your team is vital. But Varsha also emphasizes the importance of a greater purpose that the team can own collectively.

At Cisco, that purpose is our focus on the customer.

“I am most energized when I am in roles where I directly engage with customers. I’ve always thought of myself as a spokesperson for the company. Even when I was a program manager, whenever I am meeting anyone, at or outside the office, I am the brand of Cisco.” 

The team Varsha works in, CX Product Portfolio Development, builds applications, portals and platforms that customers use every day, and the whole organization shares Varsha’s customer-centric purpose.

“In the past, we focused most on delivering the best technology for the customer — you could say it was an inside-out approach. Now, with our Customer Experience transformation, whenever we’re trying to make a design decision, we always ask ourselves ‘what would the customer experience be like in this situation?’. We literally have the CX customer journey (see diagram, below) printed out on big boards, set as our PC screensaver, simply everywhere. It means the whole team has bought in to the mission and is working towards it.”

Step 3: Show up and lead change

While having a clear purpose as your unchanging “north star,” Varsha has found that her adaptability to change has helped her the most. “They say a cat has nine lives. I’ve had nine careers so far,” says Varsha. “I’ve lived all over the world and I’ve tried everything from teaching to nursing, banking to acting, before I found Cisco.” 

Varsha credits her early upbringing for her ability to adapt. “My father was in the Air Force. We moved base every two years. And you can imagine as a child, this was very, very annoying. But as an adult I’m so thankful for it, because it’s built resiliency in me. If you said to me tomorrow ‘Varsha, the team is changing,’ I’ll pause for a minute, then say ‘Alright, this sounds good. What can I do to enable the team through this change?”  

In fact, simply responding to change isn’t enough to be truly successful today. You need to drive change and actively seek out new experiences, connections and perspectives.

“Since I joined Cisco, I’ve been part of Connected Women, Women of Impact, Inclusion and Diversity Community, and many other activities, including mentoring and reverse mentoring.” For Varsha, the value of these “stretch assignments” is hard to overstate. As well as making valuable connections from across Cisco and the wider industry that have helped her in her day job, she’s learned new skills and perhaps more importantly, new perspectives.

But none of that value would have been possible if she’d just sat at her desk. “When Early in career professionals ask me for advice, I always tell them — be curious, ask questions, go out of your comfort zone and show up. The “showing up” I believe is the most important part. Sometimes even if I’m not 100% comfortable or confidentI still show up anyway. We can make the best of any situation by being always open to learning.”  

For Varsha, that curiosity and willingness to learn is critical. “You might have done the same thing 10 times. But if you are open to learning and try a new way of doing it the next time  you might discover a better outcome and that’s how innovation happens.”

Step 4: Communicate to bring people along on your journey

At Cisco and elsewhere, Varsha has ridden waves of change and thrives on it. But there’s no denying that change is stressful: even the healthiest workplace culture and the most productive teams can fall apart during times of transformation. How can leaders and their teams navigate changes in the organization and its mission and come out stronger on the other side? 

“You can have the right vision, the right strategy, new products, new roles, new branding… but you need to bring people with you on the journey,” says Varsha. “Our job as leaders at every level is to help our teams understand the WIIFM — what’s in it for me. What does the change mean for their jobs? Their opportunities? How can we help them to keep growing, to innovate, and to be to be successful in achieving their own vision?” 

The key to all this, of course, is communication that appeals to both heads and hearts.

“When Maria [Martinez] joined Cisco, she had a huge mission to execute,” says Varsha. “And even though she was so new to Cisco, she showed up, holding All Hands every week, whatever it took to bring the whole CX organization together to share the news. And what’s important is that Maria kept an open channel for feedback. As well as live Q&A on the All Hands, she set up an email alias called “shape CX” that any employee could use for suggestions. And she and her team closed that loop by sharing what the leadership team was doing with the feedback — and that’s critical for helping employees feel connected, empowered and bought in.” 

Learn how Cisco maintained a positive customer-centric culture during such a major transformation.

Step 5: Reward and recognize all kinds of contributions

Celebrating successes is an important ingredient in building the right culture: you have to recognize and reward the best behaviors. And that should be done consciously and consistently, because it’s easy to leave some of your finest people in the shadows.  

“It’s important not to just reward those who are in the spotlight, for example fixing the high-profile problems for customers,” says Varsha. What about the people who quietly did brilliant work so that those problems didn’t even arise in the first place? We should reward those innovators that simplify, optimize, do due diligence, think ahead.” 

“In CX we have our “Best of We” recognition program every quarter. The categories are built around our values, so we honor our trusted experts, those of us who show customer obsession, and those teams that are extraordinary together or innovate for our customers. But we also recognize our simplifiers and optimizers, our humanitarian trailblazers, and those of us who accelerate inclusion and diversity. I love that we have these categories, because it recognizes the full contribution of our culture and generates that common sense of values that bind each other as a community.”

Great businesses are built by great teams. As Varsha has explained, building the right environment for those teams to thrive is no easy feat: it takes purposeful leadership and strong change management.

But ultimately it starts with every one of us: our sense of purpose, the value we add to our teammates — and the way we show up.



Find out more

Follow Varsha on Twitter for first-hand insight into culture, talent, leadership, inclusion and diversity, and the power of teams. 

Want to learn more about Cisco’s culture? Check out this Forbes article.

See what makes Cisco one of the world’s best places to work.

Discover the People Deal that empowers our workers to keep innovating and making a difference.

Find out more about Maria Martinez and her leadership style.