When They Call You a Cowboy in Amsterdam, It is No Compliment
And Other Difficult Lessons Learned at Cisco
Last week, I shared Five Positive Lessons learned while at Cisco Systems. You can find that article at:
This week, I provide the Five Challenging or Difficult Lessons Learned. Enjoy!
When they call you a cowboy in Amsterdam, it’s not a compliment.
I’m originally from West Texas, and I grew up a Dallas Cowboy fan. So while living in Amsterdam, a couple of European leaders called me a cowboy. I naturally assumed it was a compliment. Later that day, the local executive enlightened me that it was not. He shared how Americans would often come in with answers, but ask few questions. I learned that to be successful in another culture, it was important to seek to understand first. I could not do things unilaterally. Even though I was a leader “over there”, I would benefit myself and my company by giving less advice and less direction. Sure, that rugged individualism has shaped our wonderful country, but when in Rome…
If you don’t trust your boss, you still need to communicate.
Over the course of my career, I’ve had bosses I’ve trusted, and a few I did not. A couple of my bosses ended up in prison, and I was not surprised. While at Cisco, I reported to eight different people. At one point, I decided to go to work for one whom I did not trust, but it seemed like a good “career decision”. This leader was stretched pretty thin, and I felt it best to do my job and stay scarce; if the boss needed to communicate, let the boss initiate it, or so I thought. This was a big mistake. I learned that it is always important to communicate rather than avoid. You don’t want to be naïve, so you have to communicate with caution around those you don’t trust. But if this person is in a more powerful position, you need to understand where the political winds are blowing and stay attuned to their views on things. If you avoid necessary communication, you do so at your own peril.
Revenge is a more powerful motivator than forgiveness.
I remember the bitterness I felt toward the boss I did not trust, and who seemed to do me wrong. Looking back, I realize I left my own trail of damage. My feeling of vengeance felt good in the short term, but one day I looked around and realized I was the only one still carrying hard feelings. In fact, the unproductive behaviors that resulted from my emotional responses actually decreased my influence. It seems true that revenge is a more powerful motivator than forgiveness In “Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and In Life”, authors Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller share Gallup’s research on what makes great partnerships at work. They identify eight elements, one being forgiveness. Wagner and Muller state, “Without forgiveness, the natural revenge motives that stem from friend-or-foe instincts will overpower all the reasons to continue a partnership, and it will dissolve.” I felt quite a bit better when I let go of that sack of rocks. At some point, you’ve got to forgive and let it go, and recognize that how we handle adversity impacts how others perceive us.
You see your true culture when things get difficult.
Cisco survived and continues to thrive. Yet, during those tumultuous years after the dot com bust, the culture changed drastically in many areas. During the 1990s, Cisco taught principle centered leadership, with programs such as Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Suddenly, with regime change in Human Resources, things got really bad. The prevailing attitude was that the talk about culture and the “Lovey Dovey Covey” stuff was no longer necessary. The level of trust began to plummet and productivity decreased. Eventually, the ship seemed to move in the right direction, toxic leaders moved on, and Cisco seemed to refocus on some of its core values and culture.
We all have unconscious biases, and we must challenge our assumptions.
In the 1990s, Cisco was at the forefront of appreciating diversity, certainly in the Bay Area, hiring the brightest engineers from all over the world. Once I was asked to look at the demographics and diversity of the departments I supported in San Jose. I recall two of my favorite vice-presidents. One was from India, and he had about 100 engineers, 90% from India. The other leader was from China, with 90% of his employees from China or Singapore. Since our HR department talked so much about diversity, it seemed like a reasonable topic to discuss, so I challenged them on my observations. One of them asked me about the demographics of Human Resources group. One said, “From what I observe, I see few people of color in your HR Group.” Touché. It ended up being a fruitful discussion about how we all make hiring decisions, and we all agreed to challenge each other on possible unconscious biases. For a very recent article on unconscious bias, see Marilyn O’Hearne’s article at.
It has been sixteen years since I was employed at Cisco. I look back at how it was a truly remarkable time. Personally, it was a time when I got married, we bought our first house, and brought two children into the world. Professionally, Cisco invested in me, paid for my master’s degree, provided me with an international assignment in Europe, and sent me to train leaders in ten different countries. I worked with very talented people and saw a company grow tremendously. A couple years ago, I was even given the opportunity to do some consulting work back at Cisco, and clearly, they still have remarkable people from all over the world.
Thanks for allowing me the journey down memory lane.