Kara Swisher

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Telling Employees He Hasn’t “Walked the Talk,” Cisco’s John Chambers Leans In on Women in the Workplace Issue

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As most of the free world knows by now — from the ubiquitous media coverage that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her new book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” has gotten of late — there are some nagging issues of women in the workplace.

That was also underscored by the huge debate that arose over Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s new rule for the Silicon Valley Internet giant that eliminated work-from-home employees.

Now, Cisco CEO John Chambers is weighing in, after a meeting with Sandberg last week, ordering each of his top managers to come up with new women-focused initiatives and put them into their development plans.

More interestingly, in an internal email I obtained, he also noted that his own leadership in the area had been lacking.

“While I have always considered myself sensitive to and effective on gender issues in the workplace, my eyes were opened in new ways and I feel a renewed sense of urgency to make the progress we haven’t made in the last decade,” wrote Chambers.

He pointed out that only one-fourth of the networking giant’s employees and top execs are women, and only 20 percent out of one million networking academy students are women. Currently, Cisco’s highest-ranking woman is Padmasree Warrior, its CTO and strategy officer, and it has three women board members.

Still, wrote Chambers:

“After reading Lean In and listening to Sheryl, I realize that, while I believe I am relatively enlightened, I have not consistently walked the talk … What we have been doing hasn’t worked, and it is time to adjust.”

Here’s the whole memo:

From: John Chambers
Date: March 8, 2013, 6:21:49 PM PST
To: John Chambers
Subject: International Working Women’s Day … Cisco Resolution

To my leaders:

I had the opportunity yesterday to discuss Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Lean In with Sheryl and a group of my CEO peers. While I have always considered myself sensitive to and effective on gender issues in the workplace, my eyes were opened in new ways and I feel a renewed sense of urgency to make the progress we haven’t made in the last decade.

The data is startling. Women hold less than 14% of CEO positions, 17% of board seats globally, and 18% of congressional officials … and these numbers have not changed in a decade. At Cisco, less than 25% of our employees — and our leaders — are women. Only 20% of our current one-million networking academy students are women.

Today is International Working Women’s Day, and I want us, the leaders of Cisco, to see this as a leadership moment. Without realizing it, we operate every day with gender stereotypes and biases, many of which we do not realize. After reading Lean In and listening to Sheryl, I realize that, while I believe I am relatively enlightened, I have not consistently walked the talk. I think each of you, on reflection, will identify opportunities to operate at a new level with your women employees, leaders, customers, partners, and peers. I believe we — together — need to drive a fundamental culture change and it is up to us as leaders to make this change happen. What we have been doing hasn’t worked, and it is time to adjust.

I have two specific asks for each of you: 1) please read the copy of Lean In you will be receiving shortly, before we get to the SVP/VP off-site and 2) determine 3-4 specific things you will do differently and detail those commitments in your development plan and if you need help, please contact Sandy Hoffman, Chief Diversity Officer.

I know each of us will have a different explanation and a different solution, and there is power in the diversity of those ideas in driving change. I am asking two champions — Chuck Robbins and Kelly Kramer — to take a leadership role in moving us forward. I will ask them to report to the Operating Committee every quarter on the progress we have made and the action plans in place.

I think Sheryl says it best: “We can no longer pretend that biases don’t exist, nor can we talk around them … the result of creating a more equal environment will not just be better performance for our organizations, but quite likely greater happiness for all.”

Kath Weslock, Chief Human Resources Officer and I look forward to discussing this topic with many of you. We believe we have an opportunity to make a tremendous difference, and in so doing benefit our people, our culture, our company and, just maybe, the world.

John


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work