Cisco’s CIO has a way of conducting IT staff reviews that sounds scary but effective

After nearly seven and a half years as CIO of the world’s biggest networking vendor, Cisco’s Rebecca Jacoby thinks she has figured out the No. 1 skill set everyone managing technology needs most.

“Resiliency. That’s it,” she said during an interview following her keynote speech about the Internet of Everything at the Cisco Connect conference in Toronto on Wednesday. “You have to be able to deal with the complaints, to be able to manage through problems . . . it would be easy to become a siloed IT curmudgeon.”

While Cisco is obviously a giant organization with much greater resources than the average Canadian business, Jacoby said she and her team are not immune to the kind of problems that bedevil her peers. That’s one of the reasons she has created an unusual review process for staff.

Instead of the traditional one-on-one, closed-door meetings (“Where the minute you come out, they’re going, ‘What did she say?’” Jacoby noted), large groups of Cisco’s IT department (which numbers more than 3,200 people) are invited to take part in sessions where employees present their achievements and take questions straight from Jacoby. If you can’t be on site in Cisco’s global headquarters, you can tune in via one of the firm’s Telepresence videoconference rooms or by phone.

“As you can imagine, I’m fairly direct in those sessions,” Jacoby admitted, “and I always tend to have a theme (in the questions being asked or issues discussed) and people pick up on that theme pretty quickly.”

The end result, Jacoby said, is an IT team that is better able to be on the same page and work cohesively to solve business problems. And line of business executives inside Cisco are at least as demanding as the average user, Jacoby said.

“They never come in and say, ‘Wow, we’re doing some really innovative things.’ It’s more like, ‘My phone doesn’t work!’” she said.

Although she came from a supply chain management background, Jacoby said she balances the operational aspects of running Cisco’s internal IT services with an “innovation funnel” of a handful of projects. She acknowledged, however, this is a difficult with many different competing business demands.

“I think the goal should be to inject innovation as a construct in everything,” she said, adding that while processes and products can always be improved, some of the best opportunities around innovation concern data. “How you collect it, how you store it, how to display it.” In fact, the way data is displayed has proven key to demonstrating the value of certain IT projects to Cisco’s line of business executives, Jacoby said. “The business loves visualizations.”

And don’t ask Jacoby about the debate over the future of the CIO role, or whether CIOs will one day report into CMOs. She calls Cisco’s CMO a close friend, and thinks the topic is irrelevant.

“It’s just weird. In no other role is there this ongoing discussion about the reporting structure,” she said, adding that those who do the job well prove why it’s important. “There aren’t that many jobs where you really have an opportunity to leave a legacy. The CIO is one of those, and I feel privileged to do it.”

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