Leadership Lessons from Cisco’s Naveen Menon

Leadership Lessons from Cisco’s Naveen Menon

by
Sara R Moulton

Naveen Menon shares important career moments, why empathy matters and takeaways from his career.

Experiences, learnings from mentors, and what a leader is passionate about all impact a leader’s style. Naveen Menon, President, Cisco Systems, ASEAN shares insights into what has moulded him into the leader he is today. 

Defining career moments 

As I look back at my career, there are two moments that stand out. The first was when I was about to finish university. I studied chemical engineering and had opportunities that would have set me on three different paths; pure chemical engineering, product development or strategic consulting. I ended up choosing the consulting path. Doing strategic consulting work meant that I got exposure to multiple companies, functions, and industries, globally. A consulting role typically involves understanding a company’s key challenges, both current and future, and helping them formulate strategies to overcome these and unlock growth. I was lucky to have first-hand experience of what it takes to run large-scale organisations in an efficient, sustainable and profitable way.

The second moment came while I was working in a leadership position for A.T. Kearney. As a partner in the firm, I got to attend the company’s “Expanding Horizons” programme. The key objective of the programme was to encourage partners to realise that they have the potential to push themselves out of their comfort zones and areas of expertise and make them believe they can deliver in the not-so-familiar environments. The programme did that by encouraging partners to think of bold alternatives and explore their roles. The programme made me realise that while I loved consulting, I needed to move beyond advisory functions and take on bigger leadership roles with more complex operational challenges. That eventually led to my current role with Cisco.

Learnings from his life and career

The most important lesson I have learnt from the multicultural experience is around empathy. As an Indian kid growing up in Holland, all I wanted to do was to ‘fit in’. To do that it was important to understand the people around me and what was important to them. Over the years, I have realised that to be successful in any aspect of life, the same principle applies.

You need to have empathy for the people around you and understand their priorities and points of view.

It has helped me greatly throughout my career, especially in my current role where I lead a multicultural team across a very diverse region.

The latest lesson I have learnt is in the power of teams. I am a part of a team that is managing various teams, who in turn are managing smaller teams focused on specific areas. At the same time, my team is being managed by another senior team from our corporate office. This idea of a team of teams allows us to not only think of the big picture and formulate the strategy but also execute it with attention to minute detail. I am really excited about this concept and the opportunities it could open up for us.

Lessons from mentors

I firmly believe that if you want to develop holistically, both on the personal and professional fronts, you need more than one mentor. I have been lucky to be associated with some brilliant people in my life who have played a pivotal role in shaping my life and career. On the professional front, two individuals stand out: Mark Page and John Kurtz, my former colleagues from A.T. Kearney.

Mark Page is the Managing Partner of A.T. Kearney UK and Ireland. He is one of the most conceptually sound problem-solvers that I have come across. He taught me how to have content-rich discussions, the importance of remaining true to your beliefs and crafting robust technical arguments are pivotal to success with a client. John Kurtz, who led A.T. Kearney’s Asia Pacific operations, was another key mentor. From him I learnt the value of how to build and maintain CEO-level relationships. John understood the human aspects of being a CEO and how to help CEOs navigate their professional and personal dilemmas. His relationships with CEOs extended beyond just business advice and dealings. In fact, many times I saw him act as mentor to CEOs because he was invested in his relationships and valued them. He got reciprocal treatment from the CEOs, which was great for him personally and professionally.

On the personal front, my wife has had a huge influence on me, especially in the area of social impact. I remember attending a session at The Aspen Institute as part of the A.T. Kearney team where we were asked to come up with one idea that we thought would help to transform the firm. I was toying with the usual consulting stuff and shared some of the ideas with her. She told me that I had a unique opportunity to think beyond the firm and the bottom line. She encouraged me to think of ideas that will not just transform a company, but had the power to deliver positive change in the world we live in. That inspired me to take on the role to lead the company’s social impact practice and come up with initiatives to deliver social good. It has been an area that I have passionately focused on ever since.

Takeaways from serving as knowledge adviser to the World Economic Forum

As part of the work I did with the World Economic Forum, from 2013-15, we looked to address the personal data challenges that we suspected would emerge in the coming years. We debated and identified many scenarios and developed key principles that could guide national government policy and regulation.

The aim was to articulate an ascendant vision of the value a balanced and human-centred personal data ecosystem can create. The whitepaper, titled Rethinking Personal Data: A New Lens for Strengthening Trust, reflects those insights and captured the state of the dialogue at the time. The global dialogue has coalesced around three pillars: delivering meaningful transparency, strengthening accountability, and empowering the individual.

I think these these principles are even more important in the current circumstances.

Companies need to become more transparent about how the data they collect is used and managed, and by whom. That is because data often moves fluidly, not just within functions in an organisation, but across companies and third parties. This is where accountability comes in. Regulators across the world are already looking at ways to ensure that companies not only protect the consumer data from any hacks, but also use it ethically. 

The trick will be to strike a balance between protecting data and ensuring that such measures do not jeopardise the benefits that come from its use.

Empowering individuals can play a crucial role in achieving this. We should look at reaching a point where all stakeholders work in a collaborative way to empower individuals to have a say in data flows for meaningful transactions and experiences that are consistent with their expectations. 

A deep passion for how technology can support entrepreneurship, education, and wider social outcomes

I believe that education is the answer to some of the world’s biggest problems.

I am involved with the sector in both my personal and professional capacities. At Cisco, we are committed to transforming the education sector. We launched our Networking Academy in 1997 and have trained millions of students across world in the past 20 years, imparting technical and entrepreneurial skills that people, educators, and companies need to change the world for the better.

We partner with non-profit organisations like Ashoka, as well as leading educational institutions at all levels, to see how we can use technology to deliver education more effectively in a hyper-connected digital world. In a personal capacity, I sit on the boards of the School of IT at Temasek Polytechnic and University Hub – a Canadian institute.

At Cisco, we are also actively looking at what the sector would need to do to ensure we have a workforce ready to meet the demands of the future. As part of those efforts, we have commissioned a study on the Future of Work and the evolving nature of jobs, in order for us to have a better understanding of the skills that will be needed for success in the years to come.

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