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Cisco's Kanouff Kick-Starts the Multiplier Effect

Sarah Thomas

Cisco's Yvette Kanouff attributes a lot of her professional success to the support of sponsors over the course of her career. Now she's calling on the rest of the industry to commit to sponsoring just one woman or diverse candidate in hopes of sparking an industry-transforming multiplier effect.

What she is proposing, and what Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) announced at last month's Mobile World Congress, is really quite simple: executives at companies across the comms industry should each choose one diverse candidate to sponsor, or help support, promote and advance to the next level, over the course of their careers. They should challenge five other executives to do the same, creating a multiplier effect that ultimately leads to a diverse pipeline of exceptional talent at every level in the industry. 

Kanouff, senior vice president and general manager of the service provider business at Cisco, herself is a good role model for women in our industry. Last year she took home Women in Comms' inaugural "Hedy Lamarr Award for Female Tech Pioneer of the Year" award for her part in building up Cisco's cloud-enabled video portfolio, enhancing Cisco's software-as-a-service, NFV and hybrid cloud offerings and taking the helm of Cisco's service provider segment. (See WiC Leading Lights Finalists: Hedy Lamarr Award for Female Tech Pioneer of the Year and Women in Comms' Leading Lights Awards Winners Revealed .)

Given that she now leads the entire development strategy for Cisco's service provider segment, it's safe to say that if Kanouff can make time in her busy professional life to sponsor someone, anyone can do it. (See CEO Chat: Cisco's Yvette Kanouff, CEO Chat With Yvette Kanouff, Head of Cisco's Cloud Business and Cisco's Kanouff Says the ‘Door is Open' for Women in Comms.)

She caught up with WiC recently to share the impetus behind the Multiplier Effect Project and why she thinks it may help change the face of our industry, as well as to challenge other companies to pick up the torch as well.

Yvette Kanouff, senior vice president and general manager of the service provider business, Cisco
Yvette Kanouff, senior vice president and general manager of the service provider business, Cisco

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Women in Comms: How did you come up with the idea for the Multiplier Effect project, and what is the goal?

Yvette Kanouff: We've been talking and talking about what we can do to really change the numbers, which is so important to all of us. We were having this discussion on how frustrated we are that we're not seeing an impact. So many females are leaving the tech space. What can we do? What helped me in my career? The thing that helped me the most was the people who were there for me -- not even other women, necessarily, but men too. They helped me, championed me, believed in me, guided me. If that gift could be given to everyone, it would make so much more difference than luncheons, awareness campaigns and get-togethers. We have get-togethers for women or Latinos or others, but that won't move the needle. We just need to get everyone to help just one person. Make it really, really simple. One person who is a diverse candidate -- woman, Western European, Eastern Europe, whatever your diversity issue is, wherever you are, and think about how much of an impact something simple like that could make.

How can we make it happen? It's important to have a sponsor who helps hold your hand throughout the way, not just a mentor who gives you advice. Having a sponsor makes you 23% more likely to move up in your career, so we thought we would kick off a program to be a sponsor. We won't nag you, but just an internal, heartfelt, "Yes I will do it." Hopefully we see that simplicity make an impact for diversity. The multiplier effect is getting five more people to do the same thing. Just send five emails to get people to do the same so we can grow the concept of true sponsorship.

WiC: How was the program received within Cisco? Did you get a lot of interest?

YK: It's interesting -- people understand it, and Chuck [Robbins, CEO] signed up. He tells the story of the first meeting, which was at MWC last year. It's just so easy to understand, and he gets it. He signed up to sponsor one person. I want to encourage everyone to do it. Even people that really need the help don’t know where to go. I'm the exec sponsor for the Latina program at Cisco. So many people are looking for someone to ask how to kick-start their career and get help. They are asking how to get a sponsor. It's coming from both directions, which is cool.

WiC: Since sponsors are often people that help you keep moving up in your career, is it best if you are sponsoring one of your direct reports, or can you also work with someone outside of your division?

YK: If you want to help someone move up and get promoted, to be able to understand what motivates the company to promote you, that kind of thing, for sure it's better to be a senior person, but you're limiting yourself to promotions. What about someone getting a job? Helping them in college? If everyone were to sponsor someone in your company, you would run out of diverse candidates. You have to go outside -- take a college kid and help them get a job. There are a lot of different ways to help.

WiC: How does sponsorship differ from mentorship, and which is more important?

YK: Mentor is "I'm here for advice," someone to lean on and being an advisor. Sponsorship is more being an owner. I will really help you overcome hurdles, see them and help own that career. I think that's all part of it. If it's a promotion or a job you want to get, everyone has their own goals. Why aren’t you getting it? It's not preferential treatment where I make sure you get it, but really helping them expand what they need to do and see their issues, and help them through them to take the next step and get that next step too.

WiC: High-potential women are often identified and helped early in their career, but support wanes over time. How do you ensure these candidates aren't getting lost in the pipeline?

YK: Doing something like the Multiplier Effect makes that happen. The idea is to pay attention and not just have an initial meeting with someone. Pay attention to everyone every day around. You need something to remind you that we all have to help. So many people don’t really see how deep that issue is or how serious and how hard it is. If you're an up-and-coming minority candidate, people don’t know how hard that situation is and how hard that climb is. It's not waiting for people to see it, but help them see it.

WiC: For women in comms, is it important to find a female mentor or sponsor? You mentioned that you had great male sponsors in your career.

YK: I am so grateful for it. Until my dying day, I'll be so grateful for those who believed in me and helped me. I don’t think they have to be women at all. If you look at diversity as a whole, I don’t think to help diversity as a whole it will be solved by diversity candidates. It's everyone in the company stepping up to help diverse candidates.

WiC: How do you go about forming a sponsor relationship that is authentic and natural?

YK: If you're in a department with one minority, everyone can't sponsor that same one person. We've been having a lot of discussions on that front. The person I'm sponsoring came to me and asked. She said she wants to work hard, is open to learn and could use help. I was honored she picked me. We're talking to diversity groups about creating a "we would like help" list. If it were all natural and everyone would help, we'd never have this discussion. It doesn’t happen naturally so we do have to help.

WiC: How important are formal mentoring programs versus something like this that is supposed to happen more organically?

YK: There are many programs that exist. This is what kicked off the whole discussion. We have programs that try to get execs to come speak at inclusion luncheons; we have technical sessions for inclusion; we have mentorship programs; we have shining stars programs with fixed mentorships, but it's not enough. If you were one of the two candidates that got picked for the high-potential program, that's great, but if everyone has a sponsor, we'll move forward a lot quicker than the people who signed up for a program. It's supposed to be simple and broad.

There is a lot of research and proof that diversity helps in the financial sense, and it's our responsibility too. Anyone who puts their head in the sand and says, "Why are we focusing on this issue?" is very narrow-minded. If we adopt something as simple as this program in many companies, I really believe we'll change the numbers.

— Sarah Thomas, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Director, Women in Comms

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Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
3/20/2017 | 2:04:12 PM
Re: Bite-Size Sponsorships
I agree, and it could have the intended effect if you encourage others to do it as well. I hope that is the case, rather than good intentions that fizzle out. There's no accountability for the program, so may be hard to guage its success.

I also liked what Yvette said about having to force the issue with mentoring sometimes. I always think that mentoring relationships have to be so authentic and not forced, but her point is that it doesn't always work that way. If you want someone to mentor you, just ask them. It may be awkward at first, but she was flattered when someone approached her. 
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/20/2017 | 12:34:07 PM
Bite-Size Sponsorships
I really like this idea of every exec sponsoring just one person. It makes it feel manageable and like they really don't have an excuse not to do it. Great interview!
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