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Cisco CEO: To achieve gender diversity in business, ‘men have to consciously lean in’

March 5, 2015, 5:16 PM UTC
Cisco CEO John Chambers at Fortune Brainstorm Tech 2014
Cisco CEO John Chambers at Fortune Brainstorm Tech 2014 in Aspen, Colo.
Photograph by Stuart Isett — Fortune Brainstorm TECH

In March 2013, Cisco CEO John Chambers sent out a memo to all 400 of his most senior employees, vice president and above.

“We can no longer pretend that biases don’t exist, nor can we talk around them,” he wrote, quoting Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In. “The result of creating a more equal environment will not just be better performance for our organizations, but quite likely greater happiness for all.”

Earlier that year, at a conference, Chambers heard Sandberg talk about the shortage of women in leadership positions throughout the corporate world. He realized that if he didn’t start taking the gender divide in the technology industry seriously, Cisco (CSCO) would fall behind its competitors. Chambers implored Cisco executives to not only read Sandberg’s book, but also identify specific changes they could implement to make Cisco’s culture more inclusive. (Sandberg most recently co-wrote with Adam Grant an op-ed in the New York Times on the subject.)

Two years after sending out his company-wide rally cry, Chambers caught up with Fortune to discuss the state of gender diversity at Cisco and the tech industry. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: In the ’90s, when you became CEO at Cisco, what did the diversity conversation sound like?

Chambers: We wanted to attract the best talent in the industry. In the 1990s, leadership was all about vision and strategy, then attracting the best talent to implement that vision and strategy, and then clearly communicating all the above. When I became CEO, we had a very good U.S. representation of talent. It was not good on diversity, in global terms, nor was it anywhere near the level I would have liked to see in terms of color or gender diversity. One of the first moves I made within a year of [becoming CEO] was to strongly encourage our board to elect [now-former Yahoo CEO] Carol Bartz in 1996; she became our lead independent director in 2005. Most of what I do is, I try to say both why it’s important and then, to the best of my ability, lead by example and walk the talk.

When did the issue of gender diversity first come to your attention?

It actually started with my mom. My mom and dad were both doctors. She in many ways broke down a huge amount of gender barriers. She was a very good athlete in college and played lacrosse and unbelievable ping-pong and she was valedictorian of all of her classes during a time when women did not [have those opportunities]. She never talked about it as diversity; all three of us kids were just brought up in an environment where everyone was equal. The proper balance and commitment to diversity was almost a given. You didn’t have to say it was the right thing to do—it was just a given. My mom, my wife, and my daughter all keep it in front of me. The same thing occurs as you found out with the five women who are a part of our operating committee and our three female board of directors. This has been a part of my DNA and strategy since a very young age.

Sheryl Sandberg really impacted your thinking about this issue. Tell me more about that.

I was listening to Sheryl at a conference sponsored by J.P. Morgan and she was on the panel and suddenly I realized, she’s nailed it. We have to get this debate going in our country. We’ve got to realize that we’ve been doing the same for many years and the numbers aren’t changing. Unless we do something different, we are going to only move the needle a little bit. I believe in exponential thinking, not linear. At that time, as Sheryl was talking at the conference, I knew I wanted to bring her in to talk to my whole senior team to lead by example. She’s now got us thinking about what we have to do differently. My goal was very simple when I had her present to our entire leadership team. I required everybody to read her book. It wasn’t about women leaning in; it was about men leaning in.

What are the major challenges?

There are a lot of issues that I do not in any way want to use as an excuse. If we don’t address the issues of women in grade school and early junior high, by the time they get to college, it’s very difficult to get them excited about math and science and technology in particular. Many people consider it geeky. So did I. I did not intend to be in the technology industry.

I think as a country we have got make this exciting and sizzle and address people not just on a gender basis, but for all diversity, and to be inclusive at a very early age. People have to see it align with their career aspirations and ability to get a job. We do a pretty good job in terms of our network academies [Cisco Networking Academy]. We have a million students a year and five million students since its inception. Some 35% of our students are female, but in the U.S. it is only 19%. In our programs, we’ve got to think about training—we spend almost $200 million a year on this program of giving back. We have to think about how we can attract the diverse representatives of our country, especially on a gender basis in a way that makes this exciting to them.

Why hasn’t the tech industry figured out this issue yet?

You have to do things dramatically different to achieve dramatically different results. We have done many programs, but perhaps we go back with a renewed emphasis and focus on doing a couple of them dramatically different. My worry is that when you have 30 or 40 different ideas, all of them are good ideas. What are the three to five that will really move the needle in a meaningful way? That is how you get a CEO’s attention. Any CEO will tell you that if you have 30 to 40 priorities, you don’t really have priorities.

Also, if you are doing the same plays and just focused with more intensity, you’ll move the needle a little bit, but not in a dramatic way. You get it down to three or five areas to make a difference.

What are those areas of focus for Cisco?

We have found that when you find role models that are very visible and very good. Three women on the board of directors and five women on the operating committee—and by the way, all of them are there not because they are women, but because they are really good. Interestingly enough, each of the five female [operating committee] leaders have a higher percentage of diversity in their groups than other groups do. It’s both role models and examples. I have been the sponsor for many of our top women at Cisco and we are picking up the intensity. We are going to see what works and what doesn’t will change. We are going to push to become one of the companies that are committed to it and have done a reasonable job on top, but not in the breadth where we need to.

We have recently made changes in many of our program areas. [Cisco chief human resources officer] Francine Katsoudas is world class. She has the ability to outline a goal and make it happen. She has the effectiveness with her peers across the board to get things done. We also created a head of inclusion and collaboration, within not just the HR team, but a position across the entire company with what we want to do.

Why do you think as a CEO to surround yourself with a diverse team?

It’s very simple: We want the best talent in the industry regardless of color of skin, religious views, sexual preference, or gender. When you do that, it’s also your customer base. It’s the right thing to do to get the right talent and then it’s also how we want to be perceived in the industry. We want to focus on collaboration within the group.

What role do you see men playing in figuring out this issue?

Our problem is getting men to lean in, not women. Sheryl was pretty tough on the women. We need to be tough on the men. I never get hard work confused with results. Men have to consciously lean in and be aware, whether we realize it or not, that bias does exist. Sometimes you describe one of your best stars as very aggressive and very direct. Ehen you describe a guy that way someone might say “great,” but when it’s a woman they are skeptical.

My daughter is very aggressive and very direct and I am very proud of her for being that way. The five female members of my operating committee are also very collaborative together, aggressive, and very direct. I find those to be attributes that are very important. I go back to the men—we have to lean in. As a CEO I am leaning in and doing better on the top, but we are not getting the results that will move the needle dramatically. We are going to run some different plays and get it down to three to five things that will really move the needle.

Biggest misperception?

I speak regularly about dyslexia. I had help at a very young age to fight my dyslexia, and I learned how to take it from a weakness to a strength, no excuses. Dyslexics have a gift. We think A, B, Z because we have to. It is unacceptable to say that a small perception of the engineers in our country is female and so that’s a challenge because the majority of the people in this company aren’t technical. We have to figure out how to change this. We need to not accept excuses and say we are going to make this happen and do things differently. Don’t use it as an excuse that a small percentage of the women coming out of our colleges are engineers or computer science majors.

It’s about doing the right thing and it’s good for business. Wherever Cisco is number one in corporate social responsibility in the world, we also have the number-one market share. Cause and effect? Absolutely. You do the right thing and it’s amazing—you get the economic benefits. This is a journey. At Cisco, we have to have the debate and do things differently, just like our country has to have this debate and do things differently.