Cisco’s Karen Walker: ‘In work and in life, learn how to delegate’


Cisco, in my mind, was a dry technology company. It didn’t have Apple’s glamour or Google’s chutzpah. But that was before I met Karen Walker, Global Marketing Head at Cisco. What followed was a delightful discussion about values, women in technology and marketing.

She was warm and forthright as we talked about her early life, the challenges of being a woman in a technology company. She was bubbling with enthusiasm while we discussed the evolving role of marketing, especially in a tech behemoth like Cisco. Here are some excerpts:

YS: What were some of your early influences?

Karen: I grew up in England and my parents had a very humble background. I had a very strong role model in my mother. In the England of 1960’s mother’s had a very traditional role. My mother was a very strong and courageous woman who believed in following her heart. Her family disowned her because she married my father.

She also worked full time and instilled in me the power of education. She encouraged me to go to university. She became a school principal in a very tough neighbourhood, and changed the life of so many by being their support system. She embraced the role wholeheartedly to change these kids’ lives. Anyone who touches the lives of children is a leader. She had a big influence on me as far as leadership was concerned.

YS: Was your move into technology a conscious one?

Karen: I got my degree in chemistry and not business; it was very technical and I loved science and math. There were few women in my class, and I think it later got me very comfortable being in male- dominated industries like pharma and biotech, and now I have a passion for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). It taught me very early on to be comfortable with who you are and, and not to judge others by what gender or colour they are. Your value system and intelligence is the combination that makes you really special.

When I was in university, I was sure about pharma. So actually I’d interviewed and been offered a role at Hoechst in Germany. I thought it would be an adventure because I would work outside the UK. An acquaintance on our floor dorm had worked for Hewlett Packard and shared how much fun he had; they had a great campus, volleyball courts and a bar. It had a relaxed and very cool American vibe.

I was offered an interview with HP a week before my finals and I had a job in the bag. My mom drove me six hours and told me to try it out. Thus I got into high tech, it wasn’t conscious, I was just looking for something different. My mother taught me to follow my heart and instincts. She believed that usually something good comes out of following your heart.

YS: Did you ever face any challenges as a woman in this business?

Karen: Oh sure, absolutely. Sometimes females can be a lot tougher on each other than males. I was very fortunate because I worked for a couple of really strong senior women who have been incredibly supportive but I’ve also worked for some women who think, ‘I’m not sure if you are on my side,’ and it was very competitive. I’ve worked with some guys who were just fantastic. So, I’m not sure there is a gender bias in terms of who you work for.

YS: Is there a glass ceiling in the tech industry?

Karen: I think it’s becoming less so, but if you look at the raw numbers, I would say absolutely. Look at the number of female CEOs, female board members, we’re still outnumbered. But there are some great role models when you think of companies like HP. You’ve got Marissa Mayer; I think in the US several auto manufacturers are run by women. IBM is run by a woman. I think there are some great examples.

The hardest part is that there is a point in your life when you say you cannot take it anymore. When you’re having another child and things go out of hand at home, it becomes difficult to handle the stress at home and work. You feel as if you’ve reached your limit. That’s when you really make bad decisions. But we need to figure out a different way to make this work.


YS: You’ve been doing a lot to promote women leadership within Cisco. Could you tell us something more about those programmes?


Karen: It’s called the Cisco Connected Women. I mentor about six women across Cisco, so I put a lot of personal time and energy into coaching and mentoring them. We all come together and we share best practices and learnings. It is so important to encourage women.


YS: Could we talk a bit about Cisco’s marketing programme?


Karen: I think we are a lot more complicated than we actually need to be. We are marketing to the line of business head or the business buyer not just the IT buyer. The business buyer cares about three things – help me make more money for my company, help me save money and help me protect myself so that I don’t put the company at a business risk. So when we talk to a customer about what Cisco can provide as the value to them it is usually around these three things. So I think for our industry overall, we should just simplify our story and use plain human language versus marketing speech. Sometimes we love to make things complicated.

YS: You consider marketing to be a revenue generating function…


Karen: The role of marketing is changing. I will say that marketing has changed more over the last two years than the 75 years preceding. It’s no longer a kind of the fluffy function. For example, in our industry, earlier if a customer had a problem they would call us. Now they tweet about it, they tell the whole world about it. So we have to change how we engage with them using the digital and social media as a way to do that. That means marketing is much bigger part of the journey.


We have seen marketing teams really invest heavily in digital and social media, it is a way to engage. So that is the first thing. The second thing to do in marketing is to go after a market segment where generally we don’t have a sales model. So for Cisco that’s the mid market. We have a very strong, large enterprise business, and large service provider business. So we engage big companies through a sales team.


Where we have less market share is in small and medium businesses. And because we don’t have much business there, it’s not the right model to place an expensive sales person there. We said, give us that market, and we will look at marketing as the way to get you coverage in that market. We will use digital and social as the way to engage with the customer and we will create opportunity. As a global marketing team, we’ve created $2.8 billion worth of sales pipeline. If you say the average conversion (from leads to sales) is about a third, that means marketing has generated a billion dollars in revenue.


My goal is that we become not as a revenue generator but as a profit centre. I think this is the best time to be in marketing than ever.


YS:What has your experience been with digital marketing in India?

Karen: I am impressed in terms of what the teams have done here. You know it’s a journey for a business company versus a consumer company. You try to understand where the customer is spending time. When someone comes to you digitally and socially, they are also willing to say a lot about themselves and what they are interested in. And in return you can add a lot more value in helping them.


YS: What advice would you have for women to make it easier to maintain a work-life balance?

Karen: In work and in life, learn how to delegate. So, I make a list of all the things we need to do as a family, or as a team and that I have to do personally. The other thing is to figure out what is important versus urgent. And if someone offers help, sure as heck I’m going to take that help. It’s the same at work and at home. So take up all offers of help, and make sure you delegate.


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