“I have faced challenges I couldn’t possibly have imagined,” Cathy Smith says of her time at Cisco SA. “Although I have been in the ICT industry for many years, at a certain point I had very little experience in networking, so this role was a huge stretch for me.

I have loved every minute but there have been testing moments.” Cathy has faced these challenges and more in her role at the world’s largest networking company, Cisco, which is also a leading developer of networking technology, telecommunications equipment and other high-technology services and products.

Originally joining the company from IBM as Director for Public Sector, she has now moved up to Managing Director of Sub-Saharan Africa, with responsibility
for managing the digital transformation of customers across East Africa, Nigeria and the English-speaking nations of West Central Africa.

It doesn’t take long talking to Cathy for her boundless enthusiasm for the ICT sector to shine through. Despite the challenges and complexities involved in her current position, she throws herself into her work with a real zeal.

Years of valuable experience

She credits the experience and tools she developed across a range of roles at IBM with equipping her for the Cisco managing director position, and believes the matrixed structure of both companies made for a smoother transition. Cathy also says the working culture at Cisco is a big positive.

“I’m working in a company that is young in its outlook. It’s a very innovative company that empowers its leaders. I’ve been able to do things that I couldn’t have imagined as a leader, including developing programs and engaging ecosystems and customers very differently than I was able to before. It’s been an amazing time.”

Cisco reinvents itself

Having moved to Cisco in 2015, Cathy has noticed a major change even in this short time. “We are reinventing ourselves as an organisation that is very focused on how we help our customers transform and perform in a world of digital disruption. Our starting point is that we believe everyone is being disrupted and we accept that disruption starts in the IT industry. We accept that we are being disrupted, but before we allow other forces to disrupt us, let’s disrupt ourselves.”

Cathy Smith Managing Director Sub-Saharan Africa of Cisco SA
Cathy Smith, Managing Director Sub-Saharan Africa of Cisco SA

The phenomenon of digital disruption will fundamentally change the way companies engage with their employees, Cathy says. Where Cisco can ease this pain point is by developing technology to allow people to work collaboratively in smarter ways. “The world is becoming such a small place and
the global village is becoming the norm,” she says.

The world is becoming such a small place and the global village is becoming the norm.

Innovations like Cisco’s Spark Board – an all-in-one device that is a video conference facility as well as a whiteboard – are part of this trend. “The board lets people communicate, brainstorm and workshop remotely as easily as if they’re in the same room. It’s just amazing stuff.”

Putting a stop to cyberattacks

Another part of this digital transformation is the increased importance of cybersecurity. Believing that securing a business from cyberattacks will increasingly become a priority for companies, Cisco has set itself the objective of becoming the world’s leading cybersecurity solutions provider. It has introduced new suites of next-generation products to allow consumers to detect and neutralise new threats that have come along with new technology such as cloud computing.

“Cybersecurity is exploding at the moment,” Cathy confirms. “The first challenge with this is encouraging our customers to be more aware of the importance of cybersecurity. John Chambers, our ex-CEO and chairman, always used to say: ‘There are companies that know they’ve been hacked, and there are those that don’t know that they’ve been hacked.’ Some do not have an ‘Aha!’ moment until an attack happens. Many companies just want to invest in the business they are operating in and see security as unnecessary. That is changing right now, but it’s been a journey for us.”

There are also skills shortages around cybersecurity, Cathy explains. “Almost all of our customers have been complaining about the difficulty of finding people with cybersecurity skills, so we’ve really focused on driving the skills acceleration in programming and security. We’re also running different cohorts with different partnerships to try and accelerate the availability of these skills.”

A clear innovation strategy

To stay at the cutting edge of ICT as whole new fields open up, Cisco is implementing an innovation strategy that includes a heightened focus on research and development as well as the acquisition of complementary solutions. It has also established a number of innovation centres, with the hub to be based in Dubai and complemented by satellite centres in Lagos, Johannesburg and Nairobi.

Run in conjunction with educational and government institutions, Cisco’s Networking Academy is the company’s flagship corporate social responsibility initiative. Based on the idea that connectivity can foster innovation and progress, it has upskilled millions of students since it was established in 1997. Those enrolled can receive career-building advice as well as develop technical skills in Cisco specialties like software development and cybersecurity.

“It’s an amazing program,” Cathy enthuses. “It teaches relevant new skills that we need for the future, and it’s multipronged and pervasive. It’s working incredibly well. We’re now working with our customers and looking at how we can move the needle in terms of contributing to economic stimulation and reducing unemployment.”

The networking academy also aims to promote inclusion and diversity which, Cathy says, are values also championed within Cisco. In the company’s new executive leadership team more than 30 per cent are women, she notes. “How fantastic is that? It’s also a very diverse global organisation, it’s not just US-centred.”

In the company’s new executive leadership team more than 30 per cent are women.

The ICT industry as a whole, meanwhile, still has some work to do. “It is not nearly where it needs to be in terms of gender transformation,” says Cathy.

The ICT space isn’t just for men

This passionate leader has become an advocate for young women joining the field. “I often talk about how we can become relevant on an industry-vertical level. In many instances, women are ideally positioned to capitalise on that, but for some reason not enough women are attracted to the industry.

Accelerating a strategy to show women that the ICT industry is a cool place to be and that the technology is fabulous, that is a real passion of mine.”
Cathy grew up in technology and it is part of the fabric of who she is. Yet the constant evolution of the sector, with new fields like the Internet of Things and Software Defined Networking (SDN), there is little chance of it becoming stale or overly familiar.

“For 24 years, this is all I have loved and bled,” she explains. “Change has been the number one constant. Taking all those factors together: environment, technology, innovation, focus on people, understanding how to manage and be a leader, it all gave me the ability to make quite a seamless transition to Cisco.”

For 24 years, this is all I have loved and bled. Change has been the number one constant.

It was Cathy’s ability to harness technology as a problem-solving tool that was one of the reasons Cisco wanted her to come on board. “I would never talk about a router or switch. I would talk more about where the customer is going and how we can solve their specific problem. Growing up in IBM, I learned how to implement solutions and I think that is one of the things I always bring to the party.”

While Cathy was initially drawn to the sector by an interest in technology, she became increasingly passionate about leadership as she gained experience.
“I love leadership,” she admits. “I’m always researching what the latest leadership competencies are and making sure I am up to date on the new trends. Right now, my big thing is leadership in the digital area.

“It is definitely what I drive the most because I believe that everything that happens in life, or any organisation’s success, is really dependent on the people. You need to create a culture and climate for people to perform, and hopefully thrive, in. I had so many senior roles at IBM and I was a chairperson of the board. You get to a point in your career when you start to think: ‘Is this too good to be true?’ You’re in a very protected environment, you know everybody, you know all the processes. I wanted to take on a fresh challenge where I could practise all the skills I had developed and realise all the dreams I have. So, one day, I decided to take a risk and come to Cisco.”

Overcoming early challenges

If Cathy wanted a challenge in her new role, she certainly got it. “My first year at Cisco was one of the most difficult years in my career,” Cathy remembers. “There were times when I might not have survived, it was that hard. We faced quite a significant deficit in the economy.

That was the beginning of a lot of uncertainty around the future of the country. Our currency degraded more than 20% in that first year and that was incredibly difficult.

“I had some of my darkest moments in my career there. Navigating through all of that and coming out of it stronger, I consider that a real achievement. One thing I did was implement a new strategy where we become very industry-vertical focused.

“I had to transform the organisation to engage customers in the industry where they operate. Take an industry like mining, you have to understand what is happening in the sector; the challenges, the opportunities. Then you translate that into where your customer is in the industry, and how you can bring a solution to the table that would help them. There has been a real drive towards saying: ‘Let’s not just go and sell products. Let’s truly take this organisation and restore it.’ It’s almost like rewiring people.”

Realigning the focus of the company took a lot of time and investment, Cathy says. “How do you change from really understanding products and being superb at that to being a customer-centric business? We are saying: ‘Let me listen to you, Mr Customer. Let me bring some value and insight from our perspective. Let’s find a way to help you become successful.’ Then we orchestrate the Cisco organisation to deliver the client’s needs. I think we successfully achieved that in my second year here. So now, I am in an extremely positive frame of mind.”