There are few women in business, in China especially, who have a track record like Hera Siu. Over more than 30 years, Hera has held senior leadership positions, spearheading growth and transformation in international companies such as Pearson, SAP, Nokia, Pacific Century CyberWorks, Nortel and Sierra Pacific Power Company. Ask Hera how technology and innovation can completely transform an industry and she’ll draw deep insights from her lengthy career in IT across Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
“I’ve been fortunate to have defined my own career. I’ve done everything from sales and marketing, to production, manufacturing and management. I always knew I wanted to do something that had an impact on people’s lives – some may call that greedy, but it’s my passion. It doesn’t have to be a lot of people, but as long as I can improve the life of just one person, I’ll be happy,” she explains. “I’ve had the privilege of working with groundbreaking technology that is changing people’s lives worldwide. I’ve learned so much and, at the same time, I’ve been able to give back as well.”
Hera says her husband Bernard Kwok has had a huge impact on her career pathway. “As a finance major, I’ve always been good with numbers. Bernard, however, works for the computer virtualisation company VMware China, so he actually introduced me to the world of IT telecommunications. The self-evolving futuristic features of the industry intrigued me from the very beginning – so I built my career around it,” she admits.
Now as CEO of Cisco Systems Greater China, Hera has been instrumental in developing strategy and accelerating business growth in the region. Hera joined Cisco in November 2016 as COO, becoming CEO less than a year later. Fluent in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, her background in international business and her deep understanding of the region’s dynamic business environment has been an invaluable asset. “I’ve been involved in the transformations of many other companies and I’ve learned a lot in the process. Now, I’m applying what I know while working with Cisco’s DNA – not to tweak it, but to leverage its full potential and accelerate the transformation.”
While the potential trade war between the US and China looms, Cisco is calling for collaboration between the world’s two largest economies. “At the end of the day, the global economy is going to be stronger with the US and China working together,” Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins told CNBC at the Mobile World Congress in Spain.
Built to last
Founded in the US in 1984, Cisco is the worldwide leader in networking that continuously transforms how people connect, communicate and collaborate. Helping customers to solve their most important business challenges, the company delivers intelligent networks and technology architectures built on integrated products, services and software platforms. Since its entry into the burgeoning Chinese market in 1994, Cisco has played an important role in China’s growth in information and communication technologies. It now has 15 branches and more than 3,500 employees throughout Greater China.
Hera is clearly excited by the company’s current market position. “Cisco is at a progression point on the way to making ourselves bigger, better and stronger in China,” she says eagerly. “It’s up to me to identify areas for improvement so that we’re poised to embrace transformation. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re off to a great start with early successes. It’s these baby steps that keep me motivated.”
“Cisco is at a progression point on the way to making ourselves bigger, better and stronger in China.”
Reputed for her collaborative leadership and ambition to inspire, Hera was selected as one of the 2011 Annual Leaders of the Chinese Information Industry, one of the Leaders of Brand Building in China’s Software and Information Industry, and was listed by Fortune as one of the 50 Most Powerful Women – all in the same year. Her advice to young women entering the workforce, particularly those gunning for a leadership position, is confidence.
“Females or males – there is no weak or strong gender – we are all fit for different purposes. Women in the workforce should never be regarded as second-class males. So, I think it’s important for us to embrace who we are, be confident in our abilities, and aim high.”
The power of China
Over the past 20 years, China has emerged as one of the world’s most promising growth markets, accelerating its transformation towards digitisation and a consumption-driven economic growth model. “The IT industry should inherently move at a fast pace because technology is always evolving and reinventing itself,” Hera explains. “I don’t have a crystal ball but, in the next two to five years, I see China taking the lead over the US in a number of technological areas including cloud adoption, AI and the IoT.”
“I don’t have a crystal ball but, in the next 2–5 years, I see China taking the lead over the US.”
In March this year, the Chinese government announced an economic growth target of 6.5% for 2018, down from the 6.9 experienced last year. The new policy will focus on containing financial risk and tackling quality-of-life issues by closing down inefficient, polluting factories around the country. For China, hitting its 2020 target of doubling 2010 gross domestic product and per capita income is crucial, since it will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China in 2021.
In light of these ambitions, Hera believes that Cisco’s full potential is being undervalued in China. “To drive growth and awareness and combat weaknesses, I’ve identified the low-hanging fruit that will form the basis of our short-term goals. First, to update and improve the services we deliver to our existing customers. And, second, to define an easy and effective way to better service small and medium enterprises that we believe are on the verge of greatness,” she explains. Since the opening up of China’s economy in the 1980s, SMEs have become a driving force in the nation’s economic growth. “However, many of them do not have the IT savvy of large corporations, so it’s important that we make things simple and we have developed an SME playbook that has turned into a growth engine,” says Hera. “Finally, we want to identify new industries and geographic locations where our footprint is small, so we can go there with our partners to grow the business.”
Cisco maintains its long-term commitment to the growth and advancement of China through its sustainable development strategy for the country. Recent initiatives promoted by the government such as China Manufacturing 2025, Internet+ and its cloud strategy have been powerful drivers of economic growth. “Cisco is deeply involved in these technologies to provide the most robust and secure connectivity to link people to people, people to machine, and machine to machine – all together in a beautiful network,” explains Hera. Leveraging Cisco’s strengths, the newly announced initiatives will help power the development of China’s economy and society to create a sustainable environment.
Great Place to Work
Despite diverse industry obstacles, Hera says the biggest challenge she faces is talent management. “In China, it’s not about how we do it or what we do, but who does it. This country has a large pool of young, hungry talent. They may be inexperienced, but they’ve developed a good work ethic and have great potential. As CEO of Cisco in this region, it’s up to me to try and turn this potential into productivity, and build a culture that makes the best use of their talents.” However, Hera says it will be no easy feat. According to Great Place to Work®, it takes the commitment of dedicated and motivated leaders and employees to achieve such an ambitious goal. After first appearing on the list in 2001, last year Cisco ranked number 21 on the Great Place to Work list of the World’s Best Workplaces. The survey assessed employees’ perspectives on leadership, organisational culture and trust.
“This country has a large pool of young, hungry talent.”
According to the report, “A genuine sense of family” makes Cisco’s culture stand out from its peers, putting “the Cisco experience truly above any other”. Hera is proud to say that Cisco Greater China also appeared as one of the top three Best Companies to Work for in Greater China 2017, recognised for creating a culture that is friendly, inclusive, productive and ethical. “It’s an honour to know that the work » we are doing internally is being recognised,” she says. “The strategies we developed a few years ago are clearly seeing results. Nevertheless, we are always looking for ways to improve.”
Investing in innovation
In June 2015, Cisco announced a US$10 billion investment in China over the next two decades, aimed at supporting local innovation, R&D, industrial transformation and economic growth. Together with a series of strategic partners, Cisco signed a memorandum of understanding with China’s National Development and Reform Commission to expand investment and promote the development of a high-tech industry in China.
Cisco overcomes the challenge of a large, geographically disparate workforce through the daily use of Webex, Integrated Workforce Experience, and TelePresence – the company’s immersive video conferencing tool. These measures allow employees to stay in touch with the company’s leadership team, as well as connect and collaborate with other Cisco offices globally. “I define success by the way my people feel about themselves,” says Hera.
“We can only grow the company if our teams are learning, evolving and working together. Of course, we are always looking for profit and growth, but if we can generate economic benefits while also generating a good team, then, to me, that is true success.”
Leading by example
Having carefully and methodically crafted her career path, Hera has made a lot of smart decisions. However, she says the best one by far has been putting her family first. Despite a promising career trajectory, Hera chose to take a year off after the birth of each of her two daughters. She says this family time helped her rest and refresh before she began climbing the corporate ladder again, working harder and smarter to get to where she is today.
“I have never regretted putting my family above my career, and my children have taught me so much,” she says. “If 20 years ago, I knew what I know now, I would be listening more, not talking more. That is the biggest thing I’ve learned from my daughters – that I don’t listen enough. It doesn’t matter who’s doing the talking, everyone has their own merit and deserves to be heard.”
“If 20 years ago I’d I known what I know now, I would be listening more, not talking more.”
Hera believes that everything begins with leadership. “Leaders set the vision. We are in the people business, so it’s about engaging the minds and hearts of our employees. We set the vision, map out an actionable plan, build the culture, rally the team, and then make sure we have scorecards in place to measure our progress,” she explains. “We have to take action, not just talk about it. I set an example for my team members so they do the same for their teams.”
This dynamic – with innovation and collaboration at its core – is one that Hera has worked tirelessly to achieve and maintain. “On a professional level, my love for innovation is the reason I joined Cisco. But on a personal level, it’s because I wanted to do what I love and love what I do. Innovation is in my DNA. If you don’t innovate, you can’t cope with – let alone thrive on – the fast-paced changes that modern tech customers demand. At Cisco, we are determined to build a performance-driven and innovation-driven culture.”
The CEO says it is narrow-minded to try to define or predict where innovation might come from. “It comes from everywhere,” she says. “From how we work and how we do business, to the partners we engage and the ecosystem we build to serve our customers. This is something that we’re embracing in Greater China – to make innovation a culture – and the highly competitive IT market makes that even more pressing.”
Cisco Networking Academy
Cisco Networking Academy is an IT skills and career-building program for learning institutions and individuals worldwide, preparing them for a prosperous future in the digital economy. Since 1997, more than six million people have joined the online platform to study topics such as networking, security, IoT, programming, business and digital literacy.
- 1 million people log in each month to learn and teach
- 20,000 instructors have become certified to teach the Networking Academy curriculum
- More than 155 million exams have been taken via the online learning platform
Together with its customers and partners, Cisco has witnessed and contributed to several important milestones in China’s budding technology industry since entering the country in 1994. “Our partners are crucial to this process,” notes Hera.
“At Cisco, our go-to-market model is clear and very seldom do we find contracts alone. A partner is an extended enterprise to us. We refresh our partners regularly to ensure they’re always aligned with our goals and aspirations, and that we complement each other in terms of technology, skill sets and capabilities.”
While Cisco Greater China continues to grow its traditional partners, Hera says she is also recruiting a new breed of partners that specialise in Cisco’s weaker areas, such as sensors and facial recognition.
“They become part of our solutions, while we become part of the solutions for other sectors that require our particular expertise. Integration is paramount and so we have fair incentives as well as an established acquisition development platform to allow partners to build their solutions using our network, and then it’s native to us. These strategies all work in unison to help Cisco deliver the best outcomes for its customers.”
Building smart cities
Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a figure that’s expected to increase to 70% by 2050, according to Cisco. To reduce the financial and structural strain on these cities, the seamless integration of technology is vital to become more productive, sustainable and liveable. Cisco researchers have found ‘smart cities’ can potentially generate as much as US$2.3 trillion globally by 2024. Within the infrastructure of these digital hubs, everything is connected to an online network, allowing devices to communicate with one another to manage assets and resources efficiently.
In China, the Guangzhou Smart City Project is Cisco’s largest smart city innovation project. Since 2013, the Guangdong capital has spared no effort to transform itself into the country’s innovation hub, encouraging start-ups by increasing incubators, and hosting events and awards to enhance the exchange of ideas. Now home to nearly 5,000 high-tech companies, Guangzhou will be transformed into a leading example of a smart city through the integration of its industry, research, academia, business and financial services.
“Smart cities are the future. The Guangzhou project is a bold move we’re making because we want to build something from the ground up, and it wouldn’t be possible without the strong support we’ve received from the local government,” says Hera. “The trial phase has already been completed, with a demo centre in the city showcasing what’s possible. This ranges from smart households, smart businesses and smart health care, to smart education and smart energy. Once the outlook of the city is decided, construction of our blueprint will take place over 12–18 months. Finally, with the reliable help of our partners, we will install the latest Cisco technology throughout the city to connect its citizens. If all goes to plan, the city will be fully operational within the next two years.”
The Guangzhou Smart City will give priority to emerging industries including IT, biology and health care, advanced machinery, new energy vehicles, renewable energy, environmental protection and energy conservation. Frontier sectors such as AI and robotics, IoT and wearable devices, cloud computing and big data are also a focus of the city’s future industrial landscape. Skills training and innovation platforms will be made available to attract new talent, new products and more job opportunities for skilled workers in the region.
To promote the acceptance and integration of further smart cities around the globe, in November last year Cisco introduced the US$1 billion City Infrastructure Financing Acceleration Program. The initiative will make it easier, faster and more affordable for cities to fund and adopt technologies that will transform their communities.
A government alliance
According to Hera, Cisco’s long-term goal is to align itself with the Chinese government’s agenda to transform the country into an ‘innovation nation’. Under this plan, China will attempt to seize the high ground in technological and scientific development, with a strong focus on AI, big data, robotics and intelligent manufacturing. “Cisco will continue to serve and make contributions to China’s economy and technological development, and our goal is to look at what IT solutions we can co-innovate with our customers and partners. This means embracing new IT solutions, new markets and alternative revenue streams,” explains Hera.
“We’re also looking to increase our inorganic growth segments. Building something from the ground up takes time, so it’s important for us to identify existing projects we can contribute to. Already, we’ve identified a number of joint ventures and financial investments that we’d like to enhance by at least half.”
According to Hera, the industrial internet sector shows great promise. “Most manufacturers in China are already Cisco customers, so we co-innovate to build their version of the industrial internet using Cisco’s network – a process that we call Country Digitization Acceleration. In less than two years, 14 countries have partnered with Cisco to implement its CDA program. From here, we want to form a network to bring our solutions outside China and to introduce Chinese companies overseas.”
Hera wants to show the Chinese government that Cisco is not only committed to the Guangzhou Smart City, but also to creating far-reaching change across all sectors. “We are working closely with the Cyberspace Administration of China. With guidance and great support from the government, we have opened a lab in the National Cybersecurity Talent and Innovation Base, dedicated to educating Chinese college students – the future generation – on the future of cybersecurity. This will enhance China’s capabilities and prepare us for any and all cyber situations. Cisco is eager to perfect its methods, develop more smart cities and open innovation and incubation centres throughout China, hand in hand with provincial and city governments.”