New Cisco Americas Channel Chief: ‘This Is Not Your Mother’s Go-To-Market Partnership’

Cisco’s new APO Channel Chief Rhonda Henley talks about the tech giant’s focus on co-selling with partners and the opportunities she plans to help partners of all kinds go after around XaaS, managed services and security.

Cisco Systems this week announced a big promotion: Rhonda Henley, Cisco’s global partner and routes to market sales organization for the last three years, was crowned vice president of Cisco’s Americas Partner Organization (APO).

Henley, a Cisco veteran of more than two decades, is coming into the role armed with years of channel experience. She’s also no stranger to the APO and she’s ready to return to help partners of all kinds – not just the traditional Cisco reseller — drive their own businesses alongside Cisco as the tech giant continues its transformation in favor of software, managed services, and everything as a service.

That’s not all. In addition to Henley’s “day job” as a channel leader she’s also passionate about social justice. She currently sits on Cisco’s Social Justice Council for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. She’s also very interested in the investments Cisco has made in growing with African American-led channel partners who are building out Cisco practices — causes that she’ll continue to champion, she said. It’s one of the many ways that Cisco employees can help their communities and build towards the tech giant’s goal for an inclusive future for all.

Henley shared her priorities and plans for her new role leading Cisco’s APO with CRN. Here are excerpts from the conversation with Henley.

Tell us about your role and what’s your strategy for tackling the Americas market?

It’s funny, having joined Cisco — May will be 23 years ago — it still feels so new because there’s always so much going on. It’s so exciting. In my new role, I feel like it’s sort of back to the future because I’m leaving our Global Partner Organization and I’m rejoining APO. In the new role, I’m leading a team of fantastic leaders across the Americas responsible for driving our go to market with our partners, be they public sector, commercial, enterprise, service provider, and most importantly, these partners are focused on driving the innovation, driving aligning to Cisco strategy, and really focused on that next generation [technology], whether it’s software as a service, managed services, and security. So, I’m really excited to one, get back into the Americans partner organization. But two, to me, it feels new again with all the exciting things that are going on with Cisco.

The [current] strategy is working. However, we are evolving. And when I say evolving, we are not only aligning with our partners today to help them understand that next generation in innovation, we’re also investing in and cultivating relationships with partners that are not necessarily traditional to Cisco, whether it’s the ecosystem partners [or] the cloud service providers, so whether it is really driving as a service [or] the acceleration and application development in the cloud, as well as what we historically think about when we think about the Cisco partner ecosystem, it’s always an evolving strategy, but [it’s really about] really pulling more of an expanded partner base into that core piece of our business and accelerating that.

How will you bring your two decades-plus experience in the channel into this new role?

It’s a combination of leveraging that experience, but not really resting on my laurels or saying: “I’ve been here for 20 plus years, so trust me, I know.” It’s really understanding the value and the importance of expanding our reach. And because of the experience I have, I like to think I can quickly assess within Cisco, as well as the external partner community, where we have gaps [and] where we need coverage. I think my experience will allow me to quickly identify areas of growth and some pivot points in areas of transition.

What’s the next big area of opportunity for Americas partners?

It’s all about security. We talk about meeting customers where they are. We’ve heard and we’ve seen in the press that where customers are looking to tighten their belt around certain areas, really innovating and driving innovation in their infrastructure is not an area in which they’re trying to cut. They’re trying to make sure that they’re optimized. There’s not an end user client in the marketplace that’s not thinking security first. I think really where you’ll start to see us — we’ve always been very security focused — but really double down and lean in and make sure that we’re enabling our partners to understand our [security] portfolio to make sure they are enabled. And candidly, there are some partners that are out innovating to make sure our sellers understand how the partners are driving differentiation in this space as well. Security is one of those big areas.

[The industry] is accustomed to us talking about the resell ecosystem that we have that’s phenomenal. But we’re also looking at expanding our co-sell ecosystem of partners. So, this is not your mother’s go-to-market partnership. The new partnership model include partners that may not necessarily drive the resale, but in partnership with a broader ecosystem, they’re saying: “I’m coming into to do this level of services, Cisco’s bringing these solutions, whether it’s security or managed or software, and then a traditional Cisco reseller can help us wrap it and package it so together, we can go to that end user client and really develop and deliver a full solution.” So, not only are we interested in resell, we’re interested in co-sell, and not only are we interested in co-sell, we’re interested in things like the innovation of the cloud marketplace, etc. So, that’s sort of coming together with the expansion of what we would call the partners of the past.

What’s the biggest areas in which these partners struggle, and how will you help?

I think there are multiple areas. What I think what we do very well is help partners understand their profitability, and our team’s understanding [of] theirs. Partners are not simply in the business of reselling for the sake of reselling. They’re trying to drive a profitable business with Cisco. I think Cisco is very good at working with partners around their profitability. I think we’re very good at pushing — the partners are pushing us, and we are pushing them to drive innovation and think literally outside of the box — and how do we build joint offers together to drive differentiation in the marketplace? I think the work we’re currently doing now around managed services in partnership with our global organization; that’s an example of how we are driving that innovation.

We have a cadence with the [global partner organization], so we are constantly sharing with Global the initiatives that we are driving [and] we are leveraging what they are developing at a global level and sort of tweaking as needed to make it fit to our markets across the Americas. There’s a natural synergy that, by the way, was there before I got here, but I think it becomes stronger because I’m coming from the Global Partner Organization.

What’s your message to Cisco Americas partners?

My message — and I think what partners want to hear is — we understand your business, we want to make sure that you understand how important you are to our business and our clients, and we want to leverage your strengths where they fit into the Cisco strategy. We’re going to really lean into these partners because they care about these areas. We’re going to lean into these other partners because they have strength in other areas. So, it really is about leveraging the strength of the partners. If you’re a managed service provider, how do we lean into differently? How do we make sure that we are driving our managed security offers, as an example. If security is not in your portfolio, we want to make sure that we’re enabling, but what are we going to drive with you? How do we leverage your strengths to make sure that we are maximizing our time and energies with you.

For us to transform, we can’t continue to do what we’ve done. One of the things that I believe Cisco has done well over the many years I’ve been here is to be ahead of that curve. It’s not just keeping up. But how do we see into the future and how do we get in front of that demand to really drive it? We have partners that we can work with together to look into the future.