CRN Exclusive: Cisco Americas Sales Chief Gleeson On Her Spiritual Journey, The Power Of The Channel And Her Decision To Leave Cisco

Alison Gleeson, a 22-year Cisco veteran with a sterling reputation as an advocate for the channel, announced in late May that she would leave the company. She spoke with CRN about what led to that decision.

Soul Journey

It's clear that Alison Gleeson reached her decision to leave her position as Cisco's Americas sales chief after a great deal of soul searching.

Sponsored post

The 22-year Cisco veteran with a sterling reputation as an advocate for the channel announced in late May that she would leave the company. But months before making that announcement, Gleeson approached Chairman and CEO Chuck Robbins, and the conversation the friends and longtime colleagues had "was one of those conversations I'll remember for the rest of my life," she told CRN in a recent interview.

It was announced last week that longtime Cisco sales and channel executive Jeff Sharritts would take on Gleeson's senior vice president, Americas role.

Gleeson spoke to CRN upon her return from a trip to Africa, and the sales leader said she is in the midst of "an incredibly spiritual journey," one that is likely to see her continue, and even deepen, her commitment to education in Tanzania and Zambia, and also take on a leadership position at a tech start-up, or even a more established firm.

The channel is one of Gleeson's many passions, and here she shares her thoughts on how Cisco has been able to build and maintain its strong channel relationships and strategies, as well as the ways partners have helped Cisco evolve in a fast-changing technology market.

What follows is an edited excerpt of Gleeson's conversation with CRN.

What drove your decision to leave Cisco?

It's okay for an executive to leave for the sake of change, and that's what I did. I had 91 quarters with Cisco, and four years running the Americas. In February I let [Chairman and CEO] Chuck [Robbins] know that it was time for me to take on some of my own advice, which was owning your moment of clarity. I talk about this a lot when I do different speaking engagements. It was just time. For the last year, you just kind of know. It's time for you to do something else. Chuck and I are really, really good friends, and it was probably the toughest career decision. It was one of those conversations I'll remember for the rest of my life. Everybody assumed it would be this straight ladder, but life is not about a straight ladder and careers are not about a straight ladder. They're more like a jungle gym. We decided in February and I told him I would help him and work through the transition to who that next leader was going to be.

What was the reaction like when you announced you were leaving?

You never truly know the impact you've had on a person until they tell you. When I told Cisco, and my partners and customers I was leaving, I did it via video because I wanted to truly speak to them. I didn't want it to be an email. I wanted to extend that gratitude and the amazing opportunity I've had together with our company for the last 22 years. When you do that and you hear back from people, you realize some of the lives you've changed, but also there's a number of people who reach out to you to talk about my next chapter and introduce new opportunities to me.

What are some of your possible next steps? What are you interested and involved in outside of Cisco that's caught your attention?

I have a lot of mentors in my life, one of them being [former Cisco Chairman and CEO] John Chambers, and a whole host of others, and some of the sage advice that was given to me was to not jump into anything right away, and most importantly to take my time and make sure it aligns around my passions, and that's exactly what I'm going to be doing. I'm with the company actually until October 1, helping us close out on our fiscal year, transition to the new year and pass the baton over. When I first joined Cisco, our tagline was 'changing the way people live, work, play and learn.' That's exactly what I want to do. It's time for me to take on my next chapter, figure out what that niche is. For sure, it's going to be around technology. I want to do something that's impactful, pioneering and really important. That could be a start-up. It could be a midsize company. It could be a big company with a spin-out, or spin-in. We'll see.

What are your passions outside of work? What do you do when you're not at Cisco?

I have lots of passions. One of my previous bosses at Cisco, probably when I was in my mid-30s, said, 'Alison, you have so many passions, you have to focus on those that are your biggest.' My biggest passion is my family, for sure. I have two teenagers. One of the things I believe in is making sure you raise global children. We just came back from Africa. One of the things that struck me was the number of visitors that never left the resort, or the camp. I think it's important to do those village visits and to try to make a difference. My kids, together with my family, we spent a whole day at a school and ended up buying a copier. This school has between 130 and 160 students per classroom and the kids who sit in the back of the class can't even see the board. So buying a copier gives them an opportunity to actually see the lesson.

How do you blend your career with a passion like education in Africa?

You're catching me on an incredibly spiritual journey. Running the Americas at Cisco, and being with a global company, it's amazing what we are able to impact. But in my position running the Americas, it's kind of like a butterfly. You get to land on that flower, but I have fly off to the next one. In this case, with this particular school in Tanzania, and Zambia. In Zambia, that's a different story. The kids live in a village, and the village is like eight miles off the main road, and the kids don't have incentive after 9th grade to go to school because they can't get there. So, we bought them bikes, 50 bikes so they could bike in to high school. A big passion for me is family and changing lives, and there are just so many opportunities to do that. There's a balance between giving back and jumping into a company where I'll be able to make a real difference.

How important is the partners' role in helping Cisco through its software transition?

Our partner community is our biggest differentiator. The partners help lead us through our transformation, and that's critical. They're family to me. We have such breadth and depth in our partner community, and as we're going through this transition, there are many partners who have gone through it, or are further ahead than we are. They're working hand-in-hand with us. One thing that truly differentiates Cisco is we really listen to our customers, and we listen to our partners. And we change based on what they say we need to do because we believe in each other. I don't just say that. It's so true. We seek their feedback. There are a number of partners who are going through this transition who continue to challenge us and say, 'hey, we're not moving fast enough.' We have an incredible responsibility to those partners that are on the other side, that aren't moving fast enough.

What challenges come along with partners transforming at different paces?

That can be daunting at times. As I stand up and speak to the Americas partner organization, over 10,000 individuals, I think that is an incredible responsibility, and it's a responsibility that we genuinely feel. Having that balance, where you have those partners that are pushing us and saying you're not moving fast enough, or not moving in the right areas, that has been instrumental to the success we've had. It's a healthy balance, but like anything else, the industry is changing so quickly, and we are going to have to continue to stay super close to our partners because I know many companies would very much like to be part of Cisco's ecosystem.

What are the most important things you've learned at Cisco that you'll undoubtedly bring to your next job?

We focus on really not taking anything for granted. Our partners have had a lot of choices, and many of our partners have been with the company for as long as I have. One of the most important lessons is you can learn as much from your partners and your customers, if not more, than what you learn just in your own organization. I would call it a little bit of healthy paranoia. Never taking anything for granted. Our customers and partners are incredibly loyal to us, and we're loyal to them. But they still have choices because there are many, many, many great companies out there today.

How have you built and maintained that level of loyalty among partners in your organization?

In my organization, it's about making sure you have those checkpoints. I have my monthlies, and my quarterlies, and I'm making sure I'm listening to my partners, my very biggest partners and my very smallest partners. When I look at the spectrum of partner types we have, it's about making sure you have those built-in checkpoints, that one-on-one time where you're really, really, really listening and understanding what else is going on. We learn the most about what's going on in industries, we learn the most about even potential acquisitions and disruptors to the market from our partners. It's through our partners that we're able to scale. I'm a huge partner advocate to the company. I always have been, at all levels throughout the company. It's something I've even instilled – as we make acquisitions – to new companies when they come into Cisco. I would sum it up as listen, listen, listen, listen.

What technologies are especially critical for partners to get their minds around in order to be successful over the next couple of years?

I truly believe IoT is real. It is everything today. We've been talking about IoT for a long time, but I think it's really important that our partners understand that the edge matters, and the ability to make decisions at the edge, and understanding the dynamics between the edge, and the cloud, and the hybrid element, and extracting value from the data. So much of that comes through Cisco's network platform. Part of that is being able to have an ecosystem that allows you to bring in and make that data incredibly valuable through data enablement platforms. We get that through a number of ecosystem partners, and we have unique ones for each industry. Gone are the days when you have a solution that represented us, our partner and maybe one other company. In today's world, to do connected cities, connected transportation, we're talking about 10, 12 different companies. It's really critical for our partners to have those landing places so that those ecosystem partners can come in. We have partners who are leading that change, and helping build amazing industry solutions, and there are partners that are working on it.

And security is becoming important to just about everything Cisco does.

Being able to work with our customers, helping them develop strategic cyber roadmaps, their cybersecurity governance and the importance of third-party assessment around a company's cyber strategy, that's important across the board. For a networking company, no question, but for our partners it creates an amazing opportunity for them to differentiate themselves, and an opportunity for them to make some really profitable services engagements. Our partners are our glue. We're not set up as an organization to provide that scale. We get those solutions, and we get that scale through the partners.