Cisco's Sara Adams: leading the channel path

Cisco's Sara Adams: leading the channel path

The new leader of Cisco’s Partner Business Group on how she got to the top and mentoring women in information technology

Cisco's Sara Adams

Cisco's Sara Adams

The new leader of Cisco’s Partner Business Group, Sara Adams, has spent more than 13 years with the networking giant. She spoke to ARN about how she got to the top and mentoring women in information Technology.

What were you doing prior to joining Cisco?

Before I joined, I worked for another vendor and I worked for a reseller in the UK, Apple Centre Thames Valley and a distributor – Merisel in Canada. I’ve gone through my stripes in the channel.

How did you get to the position where you are today?

I started at Cisco in our San Jose office 13 years ago in a product management role in our services division bringing services through the channel and making sure it was all set into distribution. I’ve always had fairly channel focused roles within Cisco. Then I had the opportunity to help the services team evolve into the Asia-Pacific region. I was doing a lot of commuting and eventually asked if I could move because I was sick and tired of being on an airplane.

When I moved to Sydney, I was with the services team, but an opening came up in the channels team to look after channel marketing. I did that for a couple of years and expanded the role to pick up operations, certifications, specialisation, and even the distribution function for a while.

I then took some time out for maternity leave and when I came back I was given the opportunity to run a new division within Cisco, heading into the SMB sales area. We didn’t have anybody working on that. There was myself and another two people starting to drive the SMB business, which grew over a couple of years and we ended up combining it with our mid-market business to be an overall commercial business, which I was asked to run.

In the last nine months we switched our commercial sales focus from the customer to aligning and compensating our reps on partner success. We learnt a lot about partners and how to work with them through that model. We had an opening in our partner side of the business and decided to combine the two into a newly formed partner business group, which I was also asked to lead.

How have you seen the way the industry has shaped over the years?

It has gotten a lot more complex. Years ago, it was about routing and switching, which was very straightforward, but it didn’t seem so straightforward at the time. I moved just when Silicon Valley was at its peak and booming, which was quite a frantic time. Just before the dot com bust, business was everywhere, everyone was happy and channel partners were growing. There was a lot more smaller telco players in the market then that have gone away since the dot com bust. Now if I look at it, the channel has become more complex and the breadth of technology has changed. Our partners have really moved on from just a product resell focus to now being a business enabler, helping to run the business and not just support it.

What are some of key lessons that you’ve learnt?

I’ve matured as a leader and get more balance in what I do. I’ve got a reasonable amount of time for work and family. One of the biggest lessons I’ve also learnt is how to prioritise my work load. I used to stress about all the email and voicemails I hadn’t returned, and you feel really guilty about it, but I stopped and thought has my boss ever said in a performance review ‘Sara you need to respond to your emails quicker’ – no way. It has been about driving the market further and getting more growth in the business. So I thought if he’s not measuring me on that, then I’m okay.

How did you get involved in Females in IT&T (FiTT) and Cisco Connected Women?

When I first came back from maternity leave, Cisco at the time had a Women’s Action Network, now called Cisco Connected Women, and I ended up volunteering to run it for A/NZ. I was working with HR and the local leadership team around how we can get more women attracted into the industry, how can we make sure we’ve got more flexible work place policies and what are we doing to develop and coach women to advance within Cisco. Through that I had a lot of engagement with external firms and started to speak about it externally. I had seen some information about FiTT and thought it was a great organisation.

When I got an email about its mentoring program, I thought I would love to hone my skills in mentoring and volunteer my time. I’m mentoring two different women in the industry at the moment and it’s great fun. I learn and get so much back from it that I sometimes feel guilty because I actually think I learn more when I’m mentoring somebody than the poor person I’m mentoring. You discuss different issues and by doing that you begin realise, is it really as good as what I could be doing it? And you think through how you’re approaching business.

How have you seen the role of women shift in the IT industry?

There are a lot more women now, but I still don’t think we’re attracting as many women into the industry. With some of the high school groups that we talk to, women assume that because it’s IT they have to have an engineering focus. I think there’s a lack of awareness of the different types of roles you can have in IT and we need to do a better job in promoting that.

What are some of your proudest achievements so far?

Getting the current role, it was not that long ago that I took on the combined commercial business and going through such a transition to a partner led model, there was so much to do and there’s so much to evolve. I wasn’t convinced the business was ready to combine the two and make it an even larger role, but the business has shown a lot of commitment. We like what’s happening with the partner led model and we need to be more partner centric.

I’ve always been a channel bigot and I’m proud I can come back into the channel, lead it and take everything that we’ve learnt from a partner-led model to expand it throughout the business.

What are some of your plans this year?

We’re starting to formulate a strategy that we think will help add more value to partners.

In the channel organisation, we’re transitioning into an area where we want to work closer with partners through the cycle of creating – whether it’s a managed service or a solution. As a business, we’ve got a lot of expertise internally and I think we can apply those resources at the pointy end of the sales cycle.

We want to expand our services to partners and add resources in the go-to-market area. Also take a look at the commercial model and demand generation we want to do with customers and the addressable market we want to cover.

The way we apply our expertise will be different for each partner, because some of them have phenomenal skills and may not need as much help. Historically, the only type of resource we’ve maintained in the channel group is partner account managers. We want to broaden that to have different areas of expertise so the partner account manager can pull them in to help them.

Any particular areas and skills you’ll be ramping up in?

One of the areas we need have to do a body of work on is understanding the addressable market – whether it’s from a geographic, organic or technology coverage perspective.

We’ll be looking at where we have coverage gaps and identifying partners we can align with to cover those gaps. The perfect scenario is getting partners to agree to covering those gaps jointly with us, and then once we agree to that look at what we’re going to bring to market, how we’re going to talk to those customers, the value proposition, and expertise around how we’re going to jointly create that solution.

Is there a time frame when you want to achieve this?

It will be an evolution over time, but we’ll start to look at longer term compensation structures and roles within the team starting our new fiscal year, August 1. It’s not that we don’t do this today – we do it on a one-off basis, but we’ve got to figure out a way to make it more cohesive, and provide more commitment and consistency that a partner can expect from us.

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