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Annie Sakkab/© Annie Sakkab

Since she replaced Bernadette Wightman as Cisco Canada’s president and CEO in 2017, Rola Dagher has been a prominent voice on matters that have little to do with data centres, switches, routers and the various other bits of digital infrastructure Cisco sells. As a Lebanese immigrant with a drama-filled backstory, she speaks out frequently on immigration, workplace diversity and mental health. But as someone who rose from terror-filled hardship to become the head of the Canadian arm of a global enterprise, one that claims to contribute 1.7% to this country’s GDP, Dagher also has much to say about leadership, ambition and what it takes to succeed in corporate Canada. It certainly isn’t having the right MBA or family connections, or even—as I discovered when we met in her tiny, glass-fronted office, a room so cramped its door hits the back of the guest chair—a taste for the perks of status.

Why does the head of this big company get this office?

Because of this. [She gestures toward a window looking south to the lake.] I want the view. I don’t go for big offices and glamour. I go for what makes an impact and what makes me feel good, and this view is worth a lot. Water is peace for me.

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Were you near the ocean in Lebanon?

Growing up, we lived five minutes from the ocean. I’d look out of where I was born and raised, and you could see the ocean, which is beautiful. But I can’t swim. We were too busy hiding from bombs and bullets than learning how to swim. (1)

What was your reality in Lebanon before coming to Canada?

Survival. Most of my life in Lebanon was around, how do we make it to the next day? I was born and raised in a very, very small town. The translation of the town from Arabic to English is “back of the cave.” That town had maybe 200 people, and they were all related. All the Dagher family. And my dad decided to get out of that town to find a wife. He was the first one who married outside that town, and they had a family of six girls.

You’re the eldest?

I’m number two out of six. The oldest is still in Lebanon, and there are four in Toronto and one in Jersey. Being born and raised in a very small town taught me nothing but humbleness. We were at a school with all nuns and priests. The school bus would come and take us to another town. My dad was made fun of in the town we lived in ’cause the Middle Eastern culture is very strong on having boys in the family. Women didn’t amount to nothing back then. But he proved that raising six girls is the best thing that could ever happen to you as a parent.

It sounds like a happy story, but I don’t think it was. What were the harsh realities?

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We lived escaping town to town, most of my life in Lebanon.

What were you trying to escape from?

Our town got attacked multiple times.

By who?

By the town next to us. We got attacked by a different religion because they wanted the land of our town.

Which religion was attacking?

They’re called Druze. The Druze attacked our town, which was all Christians. Back then, it was happening to multiple towns. We escaped our town and lived in multiple shelters, a deserted hospital, and then Dad took us finally to Beirut, where he owned a property. My dad and I fixed an apartment to make sure it was safe for my sisters, and we moved in. And then I got married off at the age of 15.

Was that an involuntary marriage?

At 15, I didn’t want to get married—I was too young, but my parents said that’s the right thing to do. (2)

Did you come to Canada with your husband?

After my parents came here, I escaped Lebanon with my husband at the time, yes. And my daughter, who was almost 10 months old. (3)

How were your first months here?

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The first minute was the best minute I’ve ever felt for a very long time. It was a minute of hope and seeing my parents after not knowing I would be able to see them and after them not knowing I was alive, because they had no idea I was alive until I escaped to Cyprus.

Wow.

So that first minute was the minute God said to me, “You’re ready for your next journey in life.” And the first month was just being extremely blessed that I was with my sisters and my mom and dad. It was amazing, feeling the love that I hadn’t felt in a couple of years.

Where did you go to school here?

I did not go to school here at all.

What was your path into the tech industry?

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I started working, probably day three in Canada, in a retail job, because my parents’ neighbour owned a retail bag store. I worked my way up in retail for years. And I learned to speak the language from my sisters, because they were going to school. I would ask them to repeat everything in Arabic and in French so I could understand, and I taught myself the language. I did about five or six years in retail, and I would dress all these lovely women and men. I’m like, “I want to be one of them.” So, I decided to start in the corporate world, and I found a telemarketing job at Bell, selling long distance. I was with Bell for 15 years. I worked my way up from a telemarketer to selling Centrex lines, (4) and that’s how I taught myself the technology.

Annie Sakkab/© Annie Sakkab

You moved to Dell before Cisco.

I started as an account manager, selling to customers in Canada and competing against Cisco. And my results were amazing—double-digit growth that Dell had not seen in that line of business for years—and they’re like, “Whoa, who’s that firecracker?” So they’re like, “Okay, we’re going to give you a bigger role.” I led the whole team in Canada, seven or eight people, competing against Cisco’s products. I also grew that part of the business by double digits. They called me the fastest-growing female leader Dell ever had. I was promoted to vice-president to lead their infrastructure business, and that was all in less than three years. I got a call from a Cisco recruiter, and they’re like, “We’ve been watching your career.” And 17 interviews later, I landed the job. The recruiter called me on a Saturday. I was grocery shopping at Sobeys, and I sat on the floor and cried like a little kid.

Were you given performance goals?

Every single leader has performance goals. (5) But my focus, when I started, was around people and culture, because I believe that people and culture transform every organization.

In an interview last August, you said one of your biggest accomplishments was transforming Cisco Canada’s culture.

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Yes.

I need to understand this, because a year before that, you wrote in The Globe and Mail, “When I joined Cisco Canada, I was thrilled to see the company had already established a corporate culture built in respect, enablement and trust.” So, what did you change?

The previous statement, the one in The Globe, that’s a global statement. In Canada, we had work to do. All I did for them is empower them, inspire them, and move out of their way to go out there and make a huge impact on customers. I worked with the team on ensuring the leaders we have are servant leaders. I’m so big on servant leadership. And, at Cisco globally, our CEO will tell you we don’t care how good you are as a leader. If you’re not a delight to work with, we don’t want you.

How do you define “servant leader”?

Serving your people. You’re there to support them; you’re there to empower them; you’re there to inspire them; you’re there to help them make an impact and have a purpose. I’m not there to micromanage. Leadership is not about how many people like me; it’s about how many people I develop. With that comes accountability, responsibility and a sense of urgency.

What inadequacies existed in the culture at Cisco when you arrived?

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I don’t want to get into it, but there was a lot of work to do.

And how did you perceive that?

My first day on the job, I was asked in a big town hall, “What’s your strategy?” Day one. I said, “I don’t have a strategy. My strategy is to listen, learn and lead through all of you. Ask me this same question in three months.” And that’s what I did. I did a tour for all of Canada, and I formed my strategy based on what I heard.

You’re an outspoken advocate of diversity in the workplace. In an interview a while ago, you said, “Technology is intrinsically neutral.” How do you square that idea with the concern that male bias is built into technology, because most of the people programming it are male?

It used to be. If you go back 10, 15 years ago, I would say yes. Today—and again, I’m speaking of Cisco and the Cisco culture—50% of leaders are female. (6)

Are you talking about the C level, or are you including VPs?

No, I’m talking about the C level. We still have a lot of work to do when it comes to the middle level. If you were to go, for example, to a research and development facility, you’ll see more men than women. But there’s a big shift at the higher level. I love the diversity we’ve seen at Cisco. Another passion of mine is immigration, because diversity, for me, is all about diversity of thoughts. I don’t want to hire people who talk like me and look like me and do things like me. I want to hire people who challenge me. (7)

You’re also a cancer survivor. What was your cancer experience?

I was diagnosed 10 years ago with bladder cancer. I hid it from everyone, especially my parents, and I got all of my treatment. One of my sisters helped me through it, because she was the only one who knew at the time.

And what’s the story behind your mental health advocacy?

My son’s best friend committed suicide in university, and I saw how my son was impacted by it. Also, some of my sisters struggled with mental health issues. When I saw my loved ones struggling, I thought, Well, I’m in a seat of power, and leadership is all about action. I took a chance on opening the conversation with my CEO, (8) and he jumped on it. It was a big risk, but it was so rewarding on so many levels.

How much of your time is devoted to issues like mental health, diversity and immigration?

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Quite a bit, actually. I wear multiple hats, hence the reason I work around the clock and people will tell you I’m a workaholic. I run an organization, a full-time job, but then I go out there and advocate. I’m getting bombarded—probably five, six speaking requests a week. And my LinkedIn—I can’t keep up. I have a hard time saying no.

I saw a Cisco ad on TV this morning. It was about a boy getting an organ donor, thanks to Cisco.

I love that commercial.

What I took from that is, Cisco wants to put a friendly face on a very cold, technical business. I’m wondering whether that’s part of why you spend so much time talking about these issues—to put a human face on Cisco.

Technology is at the intersection where it’s impacting human progress. Look at what’s happening in the world: The only constant change we’re seeing is in technology. And if you don’t use it to improve lives, you’re using it the wrong way, right? I always say technology is the enabler, but people are the transformers.

A lot of your technology has to do with the internet. It’s not all positive. Cisco Canada likes to say, “We securely connect everything to make anything possible.” “Anything” includes political manipulations on Facebook, cyber bullying and invasions of privacy.

Hence the reason we say “secure,” because everything we do has a security component. Because you cannot build a house and leave the door unlocked. We can’t control what people can do with it, and that’s probably the part you’re talking about. It’s the private and public organizations’ jobs, as well, to secure it. It’s like you’re going to buy a beautiful car, and you turn down the insurance.

What’s next for you? Your predecessor was here for three years. You’ve been here for two and a half. Do you see an end point?

I’m in love with my job. I’m in love with the people, the culture and the technology. You’re going to have to peel me off this building because I don’t think I’m going anywhere other than to have a bigger impact within Cisco.

Footnotes

1. During Lebanon’s civil war, which stretched from 1975 to 1990, more than 100,000 people died, and more than a million fled the country.

2. Each member of the family immigrating to Canada needed to be sponsored, costing thousands of dollars. To reduce the size of the family, and thus the cost, Dagher’s father arranged for her to become part of another family by marriage.

3. Dagher’s marriage ended 15 years ago. Her daughter, Stephanie, is now 30; she also has a son, Michael, who is 28.

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4. Centrex lines are souped-up business telephone lines, with services such as call forwarding and conference calling. Her top client was RBC.

5. Cisco doesn’t break out revenue for Canada, but worldwide, it had 2019 sales of $52 billion; 60% of that was generated in the Americas. Canada saw a 6% increase in sales last year.

6. According to the company, 42% of Cisco’s global executive team are women, and Dagher’s predecessor as head of Cisco Canada (which has 2,800 employees) was also a woman.

7. Between 2018 and 2040, immigration will account for all of Canada’s net labour force growth—3.7 million workers—according to the Conference Board of Canada, and one-third of the economic growth rate.

8. The CEO was Chuck Robbins, who replaced John Chambers as CEO in 2015.

Trevor Cole is the award-winning author of five books, including The Whisky King, a non-fiction account of Canada’s most infamous mobster bootlegger.

The Globe and Mail

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