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executive pulse

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Executive Pulse seeks input from Canadian leaders on vital issues that affect our business and economy.

Having worked across the globe, from Russia and Ukraine to the Middle East, Africa and her native England, Cisco Canada president Bernadette Wightman has seen first-hand how women in the work force are treated in many different cultures. With this as her background, she offers her thoughts on diversity in today's business world.

Are women's opinions and expertise valued in today's business world?

Yes. Fifty per cent is not a minority. Half of the Top 10 most followed accounts on Twitter belong to women. And nearly 40 per cent of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people are women.

At Cisco, the number of global female VPs went up three percentage points in as many years and we are now at 19 per cent. And, as noted in our 2015 CSR report, our board and executive leadership team is comprised of 38 per cent female executives – higher than the percentage of women in our broader employee base. In Canada, nearly 50 per cent of our senior leadership team are women. For me, there is incredible power in diverse perspectives.

How are women in leadership roles perceived by their male colleagues today?

I think strong leadership speaks for itself and hopefully the days of gender politics in business are over. Women leaders are collaborative and build consensus. I believe our Cisco Canada leadership team has never been stronger – because I am building the business together with my senior leadership team. And success breeds confidence regardless of who is in the driver's seat.

Is it wrong to view career advancement as vertical these days? People don't stay with one company for life, as they may have done in years past.

I think diverse experience is definitely more valued today and is certainly more prevalent in the millennial generation. My background was actually in finance and by moving around and trying new things I wasn't actually sure I could do, it helped me to figure out where my passions lay and how my talents actually could be best put to use. I encourage my team to take on new challenges, even if it's outside their comfort zone. The best ideas can come from surprising sources. Sometimes teaming with colleagues you wouldn't normally work with day-to-day can open your eyes to new perspectives and possibilities. Career advancement and diverse experience can be found within your own company – but you do have to have the courage to look outside your box, talk to HR and other managers, and take a leap. It's how I've found new opportunities within Cisco. And of course, the wider your industry network both within and outside your company, the more you open yourself to possibilities.

Women also need to better support women. For example female entrepreneurship is significantly under-supported when compared with the levels of funding support male-run businesses routinely secure. Two-thirds of new businesses in Canada are started by women; 68 per cent had no outside capital and 73 per cent are profitable in their first year. New data has emerged showing that if female entrepreneurs were financed to the same degree as their male counterparts, we'd create six million jobs in North America in the next five years. This is obviously a significant economic opportunity and at Cisco we are taking an active role in helping women help women. In January, as a component of our Toronto Innovation Hub opening, we are launching our Cisco Women's Academy, creating a forum to connect businesswomen to opportunities, technology and to each other.

What does diversity mean to you and how do you go about building a diverse team?

True diversity for me is diversity of thought, regardless of age, gender, race, experience and education. When taking on a new management role anywhere in the world, my first task is assessing the diversity of the team – what voices and perspectives we are missing. A diverse team is a high performing team and I've found that the best new ideas often come from surprising sources. In deciding to build a diverse team, sometimes you have to look a little deeper and harder for talent. For example, I found my current VP Sales Acceleration in Kenya, where she was leading the East Africa business for Cisco. She may not have seemed like the most likely candidate to lead sales acceleration in Canada – a woman, in her early-thirties, with no North American experience – but she has proven to be a real rock star. Diverse talent is often there within your own organization – you just need to look harder. When I arrived here at Cisco Canada, we had one woman on the senior leadership – we are now almost at gender parity. The women I have added to the team continue to make significant contributions and have helped change the entire team dynamic – much for the better obviously.

Responses have been edited and condensed.