Shannon Leininger, Cisco Canada

WOMEN IN TECH: Q&A with Shannon Leininger, President, Cisco Canada

The latest candidate in our series of Q&As with influential women in the technology business in Canada is Shannon Leininger, President, Cisco Canada.

Name: Shannon Leininger

Job Title: President, Cisco Canada

Years in the Industry: 28 Years (14 Years at Cisco)

The Quote That Most Inspires You: “So many women are afraid to fail and afraid to succeed. I am also very afraid. I’m not fearless. What is admirable about me is that even though I am afraid, I do it anyway.”  (Nely Galán)

What drew you to a career in the consumer and/or business technology industry?

I believe that technology can be a source for good. Throughout my career, I’ve always been driven to work that has purpose and has an impact on people. I want to make a difference.

The technology industry, and Cisco in particular, has given me the opportunity to do just that. We’ve been able to use technology to make a difference in the world and tangibly improve people’s lives. I’ve been at Cisco for more than 14 years now, and it has been an honour to be part of a team with a mission to power an inclusive future for all.

Have you encountered any roadblocks along the way that were related to your gender?

Early in my career, I had been asked – more than once – to come to meetings and not say anything, but to sit there and “look pretty.” Instead of letting those experiences get me down, I’ve used those situations as fuel to drive my success and career growth.

My gender, marital status, and the fact that I have children have all been brought up in performance reviews early in my career. People think they’re protecting me by being concerned about my ability to do it all, but I don’t see it that way. From my perspective, they’re holding me back, and that’s an example of unconscious bias.

At the end of the day, workplaces need to train all employees, especially leaders and managers, on how to recognize and address their unconscious biases. Having faced those roadblocks early in my career, and since moving into leadership positions, I make a conscious and concerted effort to create safe spaces so my employees and team members feel comfortable and encouraged to bring their full and authentic selves to work.

Shannon Leininger, Cisco Canada

What unique characteristics or perspective do you feel you bring to your organization as a woman?

As a leader, I came into my new role with a business framework that I thought made sense for Canada. I brought forward a tried-and-true clear process and a methodology, called the Success Equation, to guide the Canadian sales organization.

As a woman, I also bring forward authenticity, vulnerability and empathy to my role as a country leader. I lean into my work, have hard conversations with my teams when they’re necessary, and bring people along in a tough time for the country.

Cisco really champions the idea that empathy is a superpower. At the end of the day, we’re all people and it’s important for me that I lead with courage, integrity and kindness, especially in challenging times like what we’re collectively facing today.

Technology is historically a male-dominated industry, yet the use of tech is fully embraced by women, and many studies even suggest that females are the primary buyers of tech in the home. What do you feel the technology industry needs in order to attract more women, particularly into high-level positions?

We’ve seen that the pandemic has hit women in the workforce, and mothers especially, particularly hard. According to a recent RBC report, single mothers with a toddler or school-aged child saw their employment drop 12 per cent, compared to only seven per cent for single fathers. Childcare responsibilities still tend to fall on women, and they need to be supported so they can manage both.

If we want more women in technology, and more women in high-level positions, we need to champion flexibility in this industry. Right now, with so many kids at home and women taking on the brunt of childcare responsibilities, companies need to be especially supportive of the flexibility women need to juggle both home and work.

And I think this applies in the post-pandemic world, too. We know that people have different productive hours throughout the day. Just because offices mandated working 9-5 pre-pandemic, that doesn’t mean we should continue that system when we return to a more normal world. People – and women – should have more flexibility and trust to get their work done when they’re able to.

If you had to sum up what it is like being a woman in this male-dominated technology industry in just a few words, what would you say?

It’s not impossible – but it has been difficult.

Throughout my career, I’ve really found that if I want to succeed, I need to lean on sponsors, mentors, and people who help bring me up. I have had to do this even more as I’ve progressed through more senior roles at Cisco.

I think the industry is changing, too. People are facing accountability for bad behaviour, and that’s also happening outside of the tech industry. There’s still a lot of work to do, but the #MeToo Movement has been a huge step forward for women to own our seats.

Are there other women in the tech industry who inspire you?

I’m inspired by women who pave the path and open the door for others. Women who take on the hard conversations, who break the glass ceilings, changing their organizations, industries and society to make a better and more inclusive world for us all. For me, this rings true with Michelle Obama, who brings such grace, perseverance, and commitment to being a role model for women and girls. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who fought so relentlessly for women’s rights and equality.

Within Cisco, I’m inspired by leaders like Tae Yoo and Gerri Elliott, who are paving paths for the next generation of female leaders in our organization. And I’m inspired by women throughout Cisco who are breaking barriers all over the company.

I think, for example, of those in our Women of Cisco and Pride employee resource organizations who came together for the first time this year to put on a joint panel discussion on creating safe spaces for all LGBTQ+ women at Cisco. It’s this kind of fearlessness and determination to make our organization a better and more inclusive place that I find so inspiring.

What are some of the misconceptions/myths about women working in the technology space that you’d like to dispel?

It has always bothered me that when women are really passionate about something, that passion is rarely seen as an asset. In fact, I’ve had male leaders tell me that my passion is perceived as being “a little too much.” I’d love to see a world where women are championed for bringing their passions to their roles, rather than being called aggressive, bossy, or emotional.  

When it comes to leadership, I have always been an advocate for Brené Brown’s concept of “vulnerable leadership,” – the need to demonstrate openness, empathy, and be self-aware. It’s a powerful skillset to have and it’s a pathway to courage. The more you’re able to open up and simply be human, the more you’ll be able to gain your team’s trust and loyalty.

What’s one thing you wish was done differently in the industry, and why?

I’m hopeful for the day where diversity and inclusion (D&I) are truly seen as a business imperative, and not a nice-to-have. I heard members of our Women of Cisco employee resource organization express this concept a couple of months ago, and it really struck a chord with me.

We know that championing D&I is good for business – we’ve seen countless studies confirm that. And yet, it’s still not seen as a business imperative, and I really believe it needs to be. One way to do so, that would really make an impact on how D&I is prioritized in the industry, is to tie those metrics and measurement to incentives and compensation. We’re starting to see more of this in the technology industry, with executives for some global organizations like Uber and Microsoft tying a percentage of their annual compensation to meeting or exceeding diversity metrics.

We know D&I is so important for talent acquisition and retention, innovation and overall business success, and I’m hopeful that as more industry leaders see it as a business imperative – and measure and compensate for it – we’ll see more positive change there.

Are you optimistic for the future in general and for the industry?

Absolutely. Governments across Canada are focused on getting people back to normalcy, and working hard to do so. As normal life returns, we can double down on economic recovery, and I’m optimistic about the role technology will play in driving that recovery forward. 2020 was a challenging year, but it was also a transformative one. We’ve seen digital acceleration on a scale that none of us could have ever anticipated. The way we live, learn, and work has fundamentally shifted, and every industry had to rapidly pivot to ensure it wasn’t left behind. This is only going to continue, driving us further toward an inclusive future.

Finally, I’m extremely optimistic about the career talent coming into the industry. In addition to serving as the executive sponsor for Women of Cisco Canada, I also serve as an executive sponsor for Cisco’s Americas Inclusion & Collaboration Initiative – which is working to design, deliver and implement inclusive workforce practices in how we hire, develop, and engage the full spectrum of talent diversity at Cisco.

Both of these internal initiatives are really driving change in the Cisco workforce and they give me hope and optimism for the smart, talented and creative individuals we have coming into our organization, who will undoubtedly be the leaders of tomorrow.