Newsmaker: Blair Christie, Cisco

A strong IR background enables Cisco's SVP and CMO to direct a collaborative communications strategy that has helped fuel the company's turnaround.

A strong IR background enables Cisco's SVP and CMO to direct a collaborative communications strategy that has helped fuel the company's turnaround.

Just one year into her role as SVP and CMO at Cisco, Blair Christie has quickly settled in with a confidence that allows her to effectively lead all communications and marketing functions in a way that reflects the company's holistic marketing approach and brand strategy.

Cisco creates products that address customers' IT network needs. With a large b-to-b focus, 95% of its revenue comes from business, rather than consumers.

Christie's role encompasses customer insight, corporate positioning, branding, advertising, and marketing.

Working from Cisco's global headquarters in San Jose, CA, Christie is intensely focused on the impact any action could have on the company's broader business. This mindset, she explains, is the result of starting her career in IR, a field that requires analyzing a company's entire business portfolio with a bird's-eye view before honing in on specific areas.

"My mantra is: you're a business leader first and a functional expert second," Christie says. "I'm not diminishing the functional expertise required, but unless you understand the broader business, you won't be as effective."

Nick DeBenedictis, chairman of water company Aqua America, where Christie worked in the IR department right out of college, saw her potential immediately. "Blair was always looking for a challenge," he recalls. "She was just a natural at communications, which is a big part of IR."

Just as investors often build data-based mosaics to develop a strong investment thesis or return on their dollars, Christie manages the communications portfolio at Cisco by looking at a number of data points to attack a problem, meet a business objective, or develop a successful strategy.

A 13-year Cisco veteran and previously SVP of global corporate communications, Christie has used this broad-based view to place a strong emphasis on the integration of corporate communications, PR, and government affairs - three areas under her purview.

"When you're a $43 billion company, it's impossible to know everything going on," she notes. "So by creating opportunities where you have staff meetings that different people are in on or where you're driving initiatives, there's an opportunity to integrate more."

2011-present
SVP and CMO, Cisco

1999-2011
Various posts at Cisco. IR director (1999-2004); VP, global IR (2004-2006); VP, global corporate comms and IR (2006-2008); and SVP, global corporate comms and IR (2008-2011)

1996-1999
IR manager, InterDigital Communications Corp.

1994-1996
IR manager, Aqua America

1995-1998
Earned an MBA in investment management from Drexel University

Benefits of working together
For example, Cisco's Visual Networking Index campaign developed as a result of integrated work between the marketing, PR, and government affairs teams. About one third of Cisco's customers are service providers, such as telecoms and cable companies, so it partnered with them to gain insight into how people's use of the Internet is changing.

Originally, the information was solely used for thought-leadership purposes, but the PR and government relations team saw great value in expanding the research's use.

This integration helped the research become a popular benchmark in Washington as individuals and groups work to regulate the cable and service-provider industries.

"That would have happened over time, but it was accelerated and magnified in the past year," Christie says.

Christie reports to EVP and COO Gary Moore, who says organizing Cisco's marketing, corporate communications, and government relations functions under Christie has been pivotal in accelerating the company's resurgence throughout the past 12 months.

In April 2011, Cisco embarked on a corporate turnaround after suffering from weakened public sector customer spending and missing Wall Street earnings expectations for consecutive quarters.

CEO John Chambers sent a letter to all employees acknowledging the problems and outlining what Cisco was going to do. He named Moore COO to lead operations toward making Cisco a stronger, leaner company. It reduced operating expenses, streamlined its work force by 6,500, and refocused on five big bets rather than 30 smaller ones.

Those efforts paid off. Cisco's stock appreciated 27% since July 2011 and the company has exceeded Wall Street expectations for the past two quarters. The company recently posted Q2 income of $2.2 billion, up from $1.5 billion the prior year.

"By strategically linking our internal and external teams and leveraging social media extensively to listen to and engage with our audiences, Blair's team has ensured we are conveying our strategy and value proposition with one voice," says Moore.

Christie also places a strong focus on ensuring the company's communications are "customer in, instead of Cisco out."

"We want to talk about our collaboration portfolio and our products, but can only do that effectively in the context of what our customers are experiencing," she explains. "That's been a pivot in terms of how we both communicate and drive some of our marketing activities."

Obtaining market insight is often now the first step in many campaigns, which was not the case in the past, with the strategic marketing team integrating with other communications groups.

"Rather than having them as an adjunct or place where our teams would go for customized research, we are putting them in the middle of our teams where they are informing us more," Christie says.

Cisco's traditionally "nice" marketing approach also changed to focus on the differences between it and its competitors, which helped the sales team get its messages across.

Cisco's goals for future growth are high. It hopes to increase revenues between 5% and 7% in the coming year. Throughout the next year, Christie will focus on scaling marketing and communications to coincide with that.

"How a company leverages marketing is different when you grow and there are places where marketing can be an even bigger growth lever for the company," she says. "So in understanding how we do that, how we work as a team, there is organizational development and work that must happen so we can create this new notion together."

The right balance

Blair Christie is able to juggle up to four objects at a time, so her ability to balance work and spending time with her husband and two children comes as little surprise.

Named "Working Mother of the Year" by Working Mother magazine in 2009, Christie says most of her time outside of work is spent with her family. She talks a lot about the integration between work and life and how striking that balance can be challenging, but also rewarding.

Just as she encourages her staff to always be in the moment when communicating, Christie's tactics for a successful work/life balance involve always being in the moment and "giving it your all," whether at work or home, and letting the guilt that might creep in go out the door.

"Sometimes you get it right, other times you simply don't," she adds, "but you work to fix it the next day or the next week."

Global challenges
Internal communications can be challenging for a company with 63,820 employees, nearly half located outside the US. Cisco does business in nearly every country and has employees across Asia-Pacific and EMEA. With such widespread staff distribution, technology and social media are crucial for bringing together employees across time zones.

Focused on the mantra "the medium is as important as the message," Christie says Cisco uses much of its own video technology to host internal meetings. One example is TelePresence, which allows the company to bring groups from various locations into the meeting so they can communicate, give presentations, and ask questions.

"We can have as many as eight to 10 different locations coming in using video," notes Christie. "This is fantastic because they are actually part of the meeting. That is a key piece to our internal communications success."

When it comes to communicating to her own teams, Christie will often use TelePresence to record a video message that will tie together key pieces of information. Feedback on the videos is welcome and Christie encourages employees to speak their minds and have a healthy dialogue, be it positive or negative.

Just as Christie is serious about looking at the business as a whole before designing communications plans, she is a big advocate of people being their "authentic selves."

"The bar for the quality of communications at Cisco is extremely high," she emphasizes. "It's an important part of who we are, but that doesn't mean you cannot be authentic. You need to find your own voice."

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