Ep. 170 – Cisco Meraki VP of Operations, Denise Thomas

Jul 16, 2021

Our guest today is Denise Thomas, VP, Operations, and COO for Cisco’s Meraki business unit, where she’s responsible for Inclusion, Employee Experience, IT, Business Systems, Program Management, Facilities, Business, and Manufacturing Operations. 

Before her current role, Denise served as Meraki’s Chief of Staff at Meraki and Head of People. An experienced operator, Denise played a pivotal role in enabling Meraki to grow from 300 employees to over 2,000, helping the team navigate its high growth startup stage through a successful integration as part of Cisco. 

Denise has held a range of roles at leading companies, including Uncommon Schools, Longs Drugs (CVS), TJX Companies, and Frito-Lay. Denise holds a BA in Economics from Yale University and an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. 

 

In This Conversation We Discuss:

  • Company culture: How it changes over time and when is culture “too much” and becomes a cult, without creating value 
  • What changes are made by the necessity of adapting to the times 
  • How Denise’ personality has helped her succeed in her company 
  • What core executive function skills are typically focused on 
  • How Denise was able to achieve her career goals and keep a healthy balance with her husband and her homelife        

 

Resources:

Connect with Denise Thomas: LinkedIn 

Cisco Meraki – https://meraki.cisco.com

 

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Before we jump into this episode, you need to know about two important ways that we can help you and your company grow. Check out the COO Alliance. It’s for COOs, Presidents, VP Ops, or whoever is your company’s second in command to the CEO. The COO Alliance is the world’s leading community for the second in command, and it gives COOs the tools and connections to grow themselves and the company. Head over to COOAlliance.com to learn more about our members, the results, the program, and our 10X guarantee. If you qualify for membership, you can set up a complimentary call with our team to discuss if it’s right for you. I will tell you about number two in a bit. First, let’s start with this episode.

Our guest is Denise Thomas, the VP of Operations and COO for Cisco Meraki Business Unit, where she’s responsible for inclusion, employee experience, IT, business systems, program management, facilities, business, and manufacturing operations. Before her current role, Denise served as Meraki’s Chief of Staff and Head of People. As an experienced operator, Denise played a pivotal role in enabling Meraki to grow from 300 employees to over 2,000 and helping the team navigate its high-growth startup stage through successful integration as part of Cisco.

Denise has held a range of roles at leading companies, including Uncommon Schools, Longs Drugs, CVS, TJX Companies, and Frito-Lay. Denise holds a BA in Economics from Yale University and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I’m practically not worthy to be on this show. I was the dumb kid in school. You were the smart one. Welcome to the show.

It’s nice to be here. We’re on vacation, and my mom is here. Maybe I should have invited her in so that way she could have a different perspective of who I am now.

Was school always easy for you, or did you work hard at it?

It was a mixture of things. I worked hard at the things that didn’t come as naturally and flowed with the things that did. I was always a diligent student. I wouldn’t say that I was the hardest-working student. They were folks that did that. I’m an inherently curious person, and I like to allow that curiosity to flow and sometimes that works when some of that curiosity gets satisfied by the school. I don’t think of it as hard working. I think of it like I was curious and went with where my curiosity took me. Sometimes it took me better grades than not.

That’s amazing. You said that there were some areas that didn’t come easy to you. What were some of the areas that didn’t come easy?

My mom and dad are Science and Math people. My mom has a degree in Mathematics, and then she did where you got extra math. She also has a degree in Chemistry. My dad is a chemist by training. I grew up in a house where we talked about Math and Science, and there was not even a thing I could ever bring home and say, “I don’t understand this.” I did have two folks in the house that could say, “I can work on that with you.” The joke that we used to have growing up was that folks used to come to our house to do their homework because my mom could answer any question that people had.

That came easy because it was always around. It was the way that we talked and looked at things. It was the conversations that we had at the dinner table. They were about Math. My dad went on to be an entrepreneur, so then it was about business. When you grow up in a house, if that’s what you talk about, it becomes easier for you to conceptually understand those things. The things that came harder were Literature, English, and all of that. Those things that I can honestly say weren’t getting top billing in our household, so they came harder, probably because I had less exposure to them.

SIC 170 | Company Culture

Company Culture: When you grow up in a house where complicated topics are always discussed, it becomes easier for someone to understand them growing up.

 

I remember trying to solve a problem years ago when I was the COO at 1-800-GOT-JUNK. I proudly came in and said, “I think I know how to solve this. I can use Calculus,” The guy looked at me and said, “Dude, it’s Algebra.” I’m like, “Crap.” What are you curious about now? What are you curious about in leadership and where you are in your role?

I’m now operating in a larger organization than I had ever imagined that I would be. When I came to Meraki, we were 200 people if we’re counting up everyone that joined when I joined. It had grown from almost 90 to 100 people in a couple of months. It was still a small place. That’s why I came. I had worked at places like TJX and Frito-Lay, which were these huge companies. I was a person that was going to be like a jack of all trades, and that person is well suited for a smaller organization than for a larger one where you can be a little bit more siloed.

When I showed up, I was like, “This is the thing I’m into.” I still have this inherent curiosity around like, “What does it take to get a group of folks that are committed to getting to some business outcomes? What does it take to get them to extraordinary outcomes in a consistent fashion, always delivering more, delivering better, and being more focused on the customer than anyone in the marketplace?”

I am curious about how you create a high-performing team focused on the right things and constantly driving value and change in the marketplace. That’s a lot to be curious about. When I go to work every day, I’m not there to deliver X amount of revenue or manage X amount of cost. It’s almost like a little bit of a puzzle to me like, “How do you get all these folks to be focused on one thing?” Hopefully, that thing is to deliver a lot of value to our customers. I read a lot of books.

I got twelve questions already off of this. It’s funny you weren’t good at English, but you’re extraordinarily articulate. What have you found in terms of always delivering? What is it that can help people always deliver?

The clarity on direction feels important to that. Where are we going? It has to feel bigger than where we are. A lot of times, when folks are trying to think about direction, they go about it in an incremental way. “We’re here this year. It grew 10% on it.” That’s how people are trying to chart what’s next for their business, these incremental motions. Usually, it’s being measured by how much revenue you’re growing, how many customers you have, or whatever.

The reality of the situation is, at least for me and most of the people I’ve ever worked with, that doesn’t usually get people out of bed in the morning. They want something that feels like, “When I get done doing this, I will have done something that benefited either me personally or others. I will have dropped in a little bit of change in the world by virtue of the actions that I took.”

It’s having a direction that feels clear, but more importantly, having a direction that feels big enough that folks can see a little bit of themselves and their ability to contribute to that direction when they get out of bed every day. It’s hard to do that when you have a lot of people. For everybody to be able to wake up and look in that direction and say, “I am motivated in these 5 or 2 ways, and the thing that she’s talking about touches some level of motivation to me.” Direction feels important and then big enough direction.

SIC 170 | Company Culture

Company Culture: Having a clear direction that feels big enough allows your team to see a little bit of themselves in your plan. This inspires them to get out of bed every day and contribute to that direction.

 

Is the big enough direction like Jim Collins’ BHAG concept? Is that what you’re talking or is it direction towards like change in the organization or the world?

Either one of them works where it just feels out of reach and slightly impossible, and however the organization wants to define that goal. I feel like all of that stuff feels the same to me, where folks are like, “I’m not 100% sure that’s possible, but it’s interesting enough that I’m only to take a swing at it.”

Have you been to Barcelona?

Yes, I have.

Remember the Sagrada Familia, the extraordinary cathedral. I talk about the three guys making bricks sitting on the sidewalk many years ago. They asked the first guy, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m making bricks.” They asked the second guy, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m making bricks to build a wall.” They said to the third guy, “What are you doing?” He pulls this little sketch out of his pocket. He said, “I’m building the bricks to make the left wall of the Sagrada Familia.” It’s still not finished many years later, but they can see and get the bigger purpose and still making bricks.

What I find is that people that are better at leadership and folks that I look up to are folks that can do that third thing. Do it in a way that still makes me feel like, “I’m making a brick. I’m a part of it.” It’s not some sensible thing that we talk about and feel like is some crazy motivational speech for employees, but it’s got to be done in such a way that I still see my part in it.

I spoke to a woman the other day who’s one of the key figures in the series, The Vow. I don’t know if you’ve watched The Vow. It’s about the cults that the guy went to jail for. I was talking to her about when a company crosses the line from being a corporate into a culture. When have they gone too far with culture? Do you have any thoughts about that?

When have they gone to the land of cult?

Is doing the morning cheer too much, or is reciting the core values at every meeting too much?

When you lose sight of what the culture is in service too. We have a culture in Meraki defined by a set of values. Those values help us stay fully connected to our customers and partners. That’s why we have them. When we start to rotate in on a culture and start being like, “We have this culture and this culture. It’s for culture’s sake,” then you become a cult. It serves no purpose other than to perpetuate itself. That’s when you get to cultures that are not useful. They don’t create value and don’t serve the people that are even in them. We have to be mindful of that.

If your team feels they are not useful anymore or cannot create value in your workplace culture, it is your job as a leader to check yourself and why you are not delivering the right outcomes.

We drink our own Kool-Aid sometimes. We have to check ourselves, especially when that is not delivering the right outcomes for the customer. I always say culture is like this thing that you’re constantly changing. The reason you’re changing it is that, hopefully, your business is constantly growing. At every single level of that growth, you got to rethink what the value it is that you drive to your customers. You got to go back and look at the culture and make sure that the culture and values that you have in the organization deliver on that customer experience.

That’s huge. Tell us briefly what Meraki does.

When you boil it down to its essence, we’re trying to make IT easier, faster, and smarter for folks. When you take that as what we’re trying to do and what that looks like now is that we have an amazing platform called Dashboard. It’s a cloud-managed platform. On that platform, we have some of the core components of networking attached to it, like security appliances, wireless access points, and switches, that help a business connect and do so safely and securely.

The platform also has IoT attachments like cameras and sensors. It’s this idea that IT and technology don’t have to sit in the corner of a business. We can take IT and technology and bring it right to the core of your business strategy by virtue of making it faster, easier, and more secure. What gets me excited about what we’ve been able to do is that we’ve been able to take network traffic and connectivity and marry it to insights, data, and sensors like the things that are sitting in the physical world. They’re connecting all those dots for our customers like a hospital can do mass detection as a part of COVID mitigation or a school can deliver on its outcomes for its students on closing the achievement gap.

That resonates with me. They’re doing it by virtue of leveling the playing field for technology, like making technology accessible and available for all. By virtue of making it easy to deploy and drive insights from, you take some of that advantage that folks that have had access to technology more so than others out of the equation, and then the best ideas can win. What we do is democratizing technology by making it easier to manage, use, and bring into the closer part of where you build a business strategy. If you look at the website, what we sell is cloud-managed IT solutions that help a business, community organization, or school grow.

You’ve been with the organization for about a couple of years, with 200 people up to about 2,000 people now. What has changed the most in terms of the organization where you’ve had to adapt, change, and grow?

How we get things done is constantly changing. When you’re looking at growth rates of probably about 20% year over year, and that’s after you got that big hockey stick that happens after you join a thing like Cisco, we’ve still been able to continue to grow at a rate that is hard to do on something that’s a big number. It’s easy for your business to look different in a year with that type of growth on that type of number. That has been hard.

We see it in some of the feedback that we got from our team members where they continue to tell us, “It’s a little hard to get things done around here now.” We’re constantly trying to take the sand out of the gears, but that has been a hard thing to scale. How you take decision-making that was pretty well greased at 200 people and maybe even at 500 people, and then you get to 1,000, and it starts to feel different. That journey from 500 people to 1,000 and the journey from $500 million to $1 billion is a tough road, especially if you’re not thinking about how you execute that.

How have you adapted the most as a leader through change?

I had to as everybody gotten a lot more comfortable with things always changing. I wake up in the morning and assume that something’s going to change. That has made it harder as a leader. During the first several years of being a people leader, I had these mantras, and I would go back to those mantras, and I could lead from those mantras pretty securely. I then started to see the change. The harder the problems that I was being asked to solve, the larger the organization was, and the number of people that sit in a reporting chain that maybe don’t even know me personally, other than what they see on a screen, especially during COVID. I’ve had to throw some of those mantras out.

It’s what you hear all the time, “What you used to do doesn’t work for you anymore.” I’ve had to get a little bit more thoughtful about what I say and the direction I give. I have to be clear with folks when we’re ideating and when we’re moving to execution. I don’t want to be the person that asks for coffee, and then people buy something. It’s a whole set of different behaviors that you have to adapt at a certain level of leadership. Maybe there is a book out there for that that says, “When you trip across this thing, you’re now in this land, and you need to start showing up differently.”

That’s the introspection and wisdom that comes with being in the roles for a while. You start to develop that instinct and that sixth sense, almost knowing how to adapt and change versus having to read and practice it.

I asked for some feedback from my team. Somebody stepped up and said, “People don’t think you’re listening to them,” and that caught me off guard. I was like, “Okay.” That’s tough feedback to hear. When we unpacked it a little bit, I heard the feedback, and then I didn’t ask the question I would’ve asked. If I had put my people hat back on, I would’ve asked much better questions than I asked at this particular moment.

That’s the part of leading at a particular scale. You’ve got to figure out how to bring all of these things you’ve learned in all these different experiences that you’ve had to ask better questions and figure out how to be more present and clear in the direction you give. I might have a hard time with it, but I know every day I wake up, I can get a little bit better at it.

Figure out how to bring your learning from different experiences to improve the workplace environment. Ask better questions, learn to be more present, and be clear with your directions.

I probably would’ve said, “Sorry, what were you saying? I was daydreaming.”

“Is it because you don’t want to do what I asked you to do?” No, that’s not it at all. I appreciate it when people are willing to step into that moment. When I ask for it, I appreciate it when people give it.

You have a crazy, strong, amazing energy about you. You have a very positive vibe. Has that helped you be successful, or has success helped you get that vibe? Have you always been a positive, happy, energetic child, teen, and young adult?

I don’t know if anybody would say that. I worked with someone when I got out of college. A friend of mine and I started a nonprofit. The joke around the office was they nicknamed me Queeny. It was short for a queen of possibility. I have always been a person that thought about what was possible. Even when we’re facing something hard, folks are always like, “Here are all the reasons why it can’t work,” and I’m always being like, “If we can’t do those things, what might we be able to do in order to move something forward?”

I can’t navigate the world in a different way. What I look like is highly underrepresented in the business world, especially at particular levels of leadership. That’s the reality of the situation, and it’s not because I’m short, a Black woman, and an immigrant. All these things don’t necessarily show up at those levels of leadership. If I woke up every day and didn’t have a sense of, “This can be possible even if I haven’t seen it.” I don’t know how far I would have been able to go if all I did was wake up every day and think about all the reasons why not. Maybe that’s a part of it. I don’t have the luxury of not being somewhat optimistic. It’s a part of the equation that moves me forward and moves me through some of those barriers and friction that come along in operating in environments that don’t always open the doors to you.

It feels natural. It doesn’t feel like a learned skill or standing on stage trying to be all something. It feels like this natural amazing energy trait. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. I’m curious about your MBA and the skills you took with you from your MBA. You’re younger. You’re not 21, but you’re not 65. MBAs mattered when you went to school coming out with an MBA. Nowadays, it almost seems like they’re being biased against what people are saying like, “There are too many theories and not enough experience.” I’m gathering that you graduated at the end of maybe that era. What did you pull from the MBA that you still use now? What would you throw out? Where did the MBA hurled you?

Hopefully, nobody that works in Stanford’s Graduate School of Admissions reads this, but it was a hard two years for me. I felt like very fish out of water sometimes with my classmates.

Was it a big jump going from Yale to Stanford? What are you talking about?

No. I had spent five years working at a nonprofit, working in communities, trying to help young people, and all this stuff. That’s what I was coming to the table with. Stanford does a good job of pulling together people. It’s not just ex-consultants, bankers, and stuff like that. There’s diversity in the pool of folks. I remember pulling up to a stop sign, and my classmate was in a convertible Porsche, and I was on a bike that I had bought used for $50 or something. It’s a slightly different experience.

My brother was in med school at the time at Stanford, and he leased a new car because his girlfriend was living in San Francisco, and my parents had given him this old Volvo Station Wagon where the interior ceiling was falling, and I got that car. I’d go to business school and be dusting myself off. It felt hard socially. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t understand what people were talking about from a social perspective. I didn’t do all the things that people do there. I didn’t get on the plane and go to Vegas. I couldn’t have found the money to do those things if I wanted to. It felt hard, but socially.

What I got out of the experience is I got to be curious about a lot of parts of the business that I had not learned about. I grew in my love for organizational behavior by virtue of going to these classes and taking a step back. If you want a lot of people to be able to do something together, how you structure it, what that team looks like, and what culture, behaviors, and expectations you have around how folks treat each other also matter.

I would’ve come to that, but I at least walked out of business school with some core theories or concepts around organizational behavior, concepts, and things that are not perfect in the environment that we learn in business school, but they’re enough so that you don’t have to start at first principles when you get curious about those things when you’re doing your job. They don’t get my money. That was a tough two years where I ate a lot of Dairy Queen and KFC to mask the tears, but I walked out of there with enough conceptual understanding that I felt like I could accelerate my learning when those things showed up in real life.

SIC 170 | Company Culture

Company Culture: Some core theories and concepts from business school are unsuitable in real-life environments. However, they are enough so you don’t have to start at first principles when doing your job.

 

You’re killing it right now.

I then met my husband, so that’s nice.

Your mom and dad must be proud of you. Congrats. You’re running seven business areas, is what I counted, at least seven thematic areas. Do you default to 1 or 2 of them that are your passion? If you could only have two, which would they be? Do you default to something?

They are different enough that I don’t. I default to an approach to those things, probably. I tend to say, “What are the people dynamics here? What are the systems we have put in place to ensure that we can be successful?” I default to an approach. That’s maybe a little bit different than how folks would have approached it without having navigated the career that I have had. I find all the areas interesting, and I have a different level of understanding of those areas.

The thing that I’m always thinking about is I don’t ever expect to have a depth of knowledge in each one of those areas. If I do, then I think that I’m doing my job wrong. That took a little bit of understanding when I started doing this job. If you get all the way in the weeds and can architect a business system by the time you’re done with this job, then chances are you’ve done this job poorly. I mostly think about how all of these things are connected. I’m more focused on the connection points between the seven themes I have than I am trying to get a deep level of understanding.

I launched a course called Invest in Your Leaders, and my focus for years has always been that if I grow people, they’ll grow the company. I’m always trying to grow their skillset as a leader like coaching, delegation, time management, conflict management, and all the skills we need as leaders. Do you focus on any core areas with your people overall that you think are the core of executive functioning skills, or are they all past that and they’re all senior enough that it is more the connecting of great senior people already?

At a certain level of leadership, focusing on people’s ability to consume and create change is always necessary. It’s super easy to say, “I figured this out, and we’re going to keep doing it this way. This is what has been working for us,” and incrementally scale it in order to get us where we want to go. It’s constantly hard for you to wake up every time you go to plan or talk about like, “What are we going to be doing or how are we going to invest the resources that we have?” It’s super hard to always come to that with a blank sheet of paper mentality, and you have to train that all the time.

Effective leaders understand that consuming and creating change is always necessary.

I don’t know. A thing that I’m always trying to push the team on is to say, “If we had to start now, is this what we would’ve built? If it’s not, then how do we close the gap between where we are and where we need to be?” It’s not because we’re not performing. We’re performing. It’s just that I’m of the mindset that in order to get those extraordinary outcomes into perpetuity, you always have to be asking yourself that question.

You don’t seem to be corporate at all with the corporate word salad and bureaucracy. You feel very smart and capable of running this organization, but also still entrepreneurial. Is that true?

I am bad at all the things that people are good at in corporate environments. I have seen and watched myself flail out in places where I was trying to build that skillset. I’m never going to be good at it. I’m a generalist at heart. I approach work and life that way. My husband is like, “She knows a little about a lot of things.” That’s how I approach life. The modern corporation isn’t built for generalists at the end of the day. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had leaders at Meraki that have recognized the power of generalists in getting things done and have been able to leverage that skillset.

How do you, as an extraordinarily strong woman in a corporate world who makes great money, who could tell your husband, “Retire, I got us. I’m going to pay for everything. Lead us all,” stay strong in a relationship when men have traditionally had such a hard time with that? How do you balance that out to stay strong, own it, drive like you’re driving, and also have a loving partner who doesn’t feel threatened, or is he already strong enough, giving you wings and saying, “Keep going?”

We’re working on our life together. That doesn’t come into the equation with all of that. I don’t know how. Kudos to his parents or whatever experience he had before he showed up on my doorstep. He doesn’t come with that. I took some time out when I had my first kid. I had felt like I’d always been going, and I have a terrible memory. I was like, “I need to be more present.” If I’m more present, I can remember this experience I’m about to do, bring a person into the world. I took off what I thought was going to be six months or something like that. It ended up being almost two years, and I got to be with my son.

My husband at the time was working at an investment bank, and he didn’t get the time, and he wanted the time. We were on vacation, and his boss was making some demands that he couldn’t stomach and rage quit on our vacation, but doesn’t tell me. I don’t have a job, and I’ve been at home. When we come home, he’s like, “I have something to tell you.” He then told me, and I was like, “It’s time for me to go to work.” He just wanted to spend some time with our son, and he did.

Sheryl Sandberg was like, “Marry the person that is going to have a huge impact on what career you get to have.” My partner and I sit at home, bring each other business problems that we’re having at work, and work on them together. He’s the CFO at a small biotech company. I love the fact that I have someone I can talk to about my work. I also love the fact that I have a partner who takes a chunk of the responsibilities of raising our two sons. I don’t shoulder that on my own. I don’t know how people do it. He’s much better at it than I am. I’m lucky in that.

How do you balance being a mom, wife, and great corporate leader and getting to staying to know your kids? How do you balance time?

Probably up until the last several months that we have been at home, it would’ve been not as good of a report card. People have to know that these things ebb and flow, and you’re not always going to be 100% in all these areas. I was traveling more than I had wanted to and trying to think about work a lot. I was thinking about it all the time, and I still do.

I have appreciated this time home with my kids during COVID. It’s because I turn it off at a certain time. We sit down and have conversations as a family that we had never had before because I was rushing in the door and grabbing the kids from my parents. I’m so fortunate that they live fifteen minutes from my house and are a part of raising our kids. That is an incredible gift that I have, but I wasn’t as present.

Now, my son and I, especially the youngest one because he is a lot of interesting ideas, have these conversations that we wouldn’t have had before because I did not know how to make space for that in all of the shenanigans that were going on at work. I emerged out of COVID with far better boundaries than I had before. Some would argue I probably still don’t have enough but I also have a different relationship with my kids than I had before. One is far more present. I’m going to fight pretty hard to hold onto that.

Good for you. The commute’s nice right now, too, right?

That’s across the hall.

It’s a 75-second commute from the kitchen. We’re good. How is the transition from working in the offices to being at home for you and the team? How did you navigate that? Are you going back to the offices? Do you know where they are now at Meraki?

I took this current job that I have after we had gone home. I have not been in the same room with the teams I lead during this entire time, which is a lot to consume and then not to be able to rely on some of the things you typically do when trying to get to know people. Within a culture at Meraki, which was very much an in-office culture. We came and worked together. That’s how we worked. That went away overnight. We had to learn new ways.

Some of these things have made us stronger. We do more documentation around decision-making than we ever did before. We have to do sharing information asynchronously more than we did before. We have to think about who’s included in the conversations that we’re having. Before, we would make decisions in hallways, and that did not allow for the right stakeholders to be in the room. We’re still working that through, but I don’t think it’s been all downside to be able to work in a fully distributed fashion.

We’re going to come back into the office in a hybrid way. Cisco’s thinking around hybrid work and given the solutions that we have on the networking side but also on the collaboration side. We’re leaning fully into that. Folks will come back in a way that works for them, the team, and the role. It’s a conversation that folks are having with their leaders on how we come back into the office, but far more flexibility than we had in the past. It gives employees a little bit more choice in how they work and what works best for them. I can’t imagine that that’s going to be a bad business decision.

SIC 170 | Company Culture

Company Culture: Giving employees a little more choice to return to the office or remain at home is never a bad business decision.

 

No, I can’t, either. You’ve talked a couple of times about staying present. Any tools or systems that you’ve learned to do that? Any reminders that you give yourself?

I have been trying not to multitask. I used to pride myself on, “I can do so many things at once,” and my husband is adamant that it’s one thing at a time. I was always like, “You get so much less done in a day than I do,” as a joke. I have a role model around being present. I live with someone who is so incredibly present. You bring him to a dinner party, and the one person that never talks to anyone, he can have them in a fully-wrapped conversation for hours because he has the ability to sit and be with someone and be present. I watched him be present with our kids.

The thing that I take away from that is this focus on one thing at a time. When I can do that, I try to turn off the chat when I’m meeting with someone. I make it clear to folks that if I’m taking notes on the meeting, that’s what I’m doing. I’m not checking my email. I don’t win every day at that, but I can feel it on the days that I have tried to do that more times than not, and I have a better day. I drive more value to the business because I have taken the time to listen, be present, and bring my full attention to whatever’s in front of me. I don’t have any tricks or tips other than I try to turn off the distraction.

How about right now, as a leader, what’s the one thing you’re working on? Is there an area of leadership or business you are growing or curious about?

As I said before, I want to deepen how I listen. When you sat in the HR business partner role, which I happened to have gotten an opportunity to do at some point in my career, a lot of coaching leaders were almost listening. It’s closing your eyes and hearing what people are saying and then trying to ask the types of questions that allow them to drive their insight a little bit deeper. It’s something that sometimes I feel is escaping me in how I’m interacting with others. I’ve been trying to think about how I call that set of skills back into this operating role.

I do think that the same level of efficacy can be driven by having those types of conversations with folks because it opens them up to how we better lead our teams. It opens them up to how we have better processes and systems that we can build, better leadership development that we can craft, and better inclusion strategies. If I get better at asking the right questions, the business gets better at driving outcomes.

Learn how to ask the right questions so you can build better systems and craft more inclusive strategies within your team.

There’s a coaching methodology, CTI, that I spent some time with as a people leader. It’s a great methodology, especially around the coaching part of it. It’s about how you hold an agenda for somebody else and how you ask the types of questions that allow for discovery. Very often, in a leadership role, you forget that that’s a part of the equation. A part of it sometimes is standing out in front of folks and calling them in the direction we need to go.

Some of it is how you manage these peer relationships. A part of it is how you coach, how you develop, and how you do it through inquiry as opposed to statements and stories. That’s a powerful part of leading others that feels like it’s slipping away from me that I’m trying to grab back onto. That’s the thing that I’m trying to put my attention back on.

My final question, I want you to coach the 22-year-old Denise Thomas. I want you to lean back to when you were graduating from school and getting ready to start off your business career pre-MBA. What advice would you give yourself back then, or what questions would you ask yourself to help grow you?

I would encourage myself to pay attention to the things that feel easy and not assume that everybody can do those things. For a long time, I would be like, “Shoo that away. Everybody can do that,” but it’s not true that there are gifts that people have that are inherently a part of who they are. The better we are at honing those gifts and bringing them to the problems and opportunities that we have, the more that we can live a life that feels a bit more in flow. I believe that if you do that, you end up with better outcomes for yourself personally and also for whatever it is you’re working on.

The second piece of advice, if I can give myself two pieces of advice, is also to be in the rooms you’re in. For a very early part of my career, I would end up in these places where I was like, “I shouldn’t be here. I don’t know how I got here.” People would say, “You would be good at helping us think about this,” and whatever. I would have to convince myself of the validity of my place in that space by virtue of what other people told me. What I’m still not good at but getting better at is saying, “I own the spaces that I’m in.” If I am in a room, it is because the collection of things I bring to this equation or the conversation is valuable. I should start acting like it.

It took a while to get that going, but if you start that earlier, there’s so much more impact you can have if you’re not constantly second-guessing whether or not you have a role to play. I’ve probably taken up a bit more space than I have in the past. I’ve tried to be out and about a bit more than maybe I have been in the past, but I have been trying to lean into taking up a bit more space. If I could have given myself that feedback earlier on, maybe I would not have said no to things that I was fully capable of doing because I didn’t believe it.

You’re lean in big time. I love that you went back to that one, but also the flow because I’d written down the flow, and you mentioned it twice as we first started. It’s almost like you had the golden thread pre-thought-out for me because you popped up with that too. Denise Thomas, the VP of Operations and COO for Meraki, thank you so much for being in the right room and sharing with us on the show. I appreciate the time.

Thanks for having me. This was fun, and you made it easy.

That was great.

 

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About Denise Thomas

SIC 170 | Company CultureVP, Operations (COO) at Cisco Meraki

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Written By Cameron Herold

Written By Cameron Herold

Cameron Herold is known around the world as THE CEO WHISPERER. He is the mastermind behind hundreds of companies’ exponential growth. Cameron’s built a dynamic consultancy: his current clients include a “Big 4” wireless carrier and a monarchy. What do his clients say they like most about him? He isn’t a theory guy—they like that Cameron speaks only from experience. He earned his reputation as the CEO Whisperer by guiding his clients to double their profit and double their revenue in just three years or less. Cameron is a top-rated international speaker and has been paid to speak in 26 countries. He is also the top-rated lecturer at EO/MIT’s Entrepreneurial Masters Program and a powerful and effective speaker at Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer leadership events around the world.

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