Cisco Chair Chuck Robbins: ‘We Knew We Needed To Move Quickly’

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When Russia invaded Ukraine, Cisco and its board took a bold stance to support the Ukrainian government, risking reprisals in the process. Cisco Chair and CEO Chuck Robbins reflects on that decision and the challenges of leading in an increasingly unpredictable world.

When the Russia-Ukraine conflict erupted, Cisco deployed its Talos threat intelligence team—the largest non-governmental team of its kind—to defend vital infrastructure and prevent Russian cyberattacks. The company also extended free cybersecurity licenses to its Ukrainian customers and provided demos of security products to Ukrainian companies to help them manage the crisis. This bold action, showcasing the role of business in protecting Western democracy, led CBM’s selection committee to honor the board at this year’s Board Leadership Awards. CBM asked Chair and CEO Chuck Robbins for his perspective on those and other company initiatives. Excerpts of his responses follow.

Tell us about Cisco’s actions after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How did the company and the board assess the situation and decide on a response?

When the war in Ukraine began, we knew we needed to move quickly and provide clarity to our customers, partners and employees. Cisco’s cyber threat intelligence agency, Talos, took the lead and worked around the clock on a global, company- wide effort to protect our customers and partners in Ukraine and ensure that our products and services remained operational. Cisco Talos also took the extraordinary step of directly operating security products 24-7 for critical customers in Ukraine.

We communicated with and sought advice from our board frequently during this time, and they were fully supportive of all the actions taken and the potential risks.

Was there ever discord about whether getting involved was the right thing to do?

The decision to do whatever we could to support Ukraine was an easy one. Across the company, there was an incredible willingness and eagerness to support our Ukrainian colleagues and customers and the Ukrainian people. The board, our employees in neighboring countries and our employees from around the world all stood and continue to stand by Ukraine.

Cisco has been a leader in ESG initiatives. Can you tell us a little about how the company sets sustainability goals?

Cisco has been focused on minimizing our impact on the environment for more than 15 years. Most recently, we set a goal to reach net zero across our value chain by 2040, our most ambitious goal yet. In setting and vetting the feasibility of this goal, leadership brought together a cross-functional team and used the Science Based Targets initiative to ultimately validate our goal under its new Net-Zero Standard.

Cisco has worked cross-functionally for many years to set and achieve emissions reduction and sustainability goals. To meet this ambitious goal, we intend to build on our strong foundation and collaborate across our business to implement solutions that are true to Cisco’s values, meet our high standards for rigor and transparency and make a meaningful impact.

Cisco also set and exceeded a target of a 75 percent increase in Black vice presidents and Black directors. How does the company approach expanding diversity?

At Cisco, our social justice beliefs and actions serve as a blueprint for expanding the diversity of our global workforce… at all levels of our business, from the board of directors to early-in-career employees.

Additionally, we have taken dialogue around equity and inclusion to a new level through regular company-wide check-in broadcasts led by our executive leadership team. Using these check-in sessions, employees have the opportunity to learn from outside experts and engage on topics like racism, LGBTQ+ [issues] and social justice.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for corporate boards moving forward?

The world has become increasingly unpredictable. None of us could have imagined the events that have transpired over the past two to three years, and this highlights the need for corporate boards and their businesses to be agile.

Contingency and resiliency planning, as well as always thinking ahead, are critically important, but you cannot plan for everything— that’s when you need your organization to be agile. Key aspects of agility are obviously speed, but also clarity about the direction vis-a-vis customers, partners and employees are all key.

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