To say we live in troubled times would be an understatement. It often feels like the politicians and executives who surround us are interested only in who can tell the biggest whopper while lining their own pockets and leaving their constituents and customers to pay the bills.
I recently read that the real reason Jon Stewart stepped down from The Daily Show was that he was incredibly angry all the time, which had an adverse impact not only on his ability to be funny but also on his ability to enjoy life.
Much of that is because those of us in media tend to focus excessively on the bad — because that does seem to pull more eyeballs — than on the good. I think that by doing so, we actually may be promoting bad behavior.
I’d like to provide a counterpoint. There are CEOs who actually seem to care about the world, their employees, and their customers more than they care about their stock options, salaries and yachts. I was reminded of that this quarter at customer events at Dell and Cisco.
Both companies’ CEOs spent a significant amount of time on subjects that were focused far more on making the world a better place than on selling products and services, or patting themselves on the back. In fact, both spent a lot more time patting their people on the back than on taking personal credit — a practice I think should be a CEO requirement.
So, I thought it would be interesting to explore how Michael Dell and Chuck Robbins have been working to make the world a better place and speculate on who is ahead in that race. I’ll close with my product of the week: the Beam, a new TV sound bar from Sonos, which could be the ideal thing to bring Amazon’s Alexa to your living room and fix your crappy TV speakers.
Women in Business
Gender inclusivity is one of the most troubling areas for technology at all levels. Currently one of the big stories out of computer gaming is how male gamers have been having a cow over EA putting women characters into Battlefield. This is the same Neanderthal behavior that created Gamergate, which led to women being openly threatened with rape and doxed.
Thankfully, EA stood its ground and called out the misogyny for what it was. However, one big tech company actually came down on the side of the attackers and has become somewhat famous for abuse. (Actually, the entire industry is unfortunately infamous for abuse.) So, we desperately need CEOs who do more than give the subject lip service. We need them to step up.
Robbins: Cisco is the reverse of most technology companies, which seem to think you can approach the diversity problem from the bottom up rather than the top down. Its approach is far more likely to be successful, because it largely eliminates the glass ceiling below the CEO.
At Cisco’s event, I met with more women executives than men, which virtually never happens. The firm aggressively ensures diversity where it is more important: to protect women against bad-acting men at the top.
Dell: Dell has been funding women entrepreneurs aggressively for some time, and it maintains an office of entrepreneur in residence. To my knowledge, that position always has been filled by a woman. When I last spoke to Michael Dell, he indicated that any manager who was caught abusing a female employee in any way would be fired, and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The company also would document the event and, with names removed, circulate the story around the company as a teaching moment, to ensure that managers and employees get the message that such behavior will not be tolerated.
We aren’t going to be able to move to Mars anytime soon, which means protecting our environment is extremely important. There are a lot of companies that seem to think that pollution is acceptable in exchange for a point or two of margin, and that the resulting problems won’t matter, because by the time the air and water get toxic, their executives will be dead.
What kills me about the whole global warming argument is that most of the fixes are things we should do anyway, because the biggest contributors to global warming are also toxic to humans and animals. I think selling out the future of the race for a few points of margins is inhumanly stupid, and that protecting the world we live in obviously should be one of our highest priorities.
Robbins: Cisco aggressively uses renewable energy to an extreme, minimizing its nonrenewable energy footprint. Much like Dell does with women entrepreneurs, Cisco funds unusual small companies that have addressed water shortages in Africa, or developed affordable neonatal monitors for emerging countries, for example. Cisco’s IoT efforts are focused largely on making cities and countries more effective at conserving resources and improving living conditions. Cisco is investing and working with companies that are creating biofuels for emerging markets as well. It has taken aggressive steps to reduce homelessness around its headquarters, and Chuck Robbins was outspoken at his company’s event about the idea of setting an example of how companies should behave in the world, suggesting a force multiplier tied to Cisco’s efforts.
Dell: One of the nastiest problems is the island of plastics floating in the ocean, killing birds and fish, and critically damaging one of our most vital ecosystems. It now exceeds the size of a U.S. state and many countries. Dell is one of the leaders in finding ways to mine these plastics economically and get them out of the ocean, with creative packaging and product design. Dell has invested in and sponsored contests in areas like healthcare and electric vehicles in the past. While its efforts haven’t been as diverse as Cisco’s, Dell nonetheless has been addressing a critical issue that other firms seem to think isn’t a problem for them.
Employees are a firm’s most valuable asset, and it amazes me how many CEOs seem to use layoffs as a viable way to meet quarterly targets. I’ve watched CEOs do things like announce a layoff or salary freeze at the same time they increase their own already excessive salaries, or buy corporate jets and limos that generally have been for their exclusive use. It almost seems like they took the myth of Marie Antoinette (the “let them eat cake” royal who got beheaded) and decided they’d like to be just like her. This is particularly annoying for me, because I came into technology with a plan to make employment better — and it has gotten a lot worse.
Robbins: There is a fascinating story that I can’t do justice to in this space. A group of employees banded together, studied most all of Cisco, and wrote a 70-page report on how to make the company better. Not only were they not shot — much of what they wrote was made into policy. In tech, you could argue that Cisco is now the company most receptive to employees taking risks. (Ford has instituted similar practices, by the way.) Cisco has implemented teams aggressively, and the employees seem particularly thrilled that their management has focused on projects like positively impacting 1B people by 2025. (Cisco is at 200M today.)
Dell: Since going private, Dell has been much more resistant to downsizing, providing a level of job stability that employees in other companies might envy. Because the company was known to be relatively flat in terms of organizational complexity (prior to the EMC merger), executives used to be amazed at how much they could accomplish. It didn’t require massive amounts of agreement to reach a decision to do something. Michael Dell often vocally calls out his executives for jobs particularly well done, and historically has been better than most with regard to sharing, rather than taking, credit.
Wrapping Up: Who Wins?
What is interesting about this isn’t that there is competition to be good. There isn’t. I expect both Cisco and Dell are relatively ignorant of what the other is doing in this regard.
It is that while both have practices in each area, they tend to be different practices — meaning both firms could improve by embracing the practices of the other. In the end, when companies focus on making the world a better place — whether by encouraging diversity, improving the environment, or treating their employees better — we all win.
I was struck with what Chuck Robbins said in his keynote: that getting upset about politics was a waste of time, and that we’d all be better served if we rolled up our sleeves and set an example of how people should behave rather than complaining about how they do behave. Something to noodle on this week.
I’ve been a Sonos user since the beginning, and almost every room in my house has a Sonos speaker system. I have three old Sonos TV soundbars, and they weren’t a cheap date.
In almost every room, I also have one or more Amazon Echo speakers, which I now use redundantly for music — one of which also is tied into Sonos, but it is a bit of a kludge.
Combining both capabilities into a good sounding soundbar that is also far cheaper than its larger cousin could be a godsend for those of us who are not listening to our expensive sound systems because the Echo is so much more convenient.
The Sonos Beam represents Sonos’ third soundbar, and it not only sounds good but also costs about half as much as the firm’s other soundbar offerings.
At US$399 the Beam isn’t a cheap date either, but compared to the other Sonos soundbars it is a bit of a bargain. I was good with the fact that it got rid of my redundant Amazon Echos and more seamlessly worked in a TV room where having two competing systems can be particularly annoying.
Of course, my personal hope was that the company would develop a set of outdoor speakers rather than a third soundbar, because that is where my greatest need exists. In the end, though, because this new Sonos Beam does solve a complexity problem for me, it is my product of the week.