Taking Leaps—Liz Centoni, SVP and GM of Cisco’s Computing Systems Group, shares insights on her career
When I first envisioned my professional life, it was not in high-tech. When I was young, I wanted to create stories with animated characters that could bring colorful dreams to life on paper. I collected comics, loved to play arcade games, read Louis L’Amour westerns and tried my best to do well at school. My mind often wandered in class, and I sometimes felt like the odd duck who had a different normal than others.
Influenced by my mother who worked for Atomic Research Centre, I studied chemistry, physics and math. Even before I graduated, I knew I was not cut out to be a scientist. Long lab hours, smelling of sulfur, and summer projects on linear low-density polyethylene didn’t really excite me. It was then that I took a big leap, and instead of doing my masters and PhD, I turned toward sales and, later, marketing.
In my first year of sales, I reached 125 percent of my quota, but all of it came in the last three months of the year, from two major customers who did their equipment purchases right before the end of their fiscal year. I was certain that I was going to be fired in the first six months on the job. There is no doubt in my mind that if I had not taken that first leap, I would never have had the opportunity or the courage to construct a new chapter. And the next one, and the one after.
I’ve always believed that if you want to live a fulfilling life, you must follow your passion. From a career standpoint, my passion for driving a business and developing strategy and direction has allowed me to navigate multiple engineering roles that took me out of my comfort zone. The challenges I have encountered in those roles gave me the confidence boost and visibility I needed to grow. I give credit to my many great mentors—both male and female—with helping me choose the roles that made me grow and prepare for my current position as SVP and GM of Cisco’s Computing Systems Group.
I’ve had at times, skepticism, questions and more than a little fear about the potential risks and rewards of my career moves. I tend to gravitate to big difficult assignments, which at times have been called ugly projects. I recall a prior role that was messy, and after months of work, just as we had our strategy and execution plan laid out with alignment from the Business Unit and Sales teams, things shifted in a big way. We ran into issues at two major customers and had to defer some of our roadmap, reset expectations with our customer, update our business plans, and at the same time set the right tone and mood for the teams.
I love the stuff I do. I get to work with smart and talented people who give me a lot of confidence when it comes to turning challenges into success stories.
Like many women, my biggest challenge has been advocating for myself. It does not feel natural. You hear about the importance of believing in yourself all the time, but for me it is not as easy as those slogans make it out to be. It’s particularly challenging in STEAM fields, which tend to be male-dominated. I’ve had the good fortune to work with others who have similar value systems and have learned a great deal from them.
I’m an introvert by nature, and someone who would rather escape in a spy book than step up and present in front of a large audience. I had to identify what scares me the most, because I’ve found that if I don’t continually do things that terrify me a bit and get me out of my comfort zone, I feel I am not growing.
Having a voice at Cisco was always important to me, and I’m passionate about working hard to help other women at the company find their voice. As executive sponsor for Cisco’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) group, I have an opportunity to network and mentor top female talent at Cisco. There is change at all levels, including the boardroom, and while it’s slow, the conversations and initiatives are ongoing. At Cisco, it’s a commitment for us, not just a campaign (see more at cisco.com/go/diversity).
I want to do everything I can to help pave the path for other women in the industry. Currently, women represent 57 percent of the U.S. labor force and we just can’t miss out on 57 percent of the ideas. Tapping into the power of diverse thought is just the beginning.
I find my own journey exciting, and quite different from where I thought I would be today. Continuously taking leaps keeps me going, and I’m not stopping yet.
About the Author
Liz Centoni is Senior Vice President and General Manager of Cisco’s Computing Systems Product Group. She sets strategy and direction for the Data Center Compute and Storage business and is responsible for leading global engineering and product management teams to deliver the flagship Unified Computing Services (UCS) and HyperFlex product families.