How to Grow a Human Network

Sue Bostrom sits high atop the corporate ladder at Cisco, but she also touts the merits of down-to-earth Midwestern values. Photos courtesy of Cisco Systems Inc.

When Sue Guenther Bostrom ’82 BUS takes time from her extraordinarily busy life to retrace the roads she took from Palatine to the University of Illinois to San José, Calif., she laughs, she cries, she talks tough. She even does a little unabashed cheerleading, which leads us to make a disclaimer right up front: This is an upbeat story about a down-home, all-American girl. There’s simply no other way to portray Bostrom, a former pompom girl who grew up to become executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Cisco Systems Inc. – and one of the most influential women of her generation.

It takes only a few minutes with her to understand how Bostrom became a top executive with one of the largest high-tech corporations on the planet: by staying true to her essential nature. She is, in many ways, still the cheery, optimistic, unpretentious, bright teenager who left the suburbs of Chicago for the U of I and eventually became a powerful player in Silicon Valley.

“I love to tell people I’m from the Midwest because there are so many great attributes both in that part of the country and that my family instilled in me: hard work, a high degree of integrity, straight talk, being down-to-earth, not taking yourself too seriously and placing a value on people and their performance,” Bostrom says. “My family taught me that you have to work hard for the things that are important, but that you always have to put your family and friends first, and remember what life’s all about.”

Bostrom wears her brown hair stylishly short and tucked neatly behind her ears. Her most prominent feature is her smile, which rarely is absent from her face. Even her voice seems to smile. Welcome, it says, come on in. Just the greeting one would expect from a farmer’s daughter.

“My dad was one of 10 kids, and it was the older boys’ job to farm, especially when their father passed away at a relatively young age,” Bostrom says with admiration for a work ethic she inherited.

Her father’s family farm, located near the northwest suburban home where she was raised, was eventually sold, but Walter Guenther continued the long hours of labor that would make an indelible impression on his daughter.

“That was back when you worked two or three jobs,” Bostrom says. “He was farming [other people’s land], working at a factory and was also a school custodian for 20 years to make sure we had enough food on the table.”

Her mother, Genevieve, worked too, as an executive assistant with area companies, while raising two girls. As many work hours as the Bostroms piled up, family was always their primary focus.

“Between my mom’s and dad’s families, I had 32 first cousins, and they all lived within a stone’s throw of Palatine,” Bostrom says. “That whole sense of family, of community, sticking up for each other, taking care of each other, that was a really important part of the way I grew up.”

So was the idea of Bostrom and her older sister, Karin, attending college and making something of themselves.

“My mom really pushed my sister and me to dream,” Bostrom says. “There were a lot of things I think she wanted to do. She was very bright. She had wanted to go to college. She wanted to explore the world. Those things just weren’t possible, given the financial situation her family was in. … So she really pushed us as young girls, as young women, to believe that there’s nothing you can’t do.”

There is a reason for front-loading a profile of Bostrom with so much of her back story: She has built her success – personal and professional – on the foundation of family.

“I always have it in the back of my mind that I want to do the family proud,” she says. “My mom and dad sacrificed a lot for my sister and me, … and I want to live up to [those] expectations.”

Her résumé is proof that Bostrom is doing just that.

Restoring the Human Touch
Bostrom’s climb up the corporate ladder has been swift – particularly so in a male-dominated industry – since earning her MBA from the Stanford School of Business in 1986. After stints at National Semiconductor, FTP Software and McKinsey & Co., the management consultant giant, she joined Cisco Systems in 1997 as vice president of applications and services marketing.

Cisco, a global corporation with more than 70,000 employees, posted more than $40 billion in revenue in fiscal 2010. The company designs, manufactures, sells and services Internet protocol-based networking and products related to the communications and information-technology industry.

Bostrom was promoted to senior vice president in 2000, appointed to chief marketing officer in 2006 and executive vice president in 2007. She is responsible for developing and communicating Cisco’s overall vision and strategy and heads up Cisco’s Worldwide Government Affairs organization, which develops and executes the company’s public-policy agenda. She also spearheaded Cisco’s in-house Women’s Initiative for accelerating diversity in the workplace.

Bostrom and her team came up with ‘Welcome to the Human Network,’ a marketing theme that now drives every aspect of Cisco’s global business.

By the time she was 40, Bostrom was already being touted as one of America’s formidable young executives. In 2000, Fortune magazine named her one of the “50 most powerful women in business.” In 2004, BusinessWeek placed her among the “top 50 women in technology.”

While Cisco had been well-known in the IT world since its founding in 1984, only in the past five years has the company reached out aggressively to the everyday consumer market – in both the corporate and personal sectors. Two of its marquee products are Cisco TelePresence (designed for the business world and launched in October 2006), and Cisco umi (pronounced “you-me”), another high-definition tele-presence system – this one for in-home use – which was unveiled this fall. (Telepresence systems are designed to improve visual communications across geographic and cultural boundaries through delay-free HD video images and audio.)

Cisco TelePresence connects central office sites, remote offices and teleworkers face-to-face around a virtual table. One of its primary purposes is to reduce travel expenses, sometimes in the millions of dollars, depending on a company’s size. Cisco umi connects consumers home-to-home via video.

One recent morning, Bostrom “met” with Cisco’s European marketing team across 10 countries via TelePresence. “I did a Q&A with everyone in 60 minutes,” she says. “They feel just like they would if they had met me physically.”

How consumers “feel” about Cisco and its products has been the major focus of Bostrom’s attention since she was appointed CMO in 2006 and charged with recasting Cisco’s image in the global marketplace.

“We were in many other parts of the IT business, … but we had been known primarily as a networking company, a manufacturer of routers and switches and the equipment that connects the Internet,” she explains “The market wasn’t recognizing that … we were now in many segments of it, such as home networking, voice-communications space, web-conferencing and more.”

Cisco made a strategic decision to shift to a more consultative sales model. Instead of just selling technology to its business customers, it would emphasize helping those customers use technology better in order to boost their productivity. And for home consumers, Cisco would introduce products such as umi that would enhance their personal lives.

To remake Cisco’s image, Bostrom and her creative marketing team went back to the most basic principle of successful communication – making it personal – and came up with “Welcome to the Human Network,” a campaign theme that now drives every aspect of Cisco’s global business.

Web 2.0 and social networking made it possible for everyone to connect with one another person to person, and “what we were recognizing was this emergence of the human network and how that was going to be the next transformation of both business and personal lives,” Bostrom says.

She continues: “We’ve got people who are moving physically in order to pursue work opportunities or to travel or to explore new cultures. The great thing about video is it allows you to reconnect no matter where you are.”

Bostrom’s approach to repositioning Cisco and the results of her efforts – including Cisco’s brand value increasing by 32.5 percent over the last five years and monthly visits to the company’s website topping 13 million – come as no surprise to those who see her business instincts and intellect in action.

“Sue thinks strategically,” says John Shoven, who directs the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and was so impressed with Bostrom that he recruited her for SIEPR’s advisory board in 2003. “She figures out what you’re trying to accomplish and comes up with a strategy to accomplish it in a very organized manner: What are we trying to accomplish? By what means can we accomplish it? What are its costs? Given the time, is it feasible? She’s very good at that.

“I don’t know if it dates back to business school training at Stanford or her University of Illinois training, but she takes a very clear path.”

A senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Shoven adds, “I find Sue’s advice very compelling because of her clarity and progressive way of tackling problems. I would guess that’s why she has advanced to this high executive position at Cisco.”

Confirming Shoven’s assessment is David Hsieh ’83, a colleague of Bostrom’s at Cisco, where he serves as vice president of marketing, emerging technologies.

“Sue’s got a sharp, quick, analytical side,” says Hsieh. “Where her creativity shows is when she cuts through the fuzzy, foggy stuff and homes in on the critical issues.”

She’s been doing that since her days on the UI campus.

Finding Her Destiny
When Sue Guenther was an 18-year-old freshman at Illinois, she had no idea what the future held. A career in the high-tech world wasn’t remotely in her thoughts, she recalls, “but I said to myself, ‘I want to do something different, something special.’”

Imagine, for a moment, an executive who is a step away from a corporate corner office wearing a sequined dance outfit and waving pompoms in a Memorial Stadium filled with thousands of screaming football fans. That was Bostrom 30 years ago as a member of the Illinettes, the female dance team component of the Marching Illini; it was a period she counts as pivotal in her life.

“It’s hard to believe, I know,” she says, laughing. “When I was in high school, I loved to dance, and I was also really competitive. I still am competitive. The idea that I could go to Illinois and compete for a spot on a dance team was really exciting.”

She survived a series of tryouts and made the squad.

“It really built my self-confidence in terms of just putting myself out there with a possibility that I could be rejected,” Bostrom says. “I learned … that if you don’t take a risk, you never have a chance.”

Performing with the Illinettes also gave her a sense of structure.

“We practiced two to three hours a day and then got up Saturday mornings to practice before the football game. My life was completely structured between classes, the Illinettes, homework and activities with my sorority, Sigma Kappa. [That structure] helped me academically because I had to focus to get my work done.” (Bostrom graduated in the top 1 percent of her college class and also was named a Bronze Tablet Scholar.)

One of the players she cheered for was her future husband, though she didn’t know it at the time. Kirk Bostrom ’83 ACES was a placekicker and punter for the Fighting Illini.

“Fortunately, I met Kirk in the spring of our senior year, so it didn’t negatively affect my academic performance,” she jokes. They were engaged three months after meeting and married within a year.

“I don’t recommend that to my children,” she says, “but it did work out great for us.”

Meeting her husband at the U of I “seemed like destiny” after Bostrom “experienced this horrific loss my junior year.”

That was the death of her mother. Genevieve Guenther began to deteriorate rapidly from pancreatic cancer during the spring of Bostrom’s junior year, passing away three months after her diagnosis.

“It still shocks me to this day to have gone through that,” says Bostrom, holding back tears. “Thankfully, my dad had called me to come home the weekend she died.”

Even back then, Bostrom knew how to home in on a problem and find a solution.

“One of the first things I wanted to do after the funeral was get back to Illinois,” she says. “My friends were there. … I could feel normal. I could throw myself into my schoolwork or into my sorority … and not quite handle the reality of my mom’s death yet. It was really a safe place for me to go.”

The experience also seems to have set her course as an independent woman whose example would influence her children and her future colleagues.

A Voice for Working Women
Bostrom realizes that her professional success has granted her a platform for giving “visibility to some things that are important in the world beyond business.

“I love being able to speak on behalf of women,” she says, “and about the challenges and issues they may have in the work force.”

Sue BostromBostrom was encouraged to play a leadership role when a grass-roots effort by employees led Cisco to establish its Women’s Initiative, one of a dozen or so diversity programs the company supports. She served as the program’s executive sponsor from 2001-04.

“There are things you need to start to change now to make [the business world] better for the next generation,” she says.

Sometimes it’s about how to “become adaptable,” as Bostrom learned soon after graduating from Stanford and taking a job with McKinsey & Co. in Dallas.

“That was a different cultural environment, and I was a woman,” she says. “Growing up in the Midwest, I was raised to be upbeat, positive and supportive. Then I go to Illinois, [where] I was an Illinette and was in a sorority. I was positive and upbeat. I had that whole persona thing going on, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

But the business world demanded unequivocal toughness, too.

“I’ll never forget,” Bostrom says, “when one of my managers at McKinsey … gave me my first review, which was all very positive, and then he said, ‘You can’t be a cheerleader all the time.’

“Now, for someone who was an Illinette, you can imagine what I thought: Wait a minute! How did you know that? Of course he was just using a really interesting analogy for any woman, especially for me. But he was [saying], ‘You know, Sue, it’s a rough-and-tumble world out there. People have certain expectations, … so you have to adapt to that and at times you have to deliver tough messages. … Sometimes that’s better than beating around the bush and trying to be too nice about it.’

“If you talk to people I work with now, they’ll say I’m pretty direct, pretty tough, but hopefully in a positive and productive way.”

Bostrom believes she has found a balance between business toughness and the Midwest values so ingrained in her. That’s why she still likes telling people she was an Illinette.

“At the end of the day, what I really value in people is diversity and different experiences, the idea of having a sort of multi-experiential or multicultural environment with people bringing new ideas and different experiences to the table,” she says. “I also think that you can’t judge people too quickly.”

Unquestionably, Bostrom has changed since those early days in Dallas and so too has the attitude of young women following in her footsteps.

“The plus for me 25 years ago was that I really didn’t know how tough it was going to be,” she says. “I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know the statistics.” (As of November, 2.4 percent of the CEOs in the Fortune 500 are female, totaling 12 women.)

“There was some benefit to that,” Bostrom says. “I figured, ‘Hey, if I work really hard, if I learn, if I take people’s input, if I’m trustworthy, I’m going to do OK.’”

What about her own limits? Bostrom seems a prime candidate to be someone’s CEO. She interacts with government leaders from China to the United Arab Emirates. She sits on numerous prestigious boards from Stanford Hospital to Georgetown University and volunteers at her children’s schools. Might there be, say, a future in politics?

One more time Bostrom laughs at a presumptuous notion that some may say conflicts with her Midwestern values, and then she replies: “I would never say never to anything, though it’s hard to imagine [politics]. Am I interested in public service? Absolutely. I love the idea of giving back at this stage of my life. I do think that that is one of the blessings that has come with success.”

Once again, Bostrom is upbeat and positive and putting those Midwestern values right out front.

Wieczorek is a freelance writer and editor in the Chicago area.