11/28/2014 11:46 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Blair Christie, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Cisco

Blair Christie is Cisco's Chief Marketing Officer, with responsibility for the company's Global Marketing, Corporate Communications, and Government and Community Relations groups. Her organization is responsible for positioning Cisco's growth strategy, cultivating opportunities in new and existing customer markets and growing demand for Cisco's solutions globally, as Cisco establishes itself as the #1 IT company in the world.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
The presence of role models and learning to be resilient and driven were critical.

My mother continues to be a strong role model with an incredible work ethic, commitment to family and drive that can't be matched. Business leaders I worked closely with - especially two CEO's- reaffirmed the work ethic I saw in my Mom, showed me the role values and relationships have in business, as well as the importance of engagement between public and private sectors. They demonstrated authenticity regardless of title. And, of course, my husband- college sweetheart, best friend and human-full-length-mirror. I've observed the choices he makes - balancing risk, passion and responsibility. He has shown me how to be comfortable in my own skin, and never, ever stop learning.

I also like to think I am very open to change and adapt to challenges. I was in a unique program in college that gave me the opportunity to work and try new areas of interest as part of my studies. This reinforced that change brings opportunity. I found what I loved to do and, more important, what I didn't. This is such a critical part of developing our careers--finding out what we are not good at or don't enjoy is as important as finding the things at which we excel. Visualizing the outcome through challenges is critical for me. If you can see it, you can achieve it.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Cisco?
I was fortunate my job in Investor Relations meant I spent a lot of time with senior leaders - even at a young age. I had a lot of great learning early in my career that I carried forward.

I also learned the importance of knowing your audience and a good elevator pitch. Some of my best learning came from trying to get one of my previous companies, who was out of favor on Wall Street, in the door of key analysts and investors. Knowing that audience well, understanding how we could benefit their research and making sure we would not waste their time was great experience. It was especially helpful when the Internet bubble burst in 2001. I understood the challenges of being "out of favor" - which very few technology companies understood in 2001 - and position Cisco successfully.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Cisco?
After 15 years, the list for both is long!

Without a doubt, my highlights include the amazing people and moments when we lead the industry. Driving paradigm shifts in technology, like Ethernet switching, Voice over IP, data center and hybrid cloud; to delivering new brand and thought leadership platforms, including the Internet of Everything; to creating a new revenue marketing capability; and to building industry-leading relationships with our investors.

There have been huge moments of impact where Cisco has been in the spotlight: when the Internet bubble burst in the early 2000's; September 11th and our role in helping our country recover; Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Sichuan, China, as we led re-development efforts. These stand out as among the most challenging because they directly affected our employees and their families.

All said, the single biggest highlight AND challenge for me over the course of my tenure is having a family and a career at the same time.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in technology?
Don't focus on yourself as a woman or man, just be authentic. Seek and cultivate connections, networks and potential sponsors--people inside your company that support you in your career-- that can help you bring your best to the table. And remember you must figure out how to play the game, before you try to change the game.

I also encourage women to take an active role as mentors and sponsors for other women in technology. Today, of 100 female bachelor-degree students, 12 graduate with a STEM major but only three continue to work in STEM fields 10 years after graduation. We need to encourage more women in STEM and then support them once they join the workforce.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
There was a time when I tried to avoid conflict whenever possible. I just did not know how to address issues where opinions were in direct opposition and emotional. I learned quickly (and the hard way) that would minimize my credibility as a leader. I also saw examples of how strong leaders tackled conflict head-on, and if I wanted to grow I would have to figure it out.

From this journey, I learned I can never assume the perspective of others or what motivates them. Really taking time to consider and understand what the person on the other side of the table is thinking or wants, and work toward a solution with that in mind has been very successful for me. Peel back the problem to see the huge opportunities, and remain curious not just about the problem, but also the people.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I think of it more as blending, not really balancing. As many have said before - balance assumes 50:50 and we all know that is simply not realistic. Some weeks it comes with ease, and some weeks, it just doesn't. You need to focus on the long game, and just do your best with the issue in front of you. My husband is a core part of how we make it work in our family, and we communicate honestly and often. Working for the right company, with people who appreciate the idea that the stronger the family life, the stronger the employee, is a huge factor for me.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I see two - one relates to the workplace and one relates to personal acceptance.

I believe employers can also 'lean in' and address their approach and practices with women in the workplace. Organizations as a whole are in the position to ensure women are recruited, developed and compensated equally and fairly. In the technology industry, where the challenge starts at recruitment, organizations need to ensure women and other minorities are always part of the candidate slate. Development practices need to address the common challenges women face around networking and sponsorship. Compensation is based on market trends. Could we close the broader gender compensation gap, if organizations better understood and addressed them individually?

My second belief is that women need to learn to accept the difficult fact that if you are at work, you won't be giving 100% at home, and when you are at home, you won't be giving 100% at work. It's not easy to accept - especially to those of us who strive for perfection. But it's true. And it's ok.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship and sponsorship have been very important to me. The individuals I have had the privilege to confide in and learn from have and continue to help me during the most exciting and challenging times of my career and personal life. It has been an authentic experience - not a contrived or well-planned exercise - based on common goals and agendas we shared and continue to share. I feel many people approach mentorship with too formal of an expectation. Sponsorship and mentorship develop over time, with each party contributing equally to the effort.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are too many to count. The women on the Cisco team - across all levels - are outstanding, brilliant and inspiring, including those who have left and moved on to greater things. There are females who pushed the envelope, like Sandra Day O'Connor and Margaret Thatcher, who remind me that substance, spunk and authenticity can be a winning combination for success. Malala Yousafzai represents the fact that one individual's courage can make a difference to the world, and just the thought of her can get me out of a funk within minutes. But most significant is my mother, who has time and again, risen to a challenge and met it head on, achieving exactly what she planned.

What do you want Cisco to accomplish in the next year?
This year marks Cisco's 30th anniversary, and I expect it will be the beginning of the next 30 years of extraordinary success. We have been investing and innovating to help our customers succeed during the blinding pace of change happening everywhere, as well transforming our company to ensure we will lead in the next wave of the Internet, which we call the Internet of Everything. I see all of this work coming together in the next year, and it is exciting!