Cisco’s GM Leanne Buer: Leading The Way As A Woman In Tech

Women Love Tech
on 25 June 2019

Cisco’s General Manager, New Zealand Partners and Australia & New Zealand Distribution, Leanne Buer, has been part of the technology industry for the last 20 years. In this time Leanne has seen lots of change, both in the industry and a range of roles in the sector. Leanne works in a Trans-Tasman role, engaging strategically with partners to deliver growth. A big mentor advocate, Leanne believes in the power of leading from behind. Find out more about what this means, and her career story so far.

Technology, and the industry, has grown at such a fast pace since I joined the industry 20 years ago. The evolution of ideas, products and the pace of change has been quite remarkable, thinking back on when I joined the sector on the brink of the millennium.

The culture of the industry is quite unique, in that generally everyone is super agile and quick to adapt to new ideas. But while the industry moves so fast pursuing the excitement of the unknown, there is one element that hasn’t shifted as quickly: the number of women in the industry.  

There is an underrepresentation of women overall, and it still astounds me that Australia loses female talent at every stage of the STEM pipeline despite no innate cognitive gender differences.

Part of this may be the perception that achievement and retention of women in STEM is related to engagement, confidence and bias.

What has helped me to grow of over the years in technology has included clear role models and, talking to people with different experiences. Here’s my story, and what I’ve learned along the way.

Find the right fit for you

My role is quite unique. I’m in a leadership role as a General Manger across two markets: Australia and New Zealand. At Cisco, I lead the distribution channel for both of these markets, a core part of the IT industry. Partners are what enables us to connect with customers and ultimately the majority of business is transacted through partners.  

One thing I’m proud of is making the decision to change career directions and step into IT.

Dream an do it

I started my career in accounting, and worked in the insolvency practice at EY. An opportunity quickly presented itself when one of the partners asked me to join his new practice, which was a great stretch for me, but I found the work to be soul destroying. Working with owners and employees in businesses that were at the end of the road just wasn’t inspiring. Seeing books and records and a trail of bad advice that led businesses down the wrong path really made me feel for these people. I felt that I couldn’t help guide businesses to success, and needed to find a better fit. Having recognised this, I went back to the technology industry and completed an introductory certificate in IT, and moved on to follow my passion. In fact one of my career highlights has been to work with small businesses and guide them on how to scale and grow, which I’ve done a few times (resulting in significant commercial outcomes).

I found my background in finance really valuable. I was able to leverage my knowledge of a profit and loss statement, balance sheet and general accounting practices to help customers build IT business cases, understand the impact to the bottom line, thinking about return on investment – all these accounting principles were a foreign concept in the IT industry at the time. They’re all mainstream now, of course.

It helped me to see that the diversity in thought, cultural diversity, differences in age, and bringing the skills you have outside of what’s expected to be traditionally IT, that makes an impact.

Dedicate your time to what’s important

One of the ways in which I help myself is being relentless in dedicating time to what’s important. I colour code my diary without exception, and 30% of my time is spent with customers and partners. This is key for my role, and really valuable for me. It also grounds me by helping to stay connected, allows me to lead by example, and there is no better way to support the business. With this time investment I’m able to understand businesses, and what success looks like. You’ve got to be customer led.

Time management is so essential – my schedule runs my life. I diarise everything; jobs to be done, meetings, coaching, exercise, travel time. It makes me think carefully about where I’m going to make the most impact and that guides my time allocation. It takes a bit of rigour and practice to make it work, but for me, if it’s not in my schedule, it doesn’t get done.

Find your support network

Find partners to encourage

When I joined the industry, it felt like 95% of the sector was male. It can be a lonely place. 

Based in New Zealand at the time, and with the Kiwi culture, I found that people listened to me because I had a different perspective. I also found myself seeking feedback from trusted peers, testing ideas with different teams, particularly marketing and engineering, which really helped me to build out my thoughts and networks.

Having a mentor is invaluable. One of my first mentors knows me and my capabilities really well and has been a great advocate for me and my work, always challenging me to grow, and to seek that uncomfortable feeling you get when you’re pushing personal boundaries.  Even now, my mentors help me to keep an eye on the future as I tend to bury myself in work. It’s this guidance provided by a range of people, from peers, to lawyers, to entrepreneurs, that helps you develop in diverse ways and tackle problems from many angles. It helps you to see pathways that you hadn’t seen before and affirms things you know.

A tip – be open and upfront about mentoring conversations, as well as clear on what you want from a mentor and how they can help you. And be honest. When it’s time to end the relationship, say so.

Lead from Behind

I’m here to build a high performing team and deliver results. I build culture based on authentic conversations grounded in our team’s strengths and by inspiring and empowering the team with challenging projects. To me, this means understanding individuals and shining a light on their success and helping them to be their best. This approach includes lots of different elements, such as role play, coaching and enabling them to address real issues. It also means really putting my people out there, as others have done for me.

Working across countries is a challenge, but worth it!

working on different areas

Working across countries is becoming more common as technology allows us to have geographically diverse teams. It’s definitely a challenge, but rewarding from a career point of view. My weekly sync-in’s with my team are often over video calls, as are our wider virtual team (or cross functional team) discussions.

But I think we lose some of the spontaneous engagements with our people: the “on the job coaching”, sharing of learnings and pitfalls, the water cooler conversations and some of the more personal exchanges. All of these are definitely limited by physicality. There is also still an expectation that you have face to face meetings with partners and customers. So, I have the structured conversations, remotely, with a weekly cadence – and really prioritise this time. And I travel. I live in New Zealand but I’m in Australia every three weeks. I stay at least three days so I can spend time with my team, meet customers and partners, and make time for the informal conversations. I make sure I’m utilising every bit of time – from breakfast through to dinner. I also find airport time great for catching up on emails, reading reports, and preparing presentations.

I understand that travelling may not be easy for women with younger children – it’s about finding what works for individual circumstances. When I was a young mother, my husband was a ‘stay at home dad’ for several years. I also had strong family support.

Women Love Tech would like to thank Leanne Buer for her article.

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