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Every Voice Matters: Willa Black, VP of Corporate Marketing at Cisco, shares why micromanaging is not her leadership style

For Willa Black, when it comes to business, there are no challenges too great.

A “do-er,” or a multi-tasker. That’s what people say about Willa Black.

As vice president of corporate marketing at Cisco Canada, the technology company – ranked third out of 134 companies surveyed in the most recent Hewitt Associates’ annual survey of Canada’s best employers, in partnership with Report on Business Magazine – Black has built a reputation as someone who inspires and rallies people through her actions.

At Cisco, a worldwide leader in helping companies and individuals network through the internet, she is responsible for strategies designed to promote the company’s external brand awareness. But she also leads programming in support of Cisco’s Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives.

She has developed ground-breaking, award-winning programming, such as the Globe and Mail Business Incubator, an online resource designed to assist owners and managers of small- to medium-sized businesses, and A Million Acts of Green, along with the CBC’s George Stroumboloupoulos and David Suzuki. People in over 50 countries logged in 1.7 million acts of green in over 100 days, saving over 106 million kilograms of greenhouse gases. It was Black who came up with the idea, sold Cisco on getting involved, then sold the CBC on the project.

“Hugely gratifying,” is how she has summed up the impact of that project, when talking about Canada’s environmental sustainability. Through her actions in business and in projects like A Million Acts of Green, and through her ability to engage people, Black has evolved naturally into a role model for women in business. If she has an idea she believes can work, or is involved in a cause that requires bringing people together, business or charity-related, she can do it all, and push people towards a common goal.

“I hope that I don’t influence people,” she says. “I hope that I invite people to work with me, to follow along with me.”

Her advice to young, aspiring business women is simple: “Figure out where your true talent lies. What are you really, really good at? Then find an environment that allows you to showcase that talent. Step two is working hard when you start off. You have to earn your stripes, you have to make sacrifices. You have to prove yourself.”

Then, open up. “Don’t be afraid to share your good ideas and good opinions,” she says. “Don’t keep them to yourself.”

As Black discusses her endeavours at Cisco, and as she talks about balancing work and family (she’s a mother of three) — as well as her love for travel — her passion and personality shine through. Black is no wallflower. She says she feels very fortunate to be part of a company like Cisco. The work environment there is collaborative, energetic, and fun, she says. Her style is not to micromanage people. Employees are pushed to think for themselves. That way, she adds, good ideas rise to the top.

“Cisco’s culture is by nature results-oriented. Finding ways to make things better is what we’re all about,” Black says.

“It’s a wonderful ethical and cultural match to who I am because we believe very strongly that the technology we provide and the solutions that we provide can have a real impact on communities.

“I like to think of myself as the brand steward of Cisco. I really am responsible for helping Canadians understand what Cisco is, who we are, what we do and the value that we bring. I do that through advertising. I do that through sponsorships. I do that through government relation activities. I try to penetrate and reach into all communities and key influencers, and educate them on our brand.”

For Black, a lot of her professional development came from role models in other companies she worked at, making her way up the chain. “When I was at the Royal Bank, an executive who was leaving the company said to me, ‘Don’t be afraid to speak up at meetings, don’t be afraid to share your ideas,’” she says. “Because even though it may seem intimidating when you’re in a room full of people and you may not feel it’s your place, what you have to contribute is valuable.”

Black now doesn’t hesitate to impart what she has learned to younger people on the rise.

On the project front, next up is something under the working title, “25 Transformational Canadians.”

“We have partnered with the Globe and Mail to recognize 25 Canadian leaders who, through their work, are positively impacting and changing the lives of people in Canada and around the world,” she says.

For Willa Black, all challenges can be met, one step at a time.

“It’s all so exciting, and our technology is helping people touch more lives,” she says.