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Cisco’s top executive recommends students skip university and join the world of work

David Meads, Cisco’s UK and Ireland CEO, didn’t plan on being a teenage academic dropout. In fact, he had every intention of pursuing further education at the time.

It just so happened that as he was on his way back from signing up for college, he got into a motorbike accident which left him bed-bound in hospital for two months. 

Being on the back foot didn’t sit well with 16-year-old Meads and so—much to his parents’ anxiety—he “got out there” and started earning money. 

“I never did anything academically beyond my GCSEs (the British equivalent to a high school diploma) and never went to university,” Meads recalls to Fortune. “But you can fast forward 40 years and here I am.” 

By here, he means at the top of the Cisco career ladder, where he has spent the bulk of his career out-competing 70,000 other colleagues to work his way up the ranks. 

“For me, attitude and aptitude are more important than whatever letters you have after your name, or whatever qualifications you’ve got on a sheet—and I’m an example of that, right?” Meads said.

Meads’s non-traditional route to a corner office at the software and cloud company started with a minor tech business, where Meads would spend his lunch breaks eyeing up the sales teams’ work. 

“I got to understand a little bit of what they do and I figured: ‘That sounds a lot more interesting than what I do and not that difficult,’” he said. “I took a conscious grip on my career at the age of 17.”

From there, Meads found his feet. He joined German tech giant Siemens as a top sales rep, where he found himself competing with his future employer for a client.

“Long story short, I lost the deal,” he recalls of the 1996 interaction. “But the stars aligned and the Cisco manager who I’d seen in the corridor hired me four months later.” 

“EQ is at least as important as IQ”

Despite being a corporate high-flyer without any formal qualifications, Meads still encouraged his own children to go to university—partly because he feared his success was a one-off.

“Some of that was me believing that just because I managed to make a success of my career doesn’t mean that’s the right path to take,” he admits. “It just worked out for me that way.”

But now, with the array of apprenticeship schemes offering a foot in the door to previously exclusive businesses, Meads’s advice would be to skip out on further education and start carving out your career.

“In university you come out with whatever degree you may get, but it’s almost certainly saddled with debt,” he says. “Is that better than on-the-job experience where you’re rotating through different parts of our organization, and living the reality and not just the theory?”

Much to the dismay of fresh-faced graduates, Meads isn’t alone in thinking that the once sought-over qualification holds less weight than it once did. 

The likes of Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Apple have eliminated their long-held degree requirements for jobs to remove barriers to entry and recruit more diverse talent.

Now, recruiters globally are five times more likely to search for new hires by skills over higher education.

And this year alone the number of job ads in the U.K. which don’t list a degree as a requirement has surged by 90% on LinkedIn compared to the 12 months prior.

“I see no difference in terms of the capability and the talent coming from our apprenticeship programs than I do the graduates coming into our graduate programs,” Meads said, adding he believes apprenticeships will outweigh university degrees in the next decade.

“EQ is at least as important as IQ, certainly in a sales role or where you’re engaging with customers on a regular basis,” Meads adds. “You need that EQ to be able to read the room and understand what’s being said by what’s not being said.”

Your peers are your competition 

Meads has some advice on standing out among the crowd—a hard task in a company worth nearly $210 billion.

“I always made sure that whatever job I was doing, I was doing it to the best of my ability and trying to be the best of my peer group,” he said. “Once you’re doing that, then you can start to lift your head above the parapet.”

By that, Meads means networking, talking with your manager about what development opportunities there are in other areas of the business, and taking on stretch assignments.

Opportunities will come your way, he adds, once senior staff start singing your praises when you’re not in the room: “You can’t buy sponsorship, you can only really earn it by being bloody good at what you do.”

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