Headshot of Alison Gleeson

Alison Gleeson (B.A. Marketing ’87), retired SVP Americas, Cisco

With a new year comes another remarkable lineup of business leaders to be featured through the Roy S. Pung Executive Speaker Series. The first feature of 2022 was Alison Gleeson (B.A. Marketing ’87), board member at public companies Elastic and 8×8 Inc., a special advisor to Brighton Park Capital and retired SVP Americas, Cisco.

Virtually, Gleeson shared her involvement in the technology industry and gave an outlook to the trends seen today in tech, including covering themes of digital transformation and digital disruption. Gleeson delivered her presentation and offered valuable advice to the audience of Full-Time MBA and undergraduate honors students, as well as special guest Dean Sanjay Gupta.

The connection between marketing and technology: Putting trust into disruptors

Given Gleeson’s strong presence in the technology industry over the course of her professional career, did she know if technology was something she knew she wanted to pursue? And how did her marketing background lead her to where she is today? To answer those questions, Gleeson explained that as an undergraduate at Michigan State, she took a marketing class in which she learned that IBM was the No. 1 marketing company worldwide at that time.

“[I thought] maybe I should get a job with them . . . and that’s what I did,” Gleeson said. “What an amazing adventure it was, and I’m so glad I chose tech.”

Following her first job in the tech industry, Gleeson transitioned to another leading company, Unisys, where she worked for eight years. At just 28, Gleeson was vice president of sales, responsible for 13 different states. She was then introduced to a company called Cisco, where she would soon take on many different customer-facing leadership positions in a little over 20 years.

“I was vice president at Unisys and joined Cisco as a first-line manager,” she said. “Although [it was] much smaller than the company I was working for at the time, I knew that this company was a disruptor.”

Gleeson knew that the future was going to be all about the internet, and Cisco acted as the “foundation or highway of the internet.” Video, voice and data were now able to be communicated from place to place.

Cisco is fundamental to the continual growth of Silicon Valley. Its products and services consist of networking software, cloud and security solutions that “connect the unconnected” to make a positive impact. Gleeson mentioned how Cisco thrives on acquisitions — its portfolio consisted of 200 at the time. Her time at Cisco allowed her to lead nearly 9,000 employees and hold responsibility for $25 billion in annual sales. She contributed to the company’s positive impact by focusing on articulating business value to customers, delivering go-to-market strategies using data and strengthening relationships internally as well as externally.

Gleeson shared the importance of creating a go-to-market plan that includes company scale and competitive differentiation to help create new markets and expand market share. She spoke of utilizing partners and the need to articulate the business value together with your solution to your customers.

Not only did she contribute to the growth of Cisco’s relationships, but she has also expanded her own network by serving on a number of different boards for various disruptor companies. In these roles, Gleeson is able to see how companies are incorporating artificial intelligence, machine learning and augmented reality in order to enhance the future of technology.

Why is technology increasingly important?

“Every company is a technology company,” she said. The pandemic acted as the ultimate digital disruptor, a test for every company: Is your company’s technology infrastructure ready and able to accommodate this sea of change?

“The time is now for companies to make bold investments in technology and capabilities that will equip their businesses to outperform others,” Gleeson said.

Digital transformation is a continuous process of change, and data is always in motion. Companies must alter their traditional business models after disruption. In a digital world today, Gleeson shared, hybrid models are here to stay, data is increasing, and so is the use of the cloud. IT-related positions are in high demand, and privacy and security will remain a hot commodity.

Dean Gupta asked Gleeson about the level at which students should be familiar with analyzing data on digital platforms before embarking in their careers.

“You do not have to be a technology expert,” she said, and she referenced using Python for coding as a measure of admission into the Broad College. “You don’t need to be an expert, but having exposure and understanding what it does for you is sufficient.”

Gleeson was able to share predictions for future work and the workplace. Essentially, AI and machine learning will be enabled to make jobs more efficient by using technology to offload tasks typically done by people. This allows people to focus on higher level and more strategic tasks to save time and gain greater efficiencies.

“The key is being familiar with the tools and technology that can take the mundane path away so you can focus on a differentiated strategy and the human element,” she said.

“It’s important that companies are striking a really fine balance on how they’re using technology as an enabler to their organization and, at the same time, making sure that they’re the company that is able to attract all of the talent as you guys graduate and embark on your new careers.”

Giving back to the present and future of her alma mater

Today, Gleeson serves as treasurer on the Broad College of Business’ advisory board. She explained that this board is responsible for being a resource and a voice in ensuring that Broad is a top-of-mind business school.

“We have to make sure we are adapting to everything I talked about surrounding technology and that our curriculum matches the skillsets that are in high demand,” she said.

Members of the advisory board, including Gleeson, came up with critical skills students need to inherit in the new global digital world:

  • Understanding not only how data is produced in the digital environment but also key themes leading to how data relates to different areas in the organization and decisions
  • Having a strong grasp on business concepts and applying data-driven decisions
  • Understanding the power of disruptive technologies to increase value
  • Learning how to communicate effectively across all levels of the organization and thriving in a virtual environment
  • Being global citizens who understand the deeper level of diversity

Gleeson also shared that students are exposed to a vast number of resources that are beneficial for their futures in business. Networking and connecting within organizations and social groups is a skill Gleeson is known for, and she encouraged students to connect with faculty, utilize LinkedIn connections and go to all career fairs offered on campus. Tying technology into this advice, Gleeson explained one positive thing that came from the pandemic: it has allowed students to connect with people more on social media or even catch up on Zoom, and that has been normalized.

“Have butterflies in your stomach every day, put yourself out there and explore. You will never have the network and resources at your disposal that you have today as a student at MSU,” she said.

More information on upcoming events in the 2021–22 Pung Speaker Series, as well as information on past events, is available at the Full-Time MBA program page.