Striving for change: Ken Boal's ambition to make his job count

Cisco's Ken Boal talks about how he is able to combine his personal interests in helping Australia with being a leader of a Wall Street company.

Ken Boal may have had every intention of becoming an engineer. He took up a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering degree during his days as a University of Queensland student, before spending time as a graduate project engineer at Honeywell, but he quickly discovered that the hands-on, practical side of engineering just wasn't for him.

The current vice president of Cisco Australia and New Zealand said he was more curious about understanding technology at a conceptual level, and not at the "bits and bytes".

"I knew I was at the less hands-on practical end of the spectrum, and more of a business, commercial, people-orientated, and leadership-orientated side of engineering. I was more of a sales engineer than opposed to the practician end of engineer," he said.

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Ken Boal, Cisco Australia and New Zealand vice president (Image: Supplied)

The switchover to IT management was a gradual journey. Boal attributed part of it to his identical twin brother Trevor Boal, currently director of sales, global enterprise services of Telstra, who in some ways took a similar career path to Boal before verging off into the IT and networking industry.

"We both got the same scores at school, both did electrical engineering, both got picked up by Honeywell as graduate engineers, but he actually got into IT earlier than I did," he said.

"I just observed the fast pace of IT compared with the more moderate pace of engineering, and I thought I wanted to get involved with that."

In the end, Boal found his brother becoming his own personal "inside coach" who helped him move into the IT and networking industry. He said he found it "extremely helpful", especially when he had to reacquaint himself with old skills and self-acquire new ones en route to moving into IT.

Alongside having his brother as a mentor, Boal named former managing director of Anixter Jim Stewart, Cisco's vice president Ross Fowler, vice president of Asia-Pacific Les Williamson, and vice president of Asia-Pacific, Japan, and greater China Richard Kitts as other key influencers of his career. Boal described himself as "best of breed" of people he has worked for.

"What I've done, rather than saying, 'I want to be like that person', I've extracted lessons in leadership from pretty much every person I've ever worked for -- both the good and the bad; what to do and what not to do," he said.

Aside from extracting learnings from people he has worked with, Boal also has an admiration for Australia's political leaders, who he looks to often for inspiration, although he reassuringly said that he will never get into politics.

"I think politicians get a hard critic, especially because of the breadth and depth of where they are expected to 'trade', whether its disability services all the way through to the economy," he said.

"I'm inspired by how they can contribute across so many different areas. I also look at how they rely on advisors and experts -- and, in some cases, the public service for advice.

"I think that's a good lesson for business: You can't be the subject matter expert all the time. Don't pretend to be the smartest guy in the room, but leverage group smarts and knowledge, and soon you work out your role is to thread all of that together."

While he learned plenty from his mentors, there were also some self-taught lessons for Boal too, particularly during his time at Anixter, which eventually became known as NetStar Logicalis when the company was bought out. Boal started out as an account manager at Anixter before becoming the company's southern regional general manager.

"I was a young leader; I got into sales and management at the age of 27. But back then, the industry was also young. For me, it was very hands-on, and that reflects in my style as a pretty hands-on leader -- both in the market with the customers and partners," he said.

"Of course, in your early days in leadership, you might step over the top a little more. I look back, and I could've been too hands-on in the early days. But I guess that's some of the lessons you learn when you get into the management and leadership roles."

Boal recalls one particular mistake he'll never forget, which has since taught him to be mindful to openly communicate and to be transparent with people.

"All I had to do was make one call, I didn't make that one call, and it would've saved me 10 years' worth of grief and embarrassment through not communicating through one call, just to give someone a heads up," he said.

However, the lessons learned have only built Boal's confidence up to take on more senior roles at Cisco, a company that he has now spent nearly 12 years working for. He has moved up from being an account executive to the director of public sector, to managing director of enterprise and public sector, and now to vice president of Australia and New Zealand.

While Boal admitted that he initially had no real aspirations to take up the vice presidency role, he considered it because he was encouraged to through the company's succession planning.

"My journey to the role was never a core aspiration, but once people -- through succession planning -- give you the ideas, I thought why not? The first time around, I wasn't successful, but I know that was not the right time for me; I would not have been adequately prepared.

"Second time around, I knew the areas of development and what the role entailed. Now that I've joined the role for 18 months, there's an incredible step up.

"When I was running a big part of the Cisco business in the public sector and enterprise, which was close to half the business, there's a big difference between being one of the leaders to being the leader, and that's been my key observation."

While Boal admitted that he has felt the pressure over the years, particularly in his current role, which he said is "not for the faint hearted", he believes the right way to manage the pressure is to be realistic.

"I've learned to move from holding the problem within you and stewing on it to being transparent around this is the state, and being very clear and transparent around the challenges both to your team, south bound, and north bound to upper management or executives.

"People will support a cause when they understand it. If they're just being ordered to do something they don't actually understand the context, they don't enlist in the team to achieve the outcome. I think you get a lot more buy-in when they understand the full situation and what the implications and business imperatives are."

As though the job of heading up Cisco in Australia and New Zealand wasn't enough, Boal has also accelerated his participation in extra-curricular activities in the last two years, and more aggressively in the last 12 months.

"My journey to the role was never a core aspiration, but once people -- through succession planning -- give you the ideas, I thought why not."

He is one of 12 members on the Commonwealth Science Council that aims to leverage stem science technology in engineering and maths, and advise the government on driving innovation into the Australian economy.

Boal has also just taken over the presidency of an organisation called the Business Higher Education Roundtable, otherwise known as BHert. It's an organisation where university and industry members seek to promote and advise how businesses and universities can work better together.

"I have a keen interest in technology and the industry, but also in the bigger, broader economy, and some of the socio-economic things going on in Australia; that's a bit of a personal vent," Boal said.

"As a country leader at Cisco, it's part of the Cisco role to run the business, but also be there to help and participate in country transformation and contribute to national conversations around the big agendas."

But like all human beings, downtime needs to fit in somewhere. Boal said that in order to avoid burning out, he makes time for himself and his young family.

As a father of three boys aged 15, 12, and 6, Boal said spending time with his family is a "wonderful detachment from work", and provides him with a "higher order of perspective".

As for how he spends time on his own, Boal confesses that he's a "golfing tragic".

"For some bizarre reason, the less I play, the better I'm getting! I'm not overthinking it like I used to."

The main focus for Boal now is to help transform the Cisco Australia and New Zealand business over the next two to three years, in terms of getting through the business' internal transformation and engaging with customers.

Cisco began its transformation process three years ago, and it has been ongoing since. More recently, in August, Cisco CEO John Chambers announced that the company is going to lose around 8 percent of its workforce as part of the company's restructure, which is equivalent to 6,500 jobs.

Boal added that driving Cisco's engagement through the Internet of Everything with customers in different sectors including health, education, agriculture, and mining will help "Australia prepare for the future". He said there's a strong desire within the company to "bring more investments down under" to drive a country that is suffering from the post-"mining luxury" boom.

"Australia needs help. Cisco can bring some help such as some global best practice, because Australia needs to be more competitive as a country, and at the rate we're going, we're less and less desirable to do knowledge work," Boal said.

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