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One of the debates that has stuck with me over the years was when Bill Gates stepped down from Microsoft and chose to focus on his foundation and making the world a better place. At the time, a professor argued that Bill was being foolish and that, with the power of Microsoft behind him, he could have done far more good. Bill countered that he couldn’t both focus on Microsoft’s business and the complex problems he wanted to help solve in the world. I mostly agreed with Bill because a CEO has to focus on the needs of the business. We saw with Carly Fiorina at HP last decade that losing focus on that can cost the CEO their job.
On the other hand, Cisco is showcasing how a tech company, by blending their resources with their social responsibility efforts, can accomplish far more with far less resources and get a secondary benefit. In effect, done intelligently and in moderation, Cisco is showing that, had Bill stayed running Microsoft but blended his Foundation’s efforts with Microsoft’s resources, both companies would have benefitted.
And Satya Nadella is showcasing that, had Gates remained, because he is closer in skill set to Gates than Ballmer, Microsoft would have made far better choices than Ballmer did, resulting in a stronger Microsoft.
I met with Peter Tavernise, Cisco’s Director of Corporate Affairs to talk about Cisco’s unique social responsibility efforts. What Cisco does is use their unique skills to better address the fundamental problems underneath a crisis.
For instance, for clean water in Africa, the Gates Foundation found that the wells that had been put in with great fanfare had largely failed because there was no mechanism to maintain them. This means that while it looked like progress had been made, because these wells weren’t being maintained, the villages that had the wells were still largely without water because the pumps no longer worked and wells had become contaminated.
Cisco solved the problem using partners like Akvo and a similar set of skills, in a program called “Water for the People.” It put in place a service mechanism, training, and shared ownership with the village and country to assure new wells would remain operating and the water pure. In return, Cisco got skills unique to emerging countries and hostile environments that helped them build products for new markets. In effect Cisco became a force multiplier that resulted in making the investment more effective than other attempts, which had only resulted in failed wells.
With the Libyan refugee crisis Cisco’s employees helped personally fund the effort and Cisco used its capabilities partners like NetHope to network refugee sites, help provide connected healthcare and crisis management, and materially improved safety and effectiveness of the care providers. This massively multiplied the impact of the employees’ contributions and, once again, enabled insight on how to build tools for entities that provide these services as a result.
So it was a win for the refugees, a win for the Cisco Employees, and a win for Cisco far beyond what just giving money would have provided – and a major problem was significantly mitigated.
Now I do think that by now Bill Gates would have likely still stepped down, but that Steve Ballmer would have likely been too old to take his place. This means Microsoft would have jumped from Gates to someone like Nadella and bypassed many of the mistakes that Ballmer made and the lack of support Ballmer got from Microsoft divisional managers that resulted.
In addition, had Gates blended his foundation’s efforts with Microsoft’s resources, in my opinion he would have been far more effective at addressing the world problems he wanted to fix and the end result would have been both a stronger Microsoft and a better world.
This makes me wonder if it is too late for the Gates Foundation to re-engage with Microsoft and couple their efforts in making the world a better place. Nadella could delegate Microsoft’s own philanthropic efforts to Bill and give Bill greater access to Microsoft’s resources to advance his philanthropic agenda. This would perhaps provide similar enhanced benefits with minimal distraction to Nadella and the opportunity to build new customers out of currently distressed areas.
Wrapping Up: Doing Good At Scale
Technology is a force multiplier and for a technology company to just give money is removing much of the benefit – which is often mutual – that the firm is capable of providing. Cisco showcases very well that combining philanthropic funding with company resources can have a far greater impact on improving the world than money alone can provide. They not only suggest an alternative past and future for Microsoft but a path for other tech companies to better help the world and make it a better place.
Apparently, done right, you can have your cake and eat it too.